Television and Libertarianism

Patrick Brogan will look at a trend of television portraying a world of libertarian ideals.


Rule Britannia (As an Irishman, it’s painful af to write that)


A while back, I started rewatching the brilliant English comedy Only Fools and Horses. It really is a work of genius. I’ve always admired one of the main character’s go get ‘em attitude. One of Del Boy’s favourite expressions is a corruption of the famous SAS phrase; He Who Dares, Wins. The show either takes place without the existence of authority or runs contrary to it.

Del Boy’s view on the state is clear;  “We don’t pay V.A.T, we don’t pay income tax or national insurance. On the other hand, we don’t claim dole money, social security, supplementary benefit… The government don’t give us nothing, so we don’t give the government nothing.” It’s probably more apt to call it anarcho-capitalism rather than libertarianism. Their daily struggles to make a few nicker bear this out.

Indeed, Del Boy becomes a light anti-hero at times when he meddles in the affairs of his little brother, Rodney. The relationship is a rich and complex one, but it does follow the theme of authority being more a hindrance than a help. Big Brother is watching. Other quotes that further show the anarchic nature of the show are; “He makes up more rules than the common market”, Freemasons are referred to as dipsticks and snobs, and Raquel, Del Boy’s romantic interest, when asked if she is on the rock n’ roll, Cockney slang for dole, she reacts with anger and says she can make her own way in the world. Stripping is seen as more favourable than sponging.

Another British comedy also takes a very anti-government view. Till Death Us Part is not as entertaining as Only Fools, think Eastenders but with more racism. The show is loosely based on All In the Family and follows the fortunes of Alf Garnett and his family. In one episode, his wife gives a speech on how her uncle used to tell her that the Government has need of only a few citizens and they get rid of the rest by poisoning water. Alf goes on racist rants and pines for the days of empire. He is just as critical of the common market as Del is. And people wonder why Britain voted itself out of the EU.


Contemporary Drama


It’s not just old British comedy that follows this theme. Think of the best of American contemporary dramas. Most follow this theme. The Sopranos is a great example of this. Consider Tony’s speech on the origins of the mafia;

“Excuse me. Let me tell you something. When America opened the floodgates and let all us Italians in, what do you think they were doing it for? Do you think they were trying to save us from poverty? No, they did it because they needed us. They needed us to build their cities and dig their subways and to make them richer. The Carnegies and the Rockefellers. They needed worker bees and there we were. But, some of us didn’t want to swarm around their hive and lose who we were. We wanted to stay Italian and preserve some of the things that meant something to us. Honour. And family. And loyalty. And some of us wanted a piece of the action. We weren’t educated like the Americans, but we had the balls to take what we wanted. Those other fucks, the JP Morgans, they were crooks and killers too, but that was business, right? The American way.”

There are numerous examples besides. Like the FBI. They are always shown in a bumbling, inept light. They are incapable of putting the mafia away and this may be down to wanting to be like them.  The Feds are in awe of Tony. When Agent Harris finds out Tony’s main rival, Phil Leotardo, has been popped his response is “Damn! We might win this thing.”

The Wire

The Wire is one of the greatest programmes ever made. One of the best aspects of the show was that it told you about events from multiple points of view. You get to see the lives of the criminals and the cops trying to stop them. By the show’s conclusion, you’re left thinking that police work is all about statistics and politics. Fighting crime is seen as a means to further one’s career and those that actually want to do police work are punished. At least the criminals have some sort of moral code, even the ones that are borderline evil.

The system is the problem, not the criminals. Those on the wrong side of the law are just a result of the widespread corruption. The media, law enforcement and political establishment will only follow the rules when it suits them. Because they don’t play by the rules they set, nobody else can get a look in. Bodie Broadus summed it up best when he said; “This game is rigged, man.”

Breaking Bad

Even the name means a rejection of authority. Walter White has an untypical mid-life crisis. By the end, he rejects his family, his job and does not accept the status quo of the drug world. There is the constant tension of his brother-in-law being a DEA agent. Walt’s authority figures are much wider than government and law. He has a mother he doesn’t talk to, a wife that’s a real ball breaker and his obsession for a company he helped create but didn’t reap any of the rewards from.

All of this has weighed on his mind and they are becoming authority figures in themselves. This is on top of oppressive forces that most of us feel at some stage; lack of job satisfaction, financial security, and a feeling your best years are behind. No wonder he broke bad.




A lot of this is fantasy and drama. Nobody would watch a programme about a person paying a mortgage and sitting at home. Although Gogglebox and Big Brother may come close to disproving that theory. However, if you are one of those people that believe that good television isn’t just about making money and there is a message trying to be shown you have to wonder what this message is. I think, amongst other themes and ideas, these programmes are trying to tell us is it’s okay to be yourself. They are not necessarily libertarian ideas but liberating ideals.

The practicality of all this must be considered too, but whether living like this is realistic or not is hardly the point. Like all great art, it’s about questioning the world around and more specifically yourself. Everybody wants to be like Walter White, just as they wanted to be like Tony Soprano and John Wayne before that. Really, the message is about hope. That’s something government rarely provides.


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