Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Third Man

A few weeks ago some friends asked my wife and I over to enjoy the film The Third Man with them. We had a wonderful time revisiting this true gem of cinematic art. One of the great themes of the picture is the conflict between order and disorder or control versus confusion (or chaos). Much of the film is devoted to revealing the negative consequences of people trying either to control things they ought not or using the wrong means to bring order out of chaos.

One important way screenwriter Graham Greene and director Carol Reed communicate their theme is through the juxtaposition of the machinery of the state and the organization of Harry Lime, a criminal smuggler and racketeer. The most popular scene in the film is probably Holly Martin's meeting with Harry Lime in a Ferris Wheel car high above the ground.

Lime's racket involved diluting very valuable and rare penicillin with base materials, thereby making it more profitable but useless. Many child victims of meningitis ended up dead or having gone mad because of doctors giving them worthless liquid when they thought they were giving them penicillin. In defense of his criminal activity Lime adopts the position of state tyrants. Looking down at people from high above--the closest to the heavens Lime ever gets--he asks Martin,

Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped - would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?...Free of Income Tax, old man...
 Later in the conversation he does a neat bit of equivocation.
Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't, so why should we? They talk about the people, and the Proletariat... I talk about the suckers and the mugs... It's the same thing. They have their five-year plan, and so have I.
It is hard to disagree with Lime's sentiment if one accepts the legitimacy of the totalitarian state.

One thing that can be easily missed, however, is that the entire dramatic conflict of the film is due to the institutional back drop of the picture. It is a society of government intervention and control. Vienna is introduced as a city divided into four sectors, each occupied by a different foreign government: American, British, Russian and the French. The city center, however, instead of representing the core of an urban civilization, is described as a modern day Babel:
But the center of the city, that's international, policed by an international patrol, one member of each of the four powers. Wonderful! What a hope they had. All strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language. Except of course a smattering of German. Good fellows on the whole. Did their best, you know.
Did their best to maintain control and order perhaps, however it was precisely state controls that created the disorder and encouraged the moral confusion and corruption that serves as the dramatic impulse driving the film.

Government price ceilings and other controls on the post-war Viennese economy are what stimulated the rise of the black market casually mentioned in the film's introductory monologue. Price ceilings encourage corruption, because the law makes it illegal to sell certain goods at a price above the legal maximum. When the state fixes a price ceiling below the market price (and this is the only kind of price ceiling governments find it in their interest to mandate) it is certain that the quantity of the affected goods demanded will be greater than the quantity supplied. The resulting shortage causes frustrated buyers who are willing to pay the market price, but are prohibited from legally doing so.

This shortage opens the door for the emergence of the black market. Some more eager buyers who are willing to risk skirting the law seek out sellers who are willing to sell the effected goods under the table at a higher price. The high potential profits due to the price controls also encourage sellers to reduce the quality of their products so as to meet demand. Harry Lime did so by committing fraud of the most dangerous sort--selling useless liquid as penicillin.

One of the great truths in the film is that, when a society ignores the moral law that comes from above they attempt to fill the moral vacuum by becoming a law unto themselves. On the Ferris Wheel, Martin says to Lime, "You used to believe in God." Lime responds,
I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and Mercy and all that. The dead are happier dead. They don't miss much here...poor devils.
Lime takes upon himself the mantle of divine sovereignty, deciding who should live and who are "happier dead." A people who attempt to live lives above the divine moral law, ultimately fail to control themselves. The consequences can be very messy. Things are no less messy, indeed social chaos is magnified, when the state uses such disorder as an excuse to assume the role of God, attempting to create and maintain social order on its own terms for its own sake.

Social order is encouraged by voluntary exchange, which fosters social integration via the division of labor. Voluntary exchange, of course, requires a certain respect for private property and an element of trust. When the moral law is thwarted, by either private citizens or the state, bad things happen.

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