The Libertarian Lesson of Lost

"Don't tell me what I can't do."


Lost / ABC

Exactly ten years ago today, Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 broke apart mid-air en route from Sydney to Los Angeles. The plane crash-landed on a sprawling desert island in the Pacific Ocean, stranding several dozen of the surviving passengers. These people—who came from different walks of life, but were linked by unseen threads—found the island to be a place of terror and wonder, inhabited by a strange creature made of black smoke, unfriendly natives, and an underground bunker where a shipwrecked Scotsman entered a code into a computer every 108 minutes.

Don't know what I'm talking about? Then you must have missed out on ABC's Lost, a defining cultural zeitgeist show of the previous decade. The show, which ran from 2004 to 2010, celebrates its 10th birthday today.

Lost was both an emotional, engrossing character drama and an addictive Clue puzzle that propelled millions of people onto online forums to discuss obscure theories after each episode aired. A decade later, its fan community is still active; a reunion and convention, organized by fans, took place in Hawaii this past weekend.

To my knowledge—and I say this as someone who spent his entire college career watching, researching, discussing, and writing about Lost—the show has never been claimed by libertarians as a libertarian-friendly viewing experience. In honor of Lost's 10th birthday, I'd like to correct that.

The central conflict of Lost cries out for a libertarian solution—and eventually gets one: celebrating peaceful co-existence, open borders, and the wisdom of questioning political authority in the process.

Throughout their time on the island, the Oceanic 815 crash survivors are terrorized by "the Others," the people already living on the island at the time of the crash. The Others regularly abduct members of the survivors' community, submit children to bizarre psychological tests, adhere to an incomprehensible moral code, and provide no explanation for their hostile actions. Main characters who spend significant time with the Others—such as Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Sayid—are baffled by their antagonistic behavior. Even characters who switch allegiances—including Juliet and John Locke—fail to comprehend much.

It eventually becomes clear that the Others themselves don't know why they are in conflict with island newcomers; rank-and-file Others are merely taking orders from Ben, an appointed leader. But over the course of Lost's six seasons, as the main characters come to better understand Ben, he is revealed to be both a charlatan and a sociopath. He gives orders for two reasons, and two reasons only: either to assert and maintain his political authority, or to carry out the will of a higher power. There is in fact no natural reason for the Others to feud with the survivors. The animosity occurs because Ben needs conflict to perpetuate his authority and because someone else is pulling the strings.

And who is this string-puller? The enigmatic Jacob. Neither Ben nor any other Other has ever met Jacob; he relays messages to Ben and the Others by way of an intermediary. Finally, Jacob is revealed in the penultimate season to be an ancient figure living in seclusion and carrying out a war against his unnamed twin brother. 

But Jacob isn't the arbiter of the Others' policies, either. Near the end of the series, viewers are treated to a flashback that establishes Jacob's origins. Jacob and his brother were born to a Roman woman named Claudia some 2,000 years before the start of the series. Claudia was shipwrecked on the island and murdered by the first Other, a woman that Jacob and his brother falsely came to call "Mother." Mother instilled in them a set of bizarre, specific instructions, and these orders began the island conflicts that would take place over the coming centuries. The Mother was "crazy," according to Jacob's brother, but even she was not the originator of the madness. In fact, the Mother stated that she was merely following the teachings of her own mother, who is never seen and presumably dead.

Centuries later, the conflict of Lost is entirely the by-product of generations of leaders blindly following the dictates of those who came before them, even if those dictates have no rational basis. Authority sustains later authority, and rules are followed over and over again until no one questions them. Political leadership is in fact part of a "long con" of false authority—a theme Lost touches on frequently, as several main characters are shown to be either the victims of con artists or con artists themselves.

In the series finale, the new leader, Hurley, proclaims his intention to run things differently. People will be free to come and go from the island, and various factions will no longer have cause to feud. It's undoubtedly a libertarian triumph. Tradition, superstition, tribalism, and deference to authority are denounced as self-perpetuating sources of unnecessary human conflict; voluntary association and free movement across borders are celebrated as the best way forward for peaceful existence on the island.

Of course, it wasn't just the message of Lost: the delivery of that message also tips its hat to free minds and free markets. Each week, fans would rush online to discuss the latest developments, enjoying an interactive storytelling experience with people from different communities all over the world while working alongside new friends to tackle the island's mysteries. Lost harnessed the new power of the viral web to weave a narrative that crossed different platforms, cultures, and ages. And thanks to modern technology, the adventure exists forever—anyone with a DVD player or Netflix account can return to the island.

Lost is all about challenging authority and seeking a non-coercive way to live together. Libertarians don't need to claim the show as theirs exclusively, but they should at least recognize it as friendly to their outlook.

"Don't tell me what I can't do!"—the oft-repeated motto of crash survivor John Locke

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  1. The reason no one understood the motivation of the Others is that the writers had no fucking clue where they wanted to take the show.

    And stop trying to find a libertarian angle to everything. It sucks the fun out of it.

    1. One of the worst mistakes that show made was eventually revealing the Others. They should have been a mystery up to the very end of the show.

      1. Who fucked up the story worse — Lost or BSG? It’s a tough call for me, though I would go with BSG if only because Lost was schizo from season 2 onward, lowering the expectations.

        1. BSG hands down.

          1. Starbuck was an angel? What the frak is that?

            1. If you look at BSG in the context of being a religious show making a case for the existence of God and the cyclical nature of existence, the show and ending make sense.

              I suppose that you could make a case that it’s deus ex machina on the part of Ron Moore, but after re-watching the series knowing the ending, it’s pretty clear that the whole God angle was the point all along and not just a cop-out because he wrote himself into a corner (although the quality definitely tailed off in the last season and a half, particularly when they used “All Along the Watchtower” as a major plot device). People were just disappointed because they expected it to be something more unconventional than pre-destination and “God exists and loves us all”, but it’s not like Moore was really hiding that through the series.

              Personally, I kind of liked the elegaic ending to the show…it was depressing, but then again that was in line with the rest of the series and anyone who saw “Galactic 1980” realizes that a happier ending could easily end up being even more disappointing.

            2. I would also say “Lost” was the bigger disappointment, if only because the ending was exactly what a lot of fans predicted at the beginning of the show (the island was a state of limbo), and Lindelof and Abrams basically lied about it for four seasons because they were annoyed that they weren’t as clever as they thought they were.

              Not to mention that pretty much all of the hooks and mysteries they built into the show were utterly irrelevant to the final resolution…they were just there to keep people watching so they could get the mediocre payoff that Lindelof cooked up (since Abrams abandoned it long before it all fell apart).

              When the producers have to lie to the audience about where they’re taking the show to keep them watching, it’s an acknowledgement that the ending simply isn’t that good. Ron Moore, on the other hand, was pretty upfront in interviews since season 1 that God was going to be a major focal point of BSG…people just didn’t think it was going to be about what was essentially the Christian god.

              1. People still don’t get the ending? The island wasn’t limbo; the “side universe” was limbo. The island was still the real world.

                1. Eh…tomato, to-mah-to. It was all such a jumbled mess that I didn’t care to delve deeper into it after seeing the finale.

                  1. You don’t have to delve deeper afterwards: the finale was explicit about the island being part of the real world.

              2. No, all the mysteries were relevant. It’s just that the “final resolution” was never made explicit.

                Rewatch Lost with this one thing in mind: Some of the characters who ostensibly survived the airliner wreck (which was faked) were doubles of people who were on the original flight, and others of them were the original people attempting to infiltrate the doubles. Also realize most of the characters don’t know which of them are the doubles, and which the originals. Then a lot of lines will take on, if nothing else, a lot more humor.

                1. I will never rewatch “Lost”. Sorry, just not worth the time investment once you know the ending.

                  1. You know all of what was presented on the surface. Now you have to figure out what it really indicated: what really was going on, as Hillary Clinton asked on David Letterman about Lost.

          2. Yeah BSG 100%.

          3. Yeah BSG but mostly because it held together for so long and then fucked it up into a mess.

            By Mid 2nd season Lost had already proven itself to be a steaming pile of shit and had no story to really ruin at that point.

        2. BSG without a doubt. I think I go easier on Lost because it was always a daring show with hits and misses, so I forgave the crappy storylines and enjoyed it for the characters. BSG’s ending was just insulting. More than that, it was boring.

          1. I also hated the “Wind-Up” characters that changed their mood and personality depending on the plots they needed. A perfect example was Rah-Rah-Mr Loyal Master Chief who all of a sudden wanted to ditch the Galactica for no other reason than the writers needed another vote for leaving the ship.

      2. They were the Guilty Remnant of the Island, duh.

      3. You think you know what the Others were about? Unless you realize the plot was about a group of people trying to infiltrate their doubles, you don’t.

        Ana Lucia: Why would they try to infiltrate us?

        (Yeah, when you‘re trying to infiltrate them!)

      4. Oh man, those episodes in the Temple were dire. I so looked forward to finally seeing the Others and the Temple, and it was immediately clear that the writers had no idea what to do with them. And they had the strange Zombie Sayid shit going on, too.

        Still loved the show, though!

        1. Zombie Sayid was a product of the makers of Lost toward the end getting almost explicit that the characters were “zombis”, i.e. made to believe they really were people they were in fact doubles of. The guy who came out of the pool was a ringer for the one who’d gone in.

    2. Yes, they did. For reasons I don’t know (and as a friend of Damon Lindelof since he was entering his teens), the makers of Lost left the hidden plot hidden, although they stocked the show with loads of clues.

      The plot of Lost was basically that somebody had a secret to keep, and in the process of keeping it intended to kill a bunch of people and replace them with doubles (created by a combination of recruiting, face recognition databases, and plastic surgery) who were to have their heads fucked with like zombies so that they actually thought they were the dead people they were doubles of. However, some of the people to be killed found out and infiltrated the doubles.

      The show was based mostly on “The Lost Special” by A.C. Doyle (hence the name of the show and the flight 815 being lost on Sept. 22, recalling the Sept. 22, 1892 loss of RR engine 115 in a sink hole in England, the event “The Lost Special” was inspired by) and several episodes of British detective show “Dept. S”, which I’d clued Damon into.

      1. If that was the intended plot, then the final episode was an even worse payoff than I originally thought.

        Nothing personal against your friend, because it sounds like he tried for something ambitious (which I respect), but the series and finale certainly didn’t communicate the plot you described well at all.

        1. I’m looking forward to Robert’s description of the Kennedy assassination.

          1. You’ve seen that already, haven’t you? Oswald was aiming for Connally, hit Kennedy by mistake, and then SS Agent Hickey, preparing to return fire, accidentally made the head shot.

            1. Er… i cannot believe that i just cannot stop myself from asking, but,fucking citation, please?

              1. Read James Reston’s The Lone Star and his more recent book that I don’t remember the title of. Then read Bonar Menninger’s Mortal Error.

          2. There was no Kennedy assassination, just an accidental death. Unless you meant Robert Kennedy, who really was assassinated.

    3. And stop trying to find a libertarian angle to everything. It sucks the fun out of it.

      Screw that noise. So much media is crammed into a box of marxist critical theory lite that looking at it from a libertarian perspective is refreshing.

  2. What other show has John Locke in a starring role?

    1. Yeah, but he became Jeremy Bentham…

      1. And the historic Jeremy Bentham was also very libertarian.

        However, on the show, Terry O’Quinn was playing a double role. And I don’t mean that fooler that was “revealed” near the end, where supposedly a shape shifting entity impersonated one such character. No, rather there had been one human being who looked like that recruited to impersonate the other. One could walk, the other couldn’t; that was just one of the many clues.

        “He’s not the man we thought he was.”

        Remember the sheaf of documents the investigator handed him? That wasn’t about his own parentage, it was about the parentage of the person he’d had the research done on to impersonate him.

        “Super healing” is easy when the guy you bit has a double with an unbit hand.

        And on & on.

      2. Yeah, but Bentham was the bad version, wasn’t it? Clearly a wink to the classical liberals that Bentham took Locke’s foundation and sullied it.

        Anyway, as in the real world, it’s all about Hume.

        1. Lost was illustrating that too, by having a character named Desmond David Hume put into a situation where someone else was manipulating his percepts, so that the effect he seemed to have on the machine he was operating was a total sham.

    2. What other show has John Locke in a starring role?


  3. ‘Lost’ was terrible.

    That is all.

  4. SPOILER ALERT: They were all in purgatory. That’s anti-atheist and therefore anti-libertarian. Although the smoke monster was analogous of giant soda bans.

    1. SPOILER ALERT: Absolutely false. That is not the case.

      1. You know, it’s been a while since I argued online with anyone about Lost.

        1. It’s frustrating that I’m the only one who even realizes Lost really was intended as a mystery we could solve, and that it continues to be so, let alone who has even an approximation of a solution to it.

          1. “It’s frustrating that I’m the only one who even realizes Lost really was intended as a mystery we could solve”

            That’s likely in large part because you’re friends with the guy who wrote it and have some inside knowledge of the show.

            Although, your realization that you’re one of the very few who realizes what the show was meant to be should also be a tipoff that the show did a poor job of communicating the plot to members of its audience who didn’t have your level of inside knowledge. That’s why so many people found it disappointing, and I don’t think they’re wrong for feeling that way or feeling cheated by the ending. If your ability to understand a work relies on personally knowing the author, I’d argue that the product has failed as anything but an inside joke.

            1. He didn’t tell me anything about Lost, but it helped a bit that I’d sat down with him beforehand and told him about Dept. S, and the fact that I’d spent years playing games with him & his family, and knew of his love of magic tricks, Watchmen, and puzzles. The fact that he & Carlton Cuse were executive producers clued many people, not just me, into the idea that the show was supposed to be a mystery.

              My best guess as to why he left the explanation out at the end was that he’s going all out to model the story on “The Lost Special”, wherein the solution (in the world of the story) was revealed 8 years after the disappearance of the train. So maybe they’re saving up a denouement for 2018. I hope it’s not like the Suspense radio adapt’n of the story, wherein 18 years elapsed!

      2. We may have to ask Millenials to clear this up for us. To the Pollmobile!

      3. Have you spoken with Emily Ekins? I think she may have some more pressing questions to ask than your those concerning your plot analysis of ‘Lost’.

      4. I’m not sure how people still think that’s the case after watching the finale. Unless Fist meant they were all in purgatory during the “flash-sideways”, but that’s not the impression I’m getting from his post.

  5. Didn’t watch it then, don’t give a shit now.

    1. Saw a few episodes but never caught the buzz. The only remotely interesting thing was that it was clearly some sort of parable since “John Locke” was obviously an attempt to preach libertarian principles (for good and for bad).

      Aside from that, it pretty much stank.

  6. I watched the first episode of that and I could have sworn the show was all about a bunch of pretentious assholes pretending that they have the ability to act.

  7. Only the fat people at work watched Lost.

    1. You merely pawn in big game of life.

  8. Never watched it. It’s too bad MNG isn’t around to tell us the only possible real world outcome would be that it would have devolved into Lord of the Flies anarchic savagery followed by the inevitable enslavement and exploitation of the weak by the strong and ruthless.

  9. The biggest letdown of the series was that Richard didn’t turn out to be from ancient Egypt. He always had on eyeliner, for pete’s sake!

    1. People say the same thing now that he’s on Bates Motel. “Why does the sheriff wear eyeliner?!”

      Pity the man with naturally thick, dark eyelashes.

  10. You aaaaaaallllllllllll, everybody!

    I own both DriveShaft albums. Although I have to say, the self-titled debut is an overall stronger work than the follow-up, “Oil Change.”

    1. Did you ever thin about the lyrics? As sung by Hugo, “…everybody acting like those stupid people, wearing their clothes.” In other words, doubles.

      Charlie had a DS signet ring. That’s an allusion to the British detective show, Dept. S, and indirectly its producer, Dennis Spooner, which also had a band, Department S, named after it. Much of the plot of Lost alludes to episodes of Dept. S, in which airliners mysteriously disappeared for days, or had all their occupants seemingly vanish in mid-flight, or replaced by skeletons; in which a double killed off one of his personalities by seeming to die in a mid-air airplane explosion; where mock-ups of scenes were used to simulate locations; and where the dead seemingly died a 2nd death.

      However, the scenes on board flight 815 on Lost were mostly recreations of scenes from Seconds.

      1. I forgot to mention that the opening bar of the main theme of Lost was the same as that from Dept. S.

  11. The writers obviously had no idea where they were going, and in the end that made it a pretty bad show. Trying to read anything into that mess is pointless. A shame, because they really had decent actors and sets and a good back story.

    1. They knew exactly here they were going. It’s just that they refused to tell us when they’d arrived.

      The events of Lost were not what they seemed to be. We were expected to figure that out, but somehow people didn’t, even with on-screen clues like, “They’re not the survivors; they thought they were.” Except me.

      1. Just one example of things not being what they seemed: the supposed time travel. You didn’t even need a close analysis to realize the details of that were inconsistent with actual time travel. What looked like people meeting their past or future selves was actually people meeting their doubles.

  12. Lost was Damon’s way of telling Alan Moore, “I saw what you did there.” For you see, Watchmen too was based on A.C. Doyle’s “The Lost Special”.

    1. If that’s the case, then “Watchmen” (the comics, not the film) did a much better job with the source material that formed its inspiration, although misdirection obviously plays a key role in both. Although, while I’ve never read “The Lost Special”, the synopses I’ve read seem to have very little in common with either “Lost” or “Watchmen”.

      1. The difference between “Watchmen” and “Lost” however, is that the misdirection Watchmen employed all fed into a very understandable, coherent plot and few, if any, of the subtle clues and hidden messages employed throughout the comics end up being red herrings for the audience.

        “Lost” on the other hand, was all about red herrings, which seemed more of a gimmick than a driver of plot. Granted, some of that may have been necessary because of issues and turnover with the cast and the writer’s strike that necessitated re-writing, but Lost’s misdirection was definitely not employed in as effective a way as Watchmen’s, which is why I can go back and re-read Watchmen many times, but Lost scores a zero (tied with any M. Night Shyamalan film) on my rewatchability meter.

      2. Watchmen, like “The Lost Special” (which you really should read, it’s hilarious, short, and public domain, many online sources) is about an effort to keep a secret with great political consequences from getting out. Moore is known to be a Doyle fan, and the character of John Slater in “The Lost Special” became Jane Slater in Watchment, i.e. someone who was killed to keep a secret.

        Lost is about the same thing, except the audience was supposed to figure that out from clues rather than being told explicitly. In the process, Lost alluded heavily, and often hilariously, to Watchmen. To take just one example, get a load of Terry O’Quinn’s character’s bleeding cut over one eye.

        1. Technically, Janey Slater wasn’t killed to keep a secret. She was poisoned to facilitate a conspiracy to perpetuate a lie.

        2. She was poisoned so that Doctor Manhattan could be convinced to leave Earth by blaming her cancer on him. His departure drove the instability (impending war between the U.S. and USSR) that made Veidt’s final solution something that people would buy into in totality. Manhattan’s departure was also designed so that he wouldn’t be able to see the future and detect Veidt’s plan, but that was a secondary goal to destabilizing Earth by creating a power vacuum with Manhattan’s exile. Janey Slater was just used as the final straw to cause Manhattan to break from humanity and convince him to go into self-exile.

          By the way, Billy Crudup’s performance as Dr. Manhattan was the best thing in that whole shitty movie. He nailed the character. Rohrschach was okay…most of the other actors were horrible.

        3. And the tachyon radiation Veidt was using played more of a role in hiding Veidt’s secret than Slater did. That muddled his perception of the future.

    2. How is the Watchmen related to “The Lost Special”?

      1. There were to be great consequences if certain people were to learn of someone’s testimony backed up by his documents. So an enormous and intricately plotted crime was committed to keep the secret secret. That, plus the acknowledgement of the John Slater character in the Doyle story as Jane Slater in Moore’s.

  13. Don’t tell me what I can’t do!

    This was my first thought when I saw the title of this post.

  14. LOST was like a great romantic relationship that ended on a really bad note. The sour ending made it impossible to remember all the good times.

    1. Same for me…until I read “The Lost Special” almost 2 yrs. later. Then it started to make sense again. And be very, very funny.

      1. I just read The Lost Special…. I think you’re overreaching and speculating too much.
        That short story doesn’t really explain the Doubles theory. All it has is one disappeared guy writing a letter to his wife by mistake.
        Your theory is a good theory but it seems to be mostly speculation like the other theories.

  15. Yeah, open borders worked out so well for the survivors when the Others sent plants in their groups and killed them.

  16. “I say this as someone who spent his entire college career watching, researching, discussing, and writing about Lost”

    Oh, jesus.

    That sounds to me like someone saying, “I belonged to a strict Hasidic Jewish community until i was 20”

    I watched Lost for the first time this summer. I finished season 1 aggravated, then abandoned season 2 after the first few episodes. it got so unbelievably corny and shallow so fast it started to grate on my nerves. every conversation felt like it was lifted from daytime-television soap operas. All the character relationships felt totally artificial and contrived. The fact that every character had their ‘secrets’ became a plodding, predictable plot setup for each next episode.

    if i could describe ‘lost’ in a word, it would be “tiresome”. Damningly so. i never saw a drama before where within a few episodes i first *wanted* some of them to die? then within a few episodes more…*didn’t care*. Which may explain “the others” and the “smoke Monster” – because without them? The viewer would be hoping they’d all *kill each other* in some Lord of the Flies/Battle Royale meltdown.

    To be fair, i also thought ‘Dark Knight’ was horrible, and millenials seem to think this was the apex of all superhero movies, evah. Maybe its me.

    *note: i also watched all of Breaking Bad this summer, and The Wire… and both of those were some A++ TV.

    1. I thought Dark Knight was brilliant because of the Joker. Any scene not including or directly related to the Joker much less so. Terrible performance by Christian Bale, especially with the voice modulation. If Heath Ledger hadn’t played that character perfectly, that film would probably be unwatchable.

  17. just because you grew up on something does not make it good.

    lost was shit.


  18. I could mention another, albeit glancing, libertarian cx of Lost: the allusions to Illuminatus!?specifically, Fission Chips (Agent 0009) on Fernando Poo musing that certain religious idols would be a clever way to smuggle heroin. Also, Fernando Poo’s being the probable location of The Island on Lost.

  19. Can we please stop pretending that the plot and/or story arc of any episodic television series “means” anything, rather than just being a crass effort to manipulate people into continuing to watch every week? Sheeze.

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