Anton Chigurh’s Quarter and Gersham’s Law

In Cormac McCarthy’s book (and in the Coen brother’s adaption of) “No Country for Old Men”, there is an infamous scene where the assassin, Anton Chigurh, subjects a gas-station owner to a trial where his life hangs in the outcome of a coin toss. The innocent owner is at first unaware of the purpose of Chigurh’s demand to “call it”, but the morbidity of the situation slowly starts to dawn on him. (I won’t repeat the entire oft-quoted exchange; you can read it here.)

“You know what date is on this coin?”
“1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here.

Is there any meaning to the date, 1958? At first it just seemed random, but it struck me that perhaps this is not the case. In 1965 the Coin Act changed the make-up of U.S. coins so that dimes, quarters and half-dollars were no longer 90% silver, but where instead cladded nickel and zinc. Gresham’s Law states that bad money quickly pushes good money out of circulation as people tend to horde the coins with the higher intrinsic value. This is exactly what happened in the U.S.; silver coins quickly began to disappear from circulation until by 1980, when the Hunt Brothers’ attempt to corner the silver market pushed the price of silver to $50/oz., it was rare to find one.

Anton Chigurh

What’s the most you ever lost in a coin toss?

So what was Chigurh doing with a silver coin in his pocket in 1980?

The effects of Gersham’s Law were made manifest by the events taking place in Texas in 1980, the exact time and setting of “No Country for Old Men”. I don’t think this is just a coincidence. I doubt McCarthy wasn’t aware of the oddity of a silver coin being in someone’s possession at that late date.

I believe then McCarthy is making an explicit reference to Gersham’s Law here, which for me exposes the main theme of the work which is that evil drives out the good. It’s a version of the Law as applied to human behavior. No individual act in and of itself is responsible for the loss of - in this case - morality in a society, but it’s the accumulation of dispassionate decisions. Gersham’s Law forces an accretion of change with the same mathematical inevitability as natural selection.

Anton Chigurh is the embodiment of dispassionate evil.

» Posted: Saturday, April 18, 2009 | Comments (23) | Permanent Link