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Avatar and property rights


David Henderson offers the libertarian take on Avatar:

The defense of property rights in Avatar is so clear that, at one point in the movie, when the bad guys are justifying their war on the grounds that they need "Unobtainium," I turned to a libertarian friend and said, "This is the Kelo decision." Recall that the Supreme Court, in Kelo v. City of New London, decided that it was all right to take Suzette Kelo’s property from its low-tech use as a house so that a major corporation could use it for a "grander" project.

Which brings me back to whether this movie was an attack on capitalism. I think not. To the extent that it makes any statement about capitalism, Avatar is a defense of capitalism. Capitalism is based on property rights and voluntary exchange. The Na’vi had property rights in the crucial tree and various other properties surrounding it. Did they own it as individuals or as community tribal property? We can’t be sure, but probably the latter. They had refused to sell the property to the outsiders. There was nothing the outsiders could give them that would make it worth their while. What should we, if we are good capitalists, conclude? That, just as in the Kelo case, the people currently sitting on the land value it more than the outsiders. The land is already in its highest-valued use.

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox via Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  January 11, 2010; 1:20 PM ET
Categories:  Movies  
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The argument ignores that the earth-based Corporation is not the sovereign of the Na'vi, which is the sine qua non of eminent domain.

Posted by: JEinATL | January 11, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Wow, ridiculous. As far as I can gather, there was no private property on Pandora, until humans introduced the idea. The Nav'i are a hunter-gatherer society - in general, those have little concept of private property, and certainly not of private ownership of land.

Libertarians are so fucking deluded that they apparently think that an anarcho-capitalist utopia is the state of nature. What a ridiculous idiot.

Posted by: jlk7e | January 11, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I'd also note that historically speaking, capitalism has never had a problem with colonial conquest - indeed, explicit statements have been made at various points in time arguing that since native populations owned things collectively and lacked property law (especially in the sense of deeds, boundary lines, and the like), that their property was up for grabs. I don't see David Henderson offering to vacate North America, after all.

Posted by: StevenAttewell | January 11, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

So that makes it even worse. Nothing says respect for property rights like a good old-fashioned invasion!

My biggest disappointment about Avatar is that the Na'vi, even with (or maybe because of) the "white hero" couldn't find a non- or less-violent way of defeating the Earthlings, like some kind of rain or pixie dust that clogged their aircraft and tanks and immediately rusted them into inoperability. Instead it was a space shoot'em up. Or maybe that is the limits of Cameron's imagination, or the intended audience.

Other than that, it was pretty entertaining.

Posted by: Mimikatz | January 11, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

God, libertarians are so painfully naive.

Here's a hint: In a capitalist system, there are plenty of people willing to sell you guns. And when it comes to controlling land, getting there first has never trumped getting there with guns.

I love a political philosophy that is based on "property rights and free exchange." This is like my energy policy that's based on cold fusion. Assume a can opener...

Posted by: theorajones1 | January 11, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

More to the point, capitalism wouldn't have been established in any country without massive expropriations (enclosure in Europe, colonial dispossession of the natives elsewhere in the world) that cleared away the pre-existing systems of land tenure and exchange. I'm aware that libertarians exist in an alternative fantasy world populated by the platonic ideal manifestations of market structures, but claiming that this movie is a story about the injustice of appropriations ins a system where land has already been parcelled up under a western freehold system, rather than a strikingly simplistic retelling of the story of colonizers showing up to dispossess the natives and their pre-capitalist economic sytem, is pretty impressively loopy. However your preferred ideal fantasy capitalism works, this is a bit like how real capitalism got started.

I really don't get why the guy wanted to reinterpret this story by placing it in an entirely different period of economic relations, instead of just acknowledging that it's a really simplistic critique of colonialism and some aspects of capitalism, and then saying he didn't find it compelling.

Posted by: RobK_ | January 11, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

This argument would be a lot easier to believe if the lady sitting on the land in Kelo hadn't inherited it through a political history of violent expropriation from the Native Americans. And hadn't been the citizen of a country built on involuntary servitude.

Following this reading of Avatar, shouldn't we be shoveling out reparations left and right?

But of course the Right doesn't REALLY believe that. In many other situations where the use is not "high value" enough (for example, protecting wilderness areas from adjacent pollution), they're perfectly willing to say the government should favor the most economically productive use. And they loved the logic supporting Kelo when it was being used to raze minority communities in the name of "urban renewal."

Posted by: NS12345 | January 11, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

An argument could be made that Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" was written as a response to the anti-capitalist mercantilist policies of the British Empire towards its colonies. Doubtless that Pandora was being groomed to be a colonial client of earth: the unobtanium was kind to mined on Pandora, sent to earth to fulfill its energy needs, and then Pandora and the Na'vi were to be set up as a consumers of the goods produced on earth: in effect selling the Na'vi's own unobtanium back to them.

Posted by: constans | January 11, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Avatar is an attack on capitalism-in-reality, not capitalism-as-understood-by-libertarians.

Posted by: WHSTCL | January 11, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Constans -

I'm afraid your reading isn't supported by the movie. The Pandoran mining expedition is entirely a private venture - there's no evidence of state support at all. At no point does anyone from the corporation mention the Na'vi (who are seen as either unrelentingly hostile or totally non-commercial) as potential subjects or consumers - they are to be moved away from the valuable mineral resource.

Heck, they don't even want the Na'vi as miners!

Posted by: StevenAttewell | January 11, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

"there's no evidence of state support at all."

I agree with your reading except for this part; the evidence seems inconclusive. The firepower the RDA corporation was packing and the fluid way it was implied that soldiers moved between the armed forces and RDA security suggests either state (global?) support or an era where the distinction between the state and the corporation isn't really relevant.

Posted by: JEinATL | January 11, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Ugh, I haven't seen the movie, so I can't perse this guy's arguments, but he exhibits the most annoying trends of the most cliched (and unfortunately, existent) libertarians: 1) claiming that every successful pop culture phenomenon is secretly railing against the same political bugaboos that drive you crazy (in this case, Kelo) and 2) claiming that everything that SEEMS like an argument against libertarianism is secretly SUPPORTIVE of libertarianism, even if the reasoning seems kind of weak.

Posted by: colby1983 | January 11, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

#1 I think there are some issues with assuming the intra-cultural norms of a society work equally well as inter-cultural norms. People choosing to live in our society are bound to follow its norms, whereas the Na'Vi were not. It is not even clear that the Na'Vi understood commerce, sale, ownership, and exchange in the sense that it is meant in a capitalist economy.

#2 You quickly reach some rather counter-intuitive conclusions if you accept a transactional interpretation of value. For example, you would have to conclude that anything which is not for sale has infinite value.

I would contend that this libertarian interpretation only exists by assuming values into the culture of the Na'Vi.

In an alternative interpretation, Avatar could easily be seen as a narrative on market failures. It's not clear that a good faith attempt was even made to bargain for the land of the Na'Vi or that this was even possible, initially. The attempt to buy Na'Vi land could have failed because both parties did not possess the infrastructure or desire to communicate and mediate their needs and values effectively.

Interestingly enough, as the story progresses, as the norms of the Na'Vi and humans are exchanged and understood;, as communications improves, a consensus view of the value of the Na'Vi land begins to form.

My counter argument to the libertarian view would be that this shows us that markets do not exist in a vacuum; they fail without a foundation in culture and good government both within borders and across them.

Posted by: zosima | January 11, 2010 8:11 PM | Report abuse

"I turned to a libertarian friend and said, 'This is the Kelo decision.'"

Yes, a libertarian would say that.

That situation is as close to a perfect representation of libertarian thought as I have ever encountered. Really.

Posted by: dcamsam | January 11, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

Henderson is right that "capitalism" does not rely on theft. What he fails to address is that the powerful have always gotten away with theft, including by taking advantage of government.

From the financial crisis to tropical deforestation and overfishing, thefts are a huge part of the global economy.

Some more thoughts here:

Posted by: tokyotomsr | January 13, 2010 11:23 PM | Report abuse

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