David R. Henderson  

Avatar as a Defense of Property Rights

Moral Knowledge: A Question of... Crisis Commentary...
In fact, Avatar is a powerful antiwar movie - and a defense of property rights. For that reason, I found it easy to identify with those whose way of life was being destroyed by military might.

This is from my defense of Avatar from charges by some free-market critics.

Another excerpt (warning: slight spoilers):

If given a choice between high-tech, with all its creature comforts, and the jungle life of Tarzan, I, like Salam and Hudgins, will take high-tech every time. But that's not what the movie's about. It's about people from a high-tech civilization using technology to make war on people from a more primitive society so that they can steal their stuff. That's a very different choice. I would choose not to kill them and take their property. What would Salam or Hudgins choose? They don't make their answers clear, although they show zero sympathy for the victims of the attack.

In fact, 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.

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CATEGORIES: Property Rights

COMMENTS (27 to date)
david writes:

The movie has been great for telling apart property-rights libertarians and corporatist conservatives.

This aside. Attempts to hijack property are often more ambiguous. Kelo seems clearcut because there is a common government to which to appeal. But takeovers where the perpetrator acknowledges that the property isn't theirs, but attempts to take it anyway, seem quite rare. Why bother to acknowledge at all?

There is invariably at least one on the 'savage' side who will cheerfully claim to be the title-holder and quite willing to sell for that sack of beads, oh yes. Cue both sides saying that they are defending 'their' property - and that's how an actual RDA would defend itself.

Property rights seem to have a way of finding themselves aligned with those already wealthy. Deviations from an idealized theory of property rights are not uniformly distributed across income groups, I wager.

(Back when the reactions to Kelo were first coming out, I liked how anti-Kelo libertarian blogs read it as SCOTUS seizing property as part of liberal big-government expansion, while anti-Kelo liberal blogs read it as SCOTUS seizing property as corrupted by free-market conservatives and Walmart. It's like they live in different universes and neither talks to each other.)

Zdeno writes:

The difference between Avatar and Kelo is, as david points out, the existence of a common government to which both parties are appealing to. In the case of Humans Vs. Navi, both parties are sovereign nations, and thus the laws that govern their interactions are the laws of the jungle. It would be nice if Libertarians could declare that it is immoral and illegal for a strong sovereign to coerce property away from a weak one, but is such a principle enforceable? Property rights require enforcement, and thus don't exist at the inter-sovereign level. Any restraint shown by stronger nations in these cases is based purely on the generosity of the former - hardly a stable equilibrium.

Property rights, while they are the shiznit within a nation, are not possible on an international scale.



Matt writes:

I have not seen Avatar and I am really not planning on seeing it because what I have heard is that if you take away the visual effects (that don't look impressive to me) and the heavy handed political message the movie doesn't stand up as even remotely quality cinema.

I would like to know what the blue people's civilization is like. Are they peaceful people who live in harmony with one another? Are they "savage" people who murder and rape each other's clan's as they steal one another's property? Are they ruled by a murderous dictator? What historical society would they best be compared to, or are they something completely different all together?

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Property rights, while they are the shiznit within a nation, are not possible on an international scale.

If states respect other states' property (for the most part) without a superstate, why do you assume individuals in the state of nature wouldn't respect other individuals' property (for the most part)?

John writes:

I thought that Avatar was (unintentially) pro-market, but for different reasons: It was a tragic tale of how the quest for military glory and self-aggrandizement obscures simpler and more humane solutions to complex problems. Everyone ended up worse off then they would have been b/c: (1) Na'vi had moral opposition to trading, even though it would have benefited them (e.g., agricultural tech so they wouldn't have to expend all that effort on murdering their woodland creature friends); and (2) Sully failed to inquire as to options that would have made the unobtainium obtainable without evacuation and/or severe destruction b/c he assumed (without evidence) that Na'vi couldn't understand an analogy between mining or hunting as economic usage of environmental resources.

Josh Weil writes:

"Property rights require enforcement, and thus don't exist at the inter-sovereign level."

I prefer the view that property rights are natural. A private security company can defend my property just as legitamately as a government police force can. What I create is mine, and doesn't require a sovereign to recognize.

Property rights can be violated through force, but that doesn't mean they weren't there in the first place.

DWAnderson writes:

To paraphrase John, "Avatar was about the tragedy of people who don't understand the Coase theorem."

Eric H writes:

Great piece David. You hit the nail on the head. It's been frustrating to see the trashing some conservatives have given Avatar, especially when it seemed like the pro-property rights message was so clear.

I think there a few causes for the reaction: the critics succumb to a kind of "mystical nationalism" that causes them to reflexively side with the technologically advanced, no-guts-no-glory military characters, and there's also a smidgen of a fatal conceit that takes as obviously good some fictional, future level of technology. But with property rights and individual liberty, there is no explicit guarantee that our future will be one of enormous starships and remote controlled mega-ton earth movers, only that it will be one in which, as you said, people will have the chance to live their lives in peace.

David R. Henderson writes:

Eric H, Thanks.

Josh Weil, Good point.

On your point that Josh Weil addressed, "Property rights require enforcement, and thus don't exist at the inter-sovereign level."
I would elaborate on Josh's point. You've proved too much. If the absence of enforcement means there are not property rights, then if someone with big guns homesteads my house tonight and I can't get the cops to get him out, then I don't have a property right in the house. My mentor at UCLA, Armen Alchian would say that's true, I don't. But that's because Alchian uses the term for positive analysis. I'm using the term "property rights," in a normative sense, which is how Josh is using it.


Josh Weil writes:

Isn't Avatar a counter-example of the Coase Theorem?

The initial allocation of property does matter for the final efficient result. If the humans started with that land, there would be no way the Navi could muster the funds to buy it from them even though the Navi place a near infinite evaluation on the land.

John Thacker writes:

Hudgins argues, quite credibly, that in Avatar, the private company Resources Development Administration is a stand-in for Halliburton and the private army represents Blackwater, and so what we have is "the evil military-industrial complex." In other words, Hudgins recognizes that there are entities in the real world that are much like the bad guys in Avatar.

I find that to be a pretty inaccurate summary of Hudgins, bordering on dishonest in the way it puts words in his mouth.

He's not arguing that they are "much like the bad guys in Avatar" except in parody. He's arguing that it's a ridiculous unrealistic portrayal, and that the similarities are superficial. The war portrayed in Avatar is a ridiculously unlikely war that does not resemble modern war at all, unless you're someone who really believes that the Iraq War as an attempt to seize oil, a view that's just untenable.

The entire movie is superficial. You have people pretending that the noble savages can't possibly understand trade, and people pretending that a corporation would waste unbelievable amounts of money instead of trying to buy something or just colonizing the random mountains of unobtainium that are just floating there without having to disturb the savages. A little more realistic presentation of both sides would have made it better, instead of just being another version of the White Man's Burden/White Messiah.

Of course, like many texts, you can take it how you want. You can view it as the folly of avoiding trade, but the worldview of the movie is more that the Coase Theorem and gains for trade don't exist.

John Thacker writes:

But sure, a war for oil or unobtainium or land or Kelo's house is completely inappropriate. If that's the analogy, though, then David is completely wrong to say that the entities in the real world that are much like the bad guys in Avatar are Haliburton and Blackwater.

Nick writes:

This is a very interesting discussion I did not realize a kids movie could be so highly politicized. I have to admit my favorite aspect of the movie beyond the effects was Giovanni Ribisi's character. He really embodied the phrase "banality of evil".

ryan yin writes:

Josh Weil: Property rights can be violated through force, but that doesn't mean they weren't there in the first place.

Excellent way to put it!

Isn't Avatar a counter-example of the Coase Theorem?

I don't think so. The (transaction-cost-free version of the) Coase Theorem doesn't say that initial allocation doesn't affect the outcome -- just that either way it's efficient. There's a big wealth effect here -- if the Na'vi have the land to begin with, that's equivalent to them having enormous wealth any using it to purchase the land. If they start with zero wealth, then they end up with zero.

Dustin writes:


I agree with your conclusions; however, the Na'vi learning English was not entirely unbelievable because at the beginning of the movie Sigourney Weaver's character mentions how she was responsible for setting up schools to teach the Na'vi English.

But like I said, your conclusions are fair and I use the argument of property rights in discussions with both self professed socialists and free marketers. They usually throw this argument out due to the fact there was no observable property rights within the tribe. Of course I point out the fact that they are willing defend their property, even if it is collective, and I also see their property arrangement as completely voluntary.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks. A friend who looked it over before publication told me about the schools set up by Sigourney. I guess I find that implausible--that the students would speak English so well. But maybe I'm wrong.
When I talk to leftists about property rights, I start with their hair.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

In China, people are saying Avatar reflects how local governments
using violence to forcefully evict residents from their homes and
demolish them for building projects:


So yes, the Chinese do see Avatar as a mirror of their "Kelo".

j writes:

The issue must be approached by definining who can have property rights.

In contemporary law, all human beings have he right to own property. Men and women. Minors have limited rights, as those institutionalized. Potential inheritors challenge the right of senile people to have property rights. Animals have no property rights.

The question is what the Na'vi are. Let's forget that they are computer graphics and they do not exist in reality. Obviously they are some kind of rainforest monkey species, with long tails and excellent tridimensional vision that allows them to jump from tree to tree. They have this UBS connection to other beings. They dont seem to have visible sexual organs. I am not zoologist, but they are nearer to the Colobus monkey species than the Pan (chimpanzee) ape group. Tarzan of the Apes maintained property disputes with native African tribes, but never with the jungle animals.

AVATAR is not about property rights, it is about the eternal war between MAN vs Nature. In AVATAR, the jungle wins. But the sequel is coming soon.

Zdeno writes:

Hi David, thanks for the response.

I agree with you that property rights are a normative ideal, on an international scale as much as for individuals. If I could press a button and render a Universe in which international property rights were uninfringeable, I would do it.

But dealing with the world as it is, we will never be able to create institutions in which property rights exist at the highest level of sovereignty. We can talk about such rights as an ethical ideal, but appealing to the good will of those with the biggest guns does not strike me as a stable equilibrium. At present, we appear to live in a world in which weaker nations have property rights insofar as stronger nations that could easily and profitably conquer them, don't. But these nations will only have a right to their sovereignty as long as 1) Every powerful nation that could threaten them remains altruistically bound by Objectivist principles, or 2) Their sovereignty is guaranteed by an even more powerful nation. Taking a look around the world today, is there any extremely powerful country that seems to fill the patron role in (2) for a great many weaker nations?

Classical international law tended towards rules and customs that recognized the inherent lawlessness of a world without a higher legal authority, and tried to resolve disputes according to the abilities of various parties to hold territory. Current international law contains a lot of verbiage about human rights, self-determination etc, but all of this is just a codification of the preferences of the Anglo-American empire that has more or less ruled the world for the past couple of centuries. When this empire inevitably wanes, how likely do you think it is that the "property rights" of weak nations will continue to be respected by their stronger neighbors?



Josh Weil writes:

@ryan yin

Thanks for your clarification on Coase's Theorem. That makes a lot of sense now.


Were you watching the same movie I was watching? The Na'vi are clearly an intelligent race and have the same right to life, liberty, and property that you or I have.


Nations don't conquer nations. People conquer people. I understand most of the world is organized by the nation state, but we can't escape the reality that a state is nothing more than a group of individuals who claim to have legitimate force.

Furthermore, war is really expensive. Just because person A has more guns at his disposal than person B, that doesn't mean he will find it profitable to violate person B's property rights (assuming he doesn't consider himself bound by an ethical code).

I think we've generally escaped the Hobbesian brutishness in favor of a more stable cooperative situation. The more that people trade on the global scale, the more wealthy and interconnected they will be.

- Josh

j writes:

Sure Josh we have watched the same picture but we have perceived different things. Are the na'vi an intelligent race? I think the answer is no. They seemed to me little different from rainforest anthropoids like mountain gorillas. The Na'vi seem extremely specialized to the specific ecology of Pandora's rainforest and totally unable to change and assimilate to human society, even at its the lowest ranks. They are part of the fauna and flora of Pandora, and unseparable from it. They are like mountain gorillas, they can survive in the rainforest, and when that niche is gone, they will become extint.

Are mountain gorillas entitled to life, liberty and property? I am ready to grant them a reservation or sanctuary, but it is ridiculous to grant them property rights.

Josh Weil writes:


Your definition of intelligent race is a highly questionable one. Survivability in different climates is not the test of intelligence.

Thought experiment time:
Let's say another species comes to Earth. They are both more intelligent than us and survive in more climates than Earth. They see us and want to dig under us and kick us out of our homes. If they use your reasoning, we're in hot water. If they use mine, we're ok.

This is how I would plead with the more intelligent being: "I have abstract thought. I can communicate very clearly to you. Therefore please don't take my stuff and then try and kill me. I will fight back to your aggression because I believe in my cause that much."

That was too fun to write.

- Josh

[Comment edited for crude langague. Josh--maybe it was a little too much fun to write? :) --Econlib Ed.]

Anderson writes:

Concerning Avatar's politics, I liked the review that ended with this paragraph...

...[T]he more blatant lesson of Avatar is not that American imperialism is bad, but that in fact it’s necessary. Sure there are some bad Americans—the ones with tanks ready to mercilessly kill the Na’vi population, but Jake is set up as the real embodiment of the American spirit. He learns Na’vi fighting tactics better than the Na’vi themselves, he takes the King’s daughter for his own, he becomes the only Na’vi warrior in centuries to tame this wild dragon bird thing. Even in someone else’s society the American is the chosen one. He’s going to come in, lead your army, screw your princesses, and just generally save the day for you. Got it? This is how we do things.

Mark writes:

Interesting angle, I hadn't seen it this way, but it makes sense. I was put off when people said that it was an Anti-Military Movie. I didn't agree. Seemed more of a statement against corporate contracted armies then against the military in general. And, along the same lines as Anderson above, the pilot in the movie was independent and free thinking as well. Worthington's character didn't even leave the military voluntarily, he left because he was injured honorably (I assume) while fighting. He didn't join the mercenaries, he joined the science team.

Mikko Sandt writes:

"People in high-tech societies have rights. So do savages."

But why? If we value individual liberties above all else, why should we allow primitive societies to retain their cultures which are vehemently anti-individual? (Practical questions aside since this is a moral question.)

Would it be okay if Indian reservations today had their own laws, or would it be okay if we allowed Muslims to establish their own micro-nations, ruled by the Sharia law, within European borders?

Of course we don't, because sovereignty should apply at the individual level. Oppressive societies should not be considered sovereign.

ryan yin writes:

Mikko Sandt,
So it is so bad when a society refuses to honor individual rights that all other societies should, as a matter of policy, violate their individual rights too? You seem to be saying that if a society doesn't believe in individual rights, then by definition you must agree with them.

Mikko Sandt writes:

My point wasn't about property rights at all. I don't think we can use the primitive state of some cultures as an excuse to seize their "private property" by force. (Seizing Kim Jong-Il's property by force wouldn't be a violation of our principles though.) I, however, don't think such cultures should be considered sovereign. Morally speaking, a savage should be just as free as you or me and have the same rights but a savage should not be free to enslave others in his own country just because that's the way his culture works.

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