David R. Henderson  

Henderson's Law of Heroic Movies

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Questions that don't get asked... Get Over Yourself...

Dan Klein, with whom I've been arguing about designer babies lately, recently suggested that I post about an article I wrote for Reason 26 years ago: Henderson's Law of Heroic Movies.

The Introduction

"David, I rented a movie for tonight that looks interesting but I'm riot sure you'll like it. It's called The Milagro Beanfield War. Robert Redford directed it, and I think it's left-wing and antibusiness."
"Really?" I asked my wife, Rena. 'What is it about?"
"It's about these poor Chicano farmers in New Mexico or somewhere who steal water from a big business to irrigate their beans. The movie treats them as heroes."
"I bet they don't steal it," I beamed confidently. "I'll bet you that they just reclaim it after the big business, with the government's help, had already grabbed their water."
Rena looked at me skeptically. Why was I so sure? Because of Henderson's Law of Heroic Movies.

Henderson's Law of Heroic Movies: Antibusiness movies that have heroes are always based on, or consistent with, a libertarian premise.

I explain why I think the law is true and then consider a hypothetical case to win over skeptics:

Skeptical? Then consider. Which plot would stir the juices of American moviegoers: one where the hero stole money from a corporation that succeeded by being honest with people, or one where the hero stole money from a corporation that had been cheating people? To ask the question is to answer it. The second movie is the only possible contender.

Many "laws" have exceptions and so I consider the movies that seem as if they might be exceptions and show why they are not.

At the time I wrote this piece, I couldn't think of any exceptions. But writing down in print what had been in my head for a few years caused me to pay attention from then on to see if I could find exceptions. That, by the way, is a huge benefit of writing something you think rather than letting it play around in your head and never subjecting it to your own, or others' scrutiny.

In these last 26 years, I have found one fairly clear exception to Henderson's Law. There are probably more.

The exception? Philadelphia. If you click on the link, be prepared for multiple spoilers.


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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture




COMMENTS (16 to date)
Daniel Hackney writes:

But the problem is not that the supposed heroes are stealing from an upright and decent corporation, its that the corporations are always the bad guys. Stealing from a rights-violating company may not be against libertarian principles, but the idea that all wealthy corporations are engaged in rights violations is.

A writes:

There is definitely something to this. It's also interesting to compare U.S. movies with international cinema. For example, in the chinese movie Hero, Jet Li's character allows a tyrant to live, and allows the tyrant to kill him, to promote a consistent rule of law and concentrated force under the state.

nl7 writes:

Not sure Philadelphia isn't based on a reasonable complaint that somebody framed him as incompetent as a cover for biased termination. That would wreck his career. At the very least, lying to ruin somebody is unethical under libertarianism, and it's reasonable to see a contract violation of various good faith-like covenants.

David R. Henderson writes:

@n17,
Good point. My impression is, though, that they framed him because they wanted to fire him for having AIDS but were pretty sure they couldn’t get away with that. I don’t know the particulars of the contract, but I think that people should be able to fire people for having AIDS, in the absence of a contract prohibiting that, just as people should be able to quit working for an employer who had AIDS.

NZ writes:

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Mark Bahner writes:
Good point. My impression is, though, that they framed him because they wanted to fire him for having AIDS but were pretty sure they couldn’t get away with that.

So they lied...because they thought they could get away with that. Hmmmm...

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mark Bahner,
Are you willing to cut the sarcasm and make your point so that we can discuss it?

BZ writes:

Hmm.. I'm not sure I agree with the reasoning here. If a preponderance of movies featured private for-profit villains, how does that fit the narrative that competition and free-entry punish wasteful and unpopular behaviors? It would seem to me to be far more the socialist narrative of "If someone is willing to profit by selling a loaf of bread, they will do wasteful and unpopular things to keep doing so!

Jeff writes:

Not sure. It seems like there are a fair number of movies where the corporation is guilty of some misdeed and the hero exposes it to the public. The Insider, Michael Clayton, and The Constant Gardener come to mind. If anything, these strike me as having a kind of conservative, law and order theme, but with a powerful corporation in the villain role so that people on the left find it appealing.

Mark Bahner writes:
@Mark Bahner, Are you willing to cut the sarcasm and make your point so that we can discuss it?

I wasn't being sarcastic. The firm who employed him was afraid that they wouldn't be allowed to fire him because he had AIDS, so they lied about him.

If I was on the jury, I would have no problem with awarding big-time punitive damages, in additional to compensatory damages.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mark Bahner,
Let’s do this in steps. Do you think an employer should be allowed to fire an employee because he has AIDS, assuming that there is no contractual commitment not to?

Mark Bahner writes:
@Mark Bahner, Let’s do this in steps. Do you think an employer should be allowed to fire an employee because he has AIDS, assuming that there is no contractual commitment not to?

OK, let's do this in steps. But you're starting in the wrong direction.

Regardless of what one thinks about whether an employer should be allowed to fire an employee because he or she has AIDS, an employer is always in the wrong to lie about an employee when firing him or her.

You seem to be implying that it's all right for a firm to lie about an employee, because the firm didn't think they could get away with firing him by giving the real reason he was being fired. But what the firm did was unquestionably legally and morally wrong. It's even written in stone: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

So then we come to the second step: Should an employer be allowed to fire an employee, and give the reason as "He has AIDS, so we fired him"?

Well, let's ask a few similar questions, to see how it feels. (Caution: Contains insensitive discussion, which could easily be offensive to some):

1) Suppose a woman gets cervical cancer, which is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV)? Should a firm be allowed to fire her, assuming there's no contractual commitment not to?

2) Suppose a person gets nasopharyngeal cancer or Burkitt's lymphoma, thought to be caused by the Epstein-Barr virus? Should a firm be allowed to fire that person, assuming there's no contractual commitment not to?

Well, I know very little about the law, but I'd expect that all three of those are probably against the law. And my general philosophy is that people should follow the law, unless the law itself is obviously immoral. (For example, laws against people using marijuana for medical problems.)

So unless I'm mistaken about the law, I think the answer is "No, I don't think an employer should be allowed to fire an employee because he has AIDS, because firing an employee because he has AIDS is against the law."

If I am mistaken about the law,and there's no law against firing employees in any of those three instances, I'd still say that a contract should have something about developing those diseases being a cause for termination, before I would say that a firm should be allowed to do it. But I haven't given it a great deal of thought.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mark Bahner,
Thanks. This has helped me see our differences and our differences are roughly what I expected.
I think a law that says you can’t fire someone--that is, a law that violates the “at will” doctrine--is a bad law. I think that laws should treat people equally. So, for example, if an employee can quit a job because the employer is sick, an employer should be able to fire someone who is sick. Imagine that there was a law that forbade an employee to quit just because the employer was sick.
Then we get to the issue of when it’s alright to break bad laws. Is it moral for the employee be able to lie about why he’s quitting? I lean towards the idea that he should be, although it’s not always clear cut.
This, by the way, is relevant to the issue of rent control. My impression, from talking to people who live in rent-controlled apartments, is that they dislike their landlords more than do people who live in non-rent-controlled apartments. I’m pretty sure it’s because their landlords, who are constrained by law on rent and on other aspects of the property, respond to these fewer degrees of freedom by aggressively taking advantage of the degrees of freedom they have: insisting that the rent be paid absolutely on time, taking their sweet time about responding to tenant complaints when taking their time doesn’t violate the rules, etc.

Charley Hooper writes:

I've never seen the movie Philadelphia, but was part of the problem with the employee having AIDS the possibility he would infect other employees or clients?

The movie came out in 1993, but it was probably written years earlier when AIDS was quite a bit more frightening than it is now.

Just consider what Oprah Winfrey said in 1987:

Research studies now project that one in five--listen to me, hard to believe--one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years. That's by 1990. One in five. It is no longer just a gay disease. Believe me.

Devil's Advocate writes:

It seems what is at issue, fundamentally, is the idea of freedom. Dr. Henderson, true to form, argues for a pure structure of freedom (i.e., employees and employers possessing the same freedom to terminate from one another, for whatever reason.) That said, conventional wisdom argues for an “un-pure” structure of freedom that incorporates protection. Can we agree that some factions in society have a need to be protected from corruption, discrimination, intolerance, wickedness, and general unsavoriness(sp); maybe all of us need to be protected in this way? Concepts such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” requires some sacrifice of freedom from all…but, that sacrifice, in a strange way makes for better living, and dare I say, “more freedom.”

Robert Simmons writes:

Newsies. As I recall the "heroes" didn't like their pay so they used violence to prevent others from doing the job instead, claiming that otherwise their rights would be violated. It's also just a bad movie in general, but that's a separate issue.

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