Bryan Caplan  

Commentary on Captain Fantastic

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[Warning: Packed with Captain Fantastic spoilers!]

Few movies speak to me more personally than Captain Fantastic.  It's not just a movie about homeschooling; it's a movie about natalist homeschoolers living in a nearly-airtight Bubble.  And psychologically, the movie's patriarch eerily resembles me.  Captain Fantastic raises his six kids with kindness, respect, and the power of ideas, scrupulously avoiding the parental urge to dominate youths with anger, fear, or sadness.  I say this even though the content of Captain Fantastic's ideas leaves much to be desired.  My commentary on Captain Fantastic, in no particular order:

1. On the surface, Captain Fantastic is a leftist cliche: not just a socialist living off the grid, but a cultish Chomsky fan.  But I've never met a socialist remotely like him.  He's not just amazingly open to reasoned argument; his intellectual style is perfectly calm and genuinely friendly

2. Captain Fantastic is a full-blown economic illiterate.  When he looks at stores, all he can see is capitalists gutting American democracy.  The idea that stores make life easier, freeing up time for more worthwhile pursuits, is alien to him.  So is the idea that modern technology makes primitive survival skills obsolete.

3. In the real world, openness to reasoned argument and economic illiteracy do not long co-exist.  Anyone as intellectual curious as Captain Fantastic would soon encounter Econ 1.  Anyone as calm and friendly as he would quickly come to appreciate the cogency of basic economic principles.  And while Econ 1 wouldn't make him a free-market radical, it would forever eradicate his socialism and primitivism.  My idea of heaven is teaching Econ 1 to Captain Fantastic and his six kids - and watching the lightbulbs turn on one by one.

4. Captain Fantastic's academic curriculum is admirable but flawed.  The chief problem: It revolves around the Great Books.  Though I've devoted years to these works, I'm no longer a big fan.  While the Great Books were impressive in their day, they're stuffed with flimsy arguments and short on credible empirics.  Rare gems aside, I hold to this grim verdict even when I largely agree with authors' conclusion.  If you want to understand modern economies, Cowen and Tabarrok's Modern Principles of Economics will teach you far more than Smith's Wealth of Nations.

5. What's the alternative?  A curriculum that revolves around not Great Books, but Basic Facts.  Learn the global and historical distribution of GDP.  Grasp the basics of intelligence and personality psychology.  Instead of reading Marx, read quick overviews of Marxism and its critics, then study the political and economic history of Marxist regimes in great detail.  I daresay that Captain Fantastic's eldest son wouldn't be an avowed Maoist if he knew the Basic Facts about what Mao really did and why.  Or to take a far less egregious case, I would have loved to see Captain Fantastic's kids test their rhetorical objections to Citizens United against the social science of campaign finance.

6. Captain Fantastic is a case study in weird collectivism.  Despite the family's bizarre counter-cultural lifestyle, their favorite slogan is "Power to the people."  How can they not realize that if they were paying attention, "the people" would view their family with antipathy - and casually crush their family's experiment in living?

7. Captain Fantastic treats his homeschooling as all-or-nothing: Either you do it his way, or you surrender to the mediocrity of the world.  One of the first lessons in Econ 1 is that this binary thinking is counter-productive drivel.  Life is permeated with endless adjustable margins - and each of these margins is an opportunity for progress.  His kids want to try hamburgers?  At least let them try one.  His kids are clueless about the Real World?  Let them spend two weeks with their suburban cousins to broaden their horizons.  Mountain climbing is too dangerous for little kids?  You can switch to something safer without sending your kids to a public school that will bore them out of their minds.

8. Captain Fantastic's love of parental candor is touching and exemplary.  He consistently answers even his youngest kids' awkward questions with clarity and comfort.  This upsets his sister, but she's simply wrong.  With very rare exceptions, kids handle the truth well.  They're also good lie detectors.  If the truth is scary enough to give a kid nightmares, don't lie; say, "I'll tell you when you're older."  Otherwise, answer their questions and reap the greatest fruit of the virtue of honesty: your children's trust. 

9. I wish Captain Fantastic had been a fan of Thomas Szasz instead of Noam Chomsky.  He tells his kids that their bipolar mom's brain "can't transmit electrical signals," but somehow that doesn't stop her from lobbying to rejoin society, helping their son secretly apply to elite colleges, or writing a Dadaist will to outrage her square parents.

10. Captain Fantastic's Chomsky idolatry barely bothered me, but it's objectively awful.  Economic illiteracy aside, Chomsky's long history of apologizing for totalitarian socialist regimes makes it absurd to treat him as a paladin of human rights.  Like Howard Zinn, Chomsky is the kind of pacifist who gives pacifism a bad name.

11. On balance, I would have hated being raised by Captain Fantastic.  I would have loved the intellectual experience and his charming personality.  But I would have grown to hate his primitivism and asceticism - and my negativity would have gradually poisoned an otherwise idyllic experience.  In slogan form: There's nothing wrong with Captain Fantastic's parenting that suburban living and Econ 1 wouldn't fix.

12. Since the 60s, radical lifestyle experiments and left-wing ideology have normally been a package deal.  When radical lifestyle experiments perform poorly, outsiders usually treat it as proof that radical lifestyle experiments are bad.  Critical reviews of Captain Fantastic tend to draw this very lesson.  But given the confounding variable of left-wing ideology, this is a rush to judgment.  Maybe the real problem is leftism, not radicalism. 

13. What would radical lifestyle experimentation without leftism look like?  Start with a heavy dose of superforecasting and the Betting Norm.  Radicalism is no excuse for wishful or unempirical thinking.  Indeed, the more radical your dreams, the more you need to test your dreams against harsh reality.

14. I've already seen Captain Fantastic twice.  Overall review: 9/10.  If it weren't fascinating on many levels, I wouldn't bother to criticize it.  I grinned through 90% of the movie.  See it!




COMMENTS (7 to date)
Psmith writes:

Time for another installment of "other people have different values than I do? NO WAY", apparently.

Dave Smith writes:

I think I'll skip this movie. I just would not have any stamina to watch a cliched little twerp talk about being a Maoist.

Miguel Madeira writes:

In the real world, there are socialists (and some with some primitivist leanings) who had Econ 1 (by the Samuelson's book - who, not being a bible of free-market orthodoxy, is enough within the economic mainstream).

Philo writes:

Another slant (compare Miguel Madeira, above) on your writing that "openness to reasoned argument and economic illiteracy do not long co-exist": This cannot be squared with your own finding (confirmed by casual observation) that economic illiteracy is very widespread, unless (perhaps) the degree of openness you have in mind is very high, so high that few people achieve it. (Note that anyone who can think at all is *somewhat* open to reasoned argument.)

MikeDC writes:

In my experience, in an absolute sense almost no one is open to reasoned argument.

Philo writes:

@ MikeDC:

"In an absolute sense" you can drop the 'almost'! Obviously Bryan wasn't talking about absolute openness (but he must have had in mind a very, very high degree of openness).

Corey writes:

There are plenty of radical lifestyle experiments that aren't left-wing. Think fundamentalist Mormonism, branch davidians, Amish. Perhaps most non-religious radical lifestyles are left-wing.

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