In Defense of Avatar

Do savages have rights?

by , January 11, 2010

Some writers who are generally my allies in favor of capitalism and free markets have been critical of the movie Avatar. Reihan Salam, for example, on Forbes.com, writes, "In a sense, capitalism is the villain of Avatar." Edward Hudgins, a fan of Ayn Rand, as am I, writes that Avatar is "loaded with tired, mind-numbing leftist clichés."

But I don’t think Avatar is an attack on capitalism. One could leave the movie and have no idea, based on just the movie, about James Cameron’s view of capitalism. And while it did have some clichés (most movies do), I didn’t find it loaded. So what is Avatar? 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. (Warning: slight spoilers ahead.)

Consider one of Salam’s main arguments against Avatar. He points out, correctly, that the tremendous economic growth that relatively free markets have led to in the last two centuries is responsible for the fact that humans have grown taller, stronger, and healthier. The Na’vi, by contrast, even without clearly visible means of support, "do seem pretty tall, strong, healthy, and well-fed." Point taken. But do we really look for realism in a movie that’s about people on a fictitious planet? I found many things implausible about the movie – start with the fact that people who are obviously American go to another planet and find people who speak English better than most Americans do. Surely, then, the size of the humanoids’ bodies is one of the least important implausibilities.

Ed Hudgins criticizes the movie on the grounds that Pandora, the alien planet, is a "Garden of Eden or lost paradise inhabited by noble savages." This myth, he writes, "has done no end of harm to humanity." I agree with him, both about how Pandora is portrayed and about how much harm the myth of the noble savage has done.

But here’s the crucial question, a question that neither Salam nor Hudgins addresses: Do savages, noble or otherwise, have rights?

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.

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. Hudgins and Salam could argue that that’s implausible. Surely there would be some finite price that the Na’vi would take in return for the Unobtainium. Maybe, maybe not. But once the Na’vi have made it clear that they’re unwilling to exchange it, that should be the end of things, shouldn’t it?

And here’s the irony: no one understands that better than Ed Hudgins. Here are his eloquent words following the disastrous Kelo decision:

"This [taking property forcibly from some to give to others] is the philosophy that informs the paternalist political elites of New London and elsewhere. They see themselves as a new ruling elite who manifest the will of the people. ‘L’état, c’est moi!’ These planners either put the good of an abstract collective – the city – ahead of the rights of the individuals who make it up, or they abrogate the rights of some individuals in order to give the undeserved and the unearned to another group of individuals in the name of survival and ‘economic development.’"

Now, Hudgins could argue that the analogy with the Kelo decision doesn’t make sense because this is tribal property, not individual property. OK. So imagine that some civilization more technologically advanced than ours discovers that there’s a rare mineral below the hills and mountains of Yosemite, which, in a sense, is tribal property. Our government has refused to sell. To get at the mineral, this other "civilization" must blast and bulldoze Yosemite down to nothing. If that more advanced group comes in and uses violence to grab Yosemite, would Hudgins say that was fine? I think not.

And here’s the other irony. Hudgins already understands all this. 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. The crucial question for him is: Whose side are you on?

Hudgins argues that James Cameron is claiming, "That’s capitalism for you." As noted earlier, it’s not clear that Cameron is so arguing. But if that’s what Cameron believes, shouldn’t Hudgins’s response be, "No, that’s corporatism for you." In another excellent piece on Kelo, aptly titled "One Giant Leap Toward Fascist America," Hudgins writes:

"The U.S. Supreme Court is allowing a local government to kick out of the house in which she was born 87-year-old Wilhelmina Dery and her husband, who has lived there with her for 60 years. Why? Because the government wants to seize their property, bulldoze theirs and many other houses, and to sell the land to other businesses and developers for private uses. While one must take great care in choosing words in political discussions, one must not mince them either. This decision in the Kelo vs. New London case is another giant step towards classical corporatism or fascism in America."

He’s right. Hudgins tugs our heart strings by noting that Wilhelmina Dery had lived in her house for 87 years. That’s kind of like the Na’vi getting attached to a tree, don’t you think? It’s entirely appropriate for Hudgins to appeal to our sympathy, just as it’s entirely appropriate for James Cameron to do the same. Read through everything Hudgins has written on Kelo and you won’t find a wisp of discussion about how low-tech or high-tech, savage or civilized, Mrs. Dery is. And that’s because it doesn’t matter. People in high-tech societies have rights. So do savages. It would be nice if Hudgins showed even one tenth of the concern for the "savages" over whom the "non-savages" of the U.S. military and CIA roll as he shows for an old woman who lives (or used to live) in a house.

One other thing that makes me doubt that Avatar is an attack on capitalism is the music that’s played when the high-tech army advances on Pandora. It sounds as if it’s straight from the Soviet Union’s now-defunct Red Army.

Avatar is an eloquent defense of the right of people in other civilizations to live as they please. As I mentioned, Hudgins is a fan of Ayn Rand and, in fact, makes his living advocating her ideas. So I’ll put it in terms that Ayn Rand used. On the issue of Avatar, Hudgins is "concrete-bound." He fails to see the basic principle: people’s right to live their lives in peace.

Copyright © 2010 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.

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