Monday, February 01, 2010

Recasting Avatar

The VC has already brought attention to one property rights interpretation of a tale generally thought to be left-leaning (The Lorax). Today, Ilya Somin points to another example of the genre: David Boaz on Avatar:
Conservatives have been very critical of the Golden Globe-winning film “Avatar” for its mystical melange of trite leftist themes. But what they have missed is that the essential conflict in the story is a battle over property rights....

But conservative critics are missing the conflict at the heart of the movie. It’s quite possible that [director] Cameron missed it too.

The earthlings have come to Pandora to obtain unobtainium. In theory, it’s not a military mission, it’s just the RDA Corp. with a military bigger than most countries. The Na’vi call them the Sky People.

To get the unobtainium, RDA is willing to relocate the natives, who live on top of the richest deposit. But alas, that land is sacred to the Na’vi, who worship the goddess Eywa, so they’re not moving. When the visitors realize that, they move in with tanks, bulldozers and giant military robots, laying waste to a sacred tree and any Na’vi who don’t move fast enough.

Conservatives see this as anti-American, anti-military and anti-corporate or anti-capitalist. But they’re just reacting to the leftist ethos of the film.

They fail to see what’s really happening. People have traveled to Pandora to take something that belongs to the Na’vi: their land and the minerals under it. That’s a stark violation of property rights, the foundation of the free market and indeed of civilization.

I think that's a perfectly tenable interpretation of the movie. I'd question, though, how strong the dissonance is with the "face" (leftist) message.

It is certainly true that the sort of leftist thought that Boaz is identifying Avatar with hardly identifies as capitalist. But that hardly means they can't speak in term of property rights. Indeed, while the anti-colonialist theory being drawn from here would likely not cast things in terms of individual plot ownership, they certainly are quite willing to assert cultural "ownership" of certain plots of land, territories, or resources. Indeed, the Na'vi seem to view these territories as collectively owned by "the people" (there is no indication that any one person in the community owns the land or the unobtanium). This raises a harder question for capitalist theorists than Boaz cares to admit, as capitalist entities have always had trouble figuring out how to handle (read: have felt comfortable ignoring completely) notions of property ownership that were not sufficiently individualistic. The doctrine of terra nullius was applied to claim that places such as Australia weren't actually "owned" by anyone, since the land wasn't titled in a manner that was comprehensible according to contemporary proto-capitalist norms.

But anyway. I think contemporary leftists are more anti-corporate than they are anti-capitalist. The argument in Avatar is that given sufficient power, corporations would be quite willing to ignore such capitalist niceties as property rights and freedom of contract (at least when it suits them). Put differently, the same priors that suggest a corporation would be indifferent to good liberal values like "don't slaughter the natives" would equally suggest that the corporation would be indifferent to good libertarian values like "contract with the natives". The corporation is going to take the least expensive path, whatever that may be, and unless some entity is their to raise the cost of the "killing the natives and taking their property", there's no reason to believe that market economics of all things will act as a restraining force.

So Avatar is an indictment of anarcho-capitalism, to a point, but the twist is it making the further claim that the necessary condition for an anarcho-capitalist hell is not absence of government, but simply corporations more powerful than government. The Ecuador example* I've sometimes cited would seem to be most directly on point.
There, the state had given the Texaco Oil virtually free reign in the country's outland regions. The company responded by engaging in massive environmental degredation at the expense of the nation’s Amazon community. Affected citizens were told that there was no redress available from the company because Texaco was a private corporation and thus not party to relevant treaty law, they would have to go to the state for aid. However, since Texaco’s revenues were 4x the entire GNP of country, and in any event the company was actively backed by the US government, few believed that the nation could stop the environmental destruction even if it were so inclined.

Obviously, there's two problems going on here. The first is the Ecuadorian government's willingness to enable Texaco's predations at the expense of the property rights of the locals. The second is Texaco's willingness to completely circumvent normal legal protections and remedies for the local populace, simply by virtue of the fact that it was actually "bigger" than the state itself.

It is quite easy to see why a country like China would dislike Avatar -- it threatens their exploitative ideology just as much as it would Texaco's. But the moral of the story isn't "yay for market power" so much as it is illustrative of the need to a) establish governmental norms that strongly protect personal rights, particularly of marginalized groups and then b) make sure corporations don't gain so much power that they're able to out-muscle the government.

* Chris Jochnick, "Confronting the Impunity of Non-State Actors: New Fields for the Promotion of Human Rights." Human Rights Quarterly 21.1 (1999) 56-79

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