Avatar and the Principles of Libertarianism
James Cameron’s Avatar has shaken the entertainment industry in the past couple months, raking in more than $2.3 billion so far in the box office worldwide. I first saw the film in January and was blown away by the incredible visuals, a detailed exploration of the Na’vi culture, and what I thought was a masterfully told story (as common or predictable as it may be to some). Unfortunately, some conservative and libertarian writers condemn the movie as a wackjob combination of pro-Green, anti-military, and anti-capitalist thinking wrapped into a movie. However, when I saw the movie I thought it strongly reinforced the importance of private property, individual rights, and protection against central force.
Consider the planet Pandora, where the “savage” Na’vi tribes have made their residence for generations. Their planet is their property. When a human corporation backed by hired mercenaries (hardly a constitutional military used for national defense) establishes itself on the planet to further the exploration and mining of a valuable mineral called Unobtanium, they face severe blowback from the tribes. One of the first scenes in the movie shows a massive vehicle returning to base with several arrows stuck in the tires. The tribes understandably felt threatened and saw the human tactics as an invasion of their property. Is this really an attack on the principles of peaceful exchange common in a free market?
The Omiticaya tribe that is prominent in the film does not need anything the humans offer in return for the mineral whether it be roads, education, medicine, etc. Is this really unreasonable? Does an owner of a product not have the right to negotiate the terms of a transaction? The Na’vi are not being selfish, the humans simply do not have a product or service that is more valuable than the land itself is already worth to the Na’vi. It is the same as if someone was offering $10 for a family heirloom that you will never give up. Just because you refuse their offer doesn’t mean they can take that item by force, as the mercenaries in Avatar did. Once again, this reinforces peaceful and voluntary exchange in a free market.
Many libertarians who have written about the movie do not especially appreciate how the Na’vi tribes operate through a cooperative community structure. They debate if the property rights displayed in Avatar are individual or collective. Either way, it does not hurt the message of freedom and voluntary interaction. All people, this planet or not, have the right to live as they please so long as they don’t intrude on the rights of others. In other words, if I really felt compelled to I can walk around butt naked in my house but that doesn’t mean I can jump into your house displaying myself whenever I choose. Just the same, if people want to live in a voluntary community structure as the tribes on Pandora do, they absolutely have that right. They can’t force people into that structure, but on the flip side a person or collective group such as the human mercenaries can’t prevent them from living peacefully in such a structure either.
Libertarians also seem to be greatly distressed by Ewya, the “spirit in all living things” that essentially is the deity or God of the Na’vi tribe. I have even read a comment that suggested this was a “totalitarian” approach that destroys individual liberties. Is this really any different than the very libertarian concept that all individuals are from God, our Creator, and all individuals are born free? Many libertarians strongly believe that God is in all living things (all people, anyway), and this principle strengthens individual liberty, it does not reduce it. Is it inconceivable that God is in all living things on Earth as well, not just humans? Regardless, the spirituality of the Na’vi can hardly be called anti-libertarian.
I have come to disagree with many libertarians’ view of communities. I was born, raised, and currently live in an intentional spiritual cooperative community that was founded more than forty years ago. The people in the community live simply, have similar goals spiritually, but they hardly have given up their rights and abilities as individuals. Voluntary cooperative communities strengthen individual liberties and happiness by providing an environment that allows you to live with people of common goals and work together to further those goals. Cooperative communities are certainly not enemies of freedom. In fact, I believe communities will start popping up worldwide as the economy and current government structure weakens and people recognize that living and working together has its benefits on both a mental and physical level. Since I myself have lived in a cooperative community my entire life, the cooperation of the Omiticaya tribe in Avatar does not present itself as a structure that is anti-capitalist or far-fetched. Cooperative communities can and do indeed work, and libertarians should recognize this sooner rather than later.
Lastly, there are those who call Avatar something along the lines of a “typical Hollywoodized, Green crazed, environmental spew package.” Okay, maybe not that bad. I read an article that discussed this from a more liberal perspective, and the author made an excellent point: how is being pro-environment a bad thing? Those who work to protect the environment and demonstrate the beauty of nature can hardly be called crazy, anti-American, or anti-capitalist. Sure, there are many disagreements between the ideologies on the role of the environment and how to protect it. Personally, I think the environment is best protected through individual property rights (out of which can stem collective rights through individuals voluntarily joining cooperative communities) and local initiative. The Na’vi tribes demonstrate these principles perfectly. They understand, see, and interact with nature on a daily basis, thus they work their hardest to protect it from foreign intruders who do not have the same values (the human mercenaries). When libertarian-minded individuals write off environmentalists as wackjobs, it weakens the freedom movement. No one can argue against clean air, water, and land, and it should be through discussion of all ideologies that we come to a common understanding and implement strong solutions with regards to the environment. Bickering and attacking other ideologies won’t strengthen principles.
Certainly others came away from Avatar with a different feeling or message than I did. Regardless, it was easy for me to see the underlying principles of libertarianism in the film. It is not anti-military: it strikes at the principles of preemptive attack, aggressive war, lawless corporate mercenaries, and invasion of private property. It is not anti-capitalist: rather, it clearly demonstrates the right of an individual or group to maintain their property as they see fit and decline an offer that isn’t to their liking. And is it pro-Green? Certainly. But I do not call myself anti-Green, and I don’t think other libertarians do at heart either. We don’t want a dirty environment and a complete disregard for nature, do we? It is time that we productively show, through honest discussion and analysis, that we can work together with people of all beliefs and demonstrate to our best abilities the benefits of freedom. It might be crazy, but I see Avatar as a grand display of freedom’s benefits, not as its enemy.