Posted by: captainfalcon | January 29, 2010

Avatar from the Uninitiated

I haven’t seen Avatar, so I don’t know if this (arguably tongue-in-cheek) revisionist assessment is entirely on point, but I doubt it. I doubt it, especially, in light of Boaz’s feeling impelled to respond to his critics:

I’ve received some emails arguing that the Na’vi in the film lacked “well-defined property rights” or simply that a collective group cannot have rights to the property they live on…So I went to some smarter guys to ask them what they thought about “collective property rights.” The political philosopher Tom G. Palmer…says “Just because people did not have English freehold property rights is no reason to chase them off land to which they held a clear customary right…Locke would say that the Na’vi, even if they do not have any separate plots, have a joint property in the land, “And though it be common, in respect of some men, it is not so to all mankind; but is the joint property of this country, or this parish.”

Even if the Na’vi have Palmer-cum-Locke-style joint property in their land (and, given that its plot lacks meat, I’m not sure we know enough about the circumstances of their – initial or otherwise – acquisition to warrant that assumption), and even if Avatar’s moral message is that the Sky People’s exploiting Na’vi lands is wrong, it doesn’t follow that what Avatar’s saying is wrong with the Sky People’s exploiting Na’vi lands is that they are violating the Navi’s Lockean property rights. That depends on emphasis.

For example, if Avatar emphasizes the suffering that the Sky People’s private corporation inflicts simply in order to enrich itself then the best interpretation of the movie might attribute to it the message rich associations of people who aim to make money (e.g. private corporations) do a lot of harm as compared with associations of people who live selflessly. Far from being enthymematic for strong protections of property rights, this most intuitively fits in an argument for confiscating the property of private corporations (to prevent them from doing harm) and attempting to influence people – either by coercing them or by inculcating in them altruistic values – to live for the sake of others. Hardly a libertarian goal.

And even if one emphasis is on the wrongness of expropriating the Na’vi’s commonly held property qua commonly held property, it still doesn’t follow that the movie’s message is libertarian. It might be that, by Avatar’s lights, what makes the expropriation immoral is that it is expropriation of property held, and worked, in common. That view (which is close to Luxemburgism) is also, needless to say, not libertarian.

That said, Boaz is surely right on the bottom line: “”Avatar” has its problems, from stilted dialogue to its embrace of the long-discredited myth of the “noble savage” in tune with nature…”.


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