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Avatar, Property Rights, and New Nations

January 25, 2010

(This won’t be much of a spoiler, but if you want to know nothing at all about the movie, stop reading now.)

A lot of criticism has been written about the simplistic, hackneyed plot of Avatar (including by me, or this guy summing up the Patriot anti-Avatar sentiment).  And I agree with most of it – I think all those awful themes were there in spades.  But (ever the contrarian) I’d like to offer a couple counterpoints.

First, while the movie signaled many values of Ludditism, anti-trade, anti-profit, and anti-progress that I disagreed strongly with, let’s not forget that at the heart of the movie is the idea that it is wrong to initiate violence to take or destroy other people’s land and property.  That just because someone else has something you want, and you have bigger guns, that doesn’t make it OK to go take it.  If we view the story as a mirror for deep aspects of the human psyche, I find it very promising that the center  is respect for property rights.  (Kinsella agrees, and Andrew says it’s all about the importance of knowledge over resources.)

And most promising for the future of small-scale, entrepreneurial government is that it is specifically respect for property rights to your homeland – that of all the crimes against property, aggressing against a homeland is portrayed as one of the worst.  It is so bad that an entire world unites to fight back – because an aggressor who destroys one homeland may destroy more.  A strong human bias towards respect for the territory of a tribe is just what we want, given that we’re seeking to carve out new territories.

This also shows the importance of making your new territory someplace empty – whether on the frontier as in seasteading, or on empty land as in Charter Cities.  Otherwise, you risk triggering the associated defense bias – people feeling that their homeland is being taken away from them.  This problem shows up in a number of alternative strategies for improving existing systems:

Each of these may result in people feeling like they are losing their homeland, which is not good.  We want those working with us to feel like they are fighting on the side of good as part of an epic battle for the future of the world, but we DO NOT want those who might work against us to feel the same thing.  They should see our struggle as orthogonal to their own – perhaps good, perhaps bad, but certainly nothing to gather the tribes over.

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26 Comments
  1. January 25, 2010 3:52 pm

    Patri this is a brilliant analysis. I agree with EVERY point you made, especially the anti- technology themes inherent in Avatar. From a sheer special effects perspective though do you think Avatar was overhyped or is it as good as they are saying ( and I agree fwiw)??

    • January 25, 2010 6:51 pm

      The special effects are not overhyped. It’s the beginning of a new age of immersive 3d virtual worlds that look better than our world.

      • Nicolas permalink
        January 26, 2010 6:54 am

        I think this is one reason the isolation of a seastead society will not be nearly as problematic 20 years from now as it may seem today. Immersive virtual worlds will most likely become a drastically more important part of our lives then and render real physical isolation much more bearable.

  2. January 25, 2010 4:55 pm

    As a Free Stater, I haven’t seen much of the “they’re invading our homeland!” sentiment. I would guess that this is because it’s not immediately obvious which activists moved for the FSP and which are native New Hampshirites. Unless you’ve actually met the people and asked where they’re from, there’s really no way to tell. It all looks like a big blur.

    And most New Hampshirites moved from other states, anyway, so it’s probably not natural for them to think of NH as their homeland.

    • January 26, 2010 4:23 am

      I’m glad to hear it, but I worry that it is a result of the FSP being small. If the FSP got to have major political impact – say, 20% of representatives – I could see a backlash of “These crazy libertarians are invading our state, we have to do something about it!”

      • January 26, 2010 5:11 am

        Sure it’s possible, but I haven’t seen anything that would lead me to expect that.

        At least, as far as political activism goes, we have to work within a system filled with non-Free Staters, so it’s not like we’re going it alone– we’re making friends, influencing opinions, and just in general cooperating with non-FSPers to reach our goals. That’s what makes it seem so blurry– it’s hard to tell where the Free State Project ends and New Hampshire begins. I commonly will think someone is not a FSPer when in fact they are (or vice versa), and FSP state representatives have plenty of stories about how their constituents or peers didn’t even realize they were Free Staters.
        If it’s an invasion, it’s an invisible invasion. Or it’s an invasion without any identifiable front.

        And on top of that, since there are Free Staters working within both major parties, neither of them have an incentive to go after us. We’re such a decentralized group that there’s no place to direct this kind of sentiment.

        Except– with some of the more radical civil disobedience, it’s much more clear who the Free Staters are, and it’s easier to see as an invasion. I don’t think I’ve seen any kind of invasion remark that wasn’t prompted by civil disobedience.

      • Nicolas permalink
        January 26, 2010 7:06 am

        When I lived in NH I felt more depressed than ever. I witnessed collectivist rules enacted pretty much everywhere despite some election victories.. it felt like business as usual for libertarians. No matter what inroads we make, the truth is most people are not libertarians and folk activism will only get you so far, at great expense of time, energy and money.

        Remember, the FSP’s goal is not to have enough libertarians move to the state to become a majority (which would take generations, if at all possible) but for enough libertarians to move to the state to make folk activism a possibly useful weapon, and convert enough inhabitants to libertarianism. This too will take forever in my opinion and is unlikely to succeed no matter what our numbers.

  3. DanB permalink
    January 26, 2010 4:36 am

    Good analysis.

    Note that there is a sub-theme, that all of the Pandora tribes, which are presumably constantly warring with one another, agree to set aside their differences and fight against the evil imperialists.

    The seasteading analogy is that we need to convince the other ideological tribes (e.g. Luddites, communists, feminists, Christian evangelicals, anarcho-pacifists) that the real enemy is not libertarianism but in fact absolute imperialist democracy. The question shouldn’t be whether one agrees with libertarianism but whether one disagrees with shallow modern obesogenic liberal democracy. It shouldn’t be that hard to do.

    It would be ironic but not particularly surprising if communism actually works on a seastead.

    We need to delink the seasteading meme from the libertarian meme. Maybe TSI needs a “Director of Ideological Outreach”?

    • January 26, 2010 2:00 pm

      It’s already well established that communism works on small scales; think of the family, and kibbutzim.

    • January 26, 2010 2:01 pm

      Well, maybe not “communism” which implicitly requires the enslavement of non-consenting parties, but certainly collectivism.

  4. Mike Gibson permalink*
    January 26, 2010 6:14 pm

    David Boaz in the LATimes today makes a great point:

    “Avatar” is like a space opera of the Kelo case, which went to the Supreme Court in 2005.

    Conservatives rallied to the defense of Susette Kelo when the Pfizer Corp. and the city of New London, Conn., tried to take her land. She was unreasonable too, like the Na’vi: She wasn’t holding out for a better price; she just didn’t want to sell her house. As Jake tells his bosses, “They’re not going to give up their home.”

    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-boaz26-2010jan26,0,6596249.story

  5. January 27, 2010 1:31 pm

    Patri,
    Agree on your analysis of the property rights issue on Avatar, though one thing that kept me thinking was that the Na’vi are not actually humans, although sharing many intelectual capabilities with them.

    At what point of consciousness and rationality does a living being start having property rights such as humans do? If humanity was facing starvation (which I believe will only occur if highly regulated by governments) and we encountered species such as space-cows in another planet, we would probably (and rightfully, in my opinion) eat them up. Probably Cameron wanted us to picture the aliens as humans, as they are very much like us, but bottom line says they are not. “District 9” also brings up this issue.

    I tend to tribe up with the (real) humans, but still not sure of my position, as tribal thought usually isn’t a very civilized way to go.

  6. kurt9 permalink
    January 30, 2010 8:53 pm

    The state of Israel is an example of creating a new state on existing land either by buying or ex-appropriating land from an existing population. Given the continuous state of struggle that the Israelis have experienced since 1948 should make it clear to all of us that this approach is not effective at all. The new city-states have to be created on the oceans where we do not have to take land or political power from any existing people and cultures.

    • January 31, 2010 12:18 pm

      Yes, but so is Hong Kong.

      I agree with your general point however; before even attempting this, you’d need to understand why Hong Kong is Hong Kong and Israel is Israel.

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