Archive for the ‘Libertarian theory’ Category
Was looking though an old scrapbook and found this article – yes, a scrapbook. God, I’m old. Posting it here in its entirety since Reason doesn’t seem to have archives from 1989.
HENDERSON’S LAW OF HEROIC MOVIES By David R. Henderson
Copyright July 1989 David R. Henderson and/or Reason Magazine
“David, I rented a movie for tonight that looks interesting but I’m not sure you’ll like it. It’s called The Milagro Beanfield War. Robert Redford directed it, and I think it’s left-wing and antibusiness.”
“Really?” I asked my wife, Rena. “What is it about?”
“It’s about these poor Chicano farmers in New Mexico or somewhere who steal water from a big business to irrigate their beans. The movie treats them as heroes.”
“I bet they don’t steal it,” I beamed confidently. “I’ll bet you that they just reclaim it after the big business, with the government’s help, had already grabbed their water.”
Rena looked at me skeptically. Why was I so sure? Because of Henderson’s Law of Heroic Movies. Henderson’s Law states that anitbusiness movies that have heroes are always based on, or consistent with, a libertarian premise.
I formulated this law after seeing and enjoying a lot of movies that liberal friends expected me to dislike on ideological grounds. Sure enough my law was confirmed by The Milagro Beanfield War, which is, incidentally, not only pro-freedom and heroic but also very good.
The movie A Christmas Carol, based on Charles Dickens’s novel, is another example. Because it is an attack on businessmen, liberal friends are sometimes surprised I love it – especially the 1951 version with Alaistair Sim. But A Christmas Carol is profoundly profreedom. It does not question Scrooge’s right to keep his money for himself but rather his wisdom in denying himself the pleasure of giving. In one of the final scenes, Scrooge dances around the room with joy because he realizes it is not too late to change. He is excited, not because he can now go out and vote to have the government spend other people’s money but because he can now personally, voluntarily help those around him.
But why is Henderson’s Law true? Why aren’t movie with heroes based on antilibertarian premises? There are two reasons. Both should give us hope for our cultural and political future.
First, even though many movie scriptwriters and directors are left-wing, they must think that a heroic antilibertarian movie will not make money. The know – implicitly or explicitly – that people who want a heroic movie want to have no qualms about supporting the hero. So they must enlist the hero in a just cause. The only kind of just cause that they can be sure the public will support is one based on an individualistic view of justice. Because the public, although most of them don’t know it, have a profoundly libertarian view of justice.
Skeptical? Then consider. Which plot would stir the juices of American moviegoers: one where the hero stole money from a corporation that succeeded by being honest with people, or one where the hero stole money from a corporation that had been cheating people? To ask the question is to answer it. The second movie is the only possible contender.
Push the analysis further. Normally, when a corporation cheats someone, the person cheated can sue. But sometimes that doesn’t work. When it doesn’t, it is typically because the legal system is not doing its job of protecting people from fraud. So the hero who steals money from the cheating corporation is trying to achieve the profreedom outcome that the legal system was supposed to provide.
The second reason that left-wing screenwriters and directors often adopt libertarian premises is that they themselves are profoundly libertarian. To believe in heroism is almost necessarily (Ayn Rand would probably cut the almost) to believe in freedom. But writers and directors usually don’t understand how the market works, and they think that big corporations, shielded by a corrupt legal system, are always ripping people off. In other words, they are antibusiness because of profreedom values coupled with a mistaken view of how the market works.
Henderson’s Law also holds for books, movies, and TV shows. Take Robin Hood. We hear that he was a hero because he robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Robin Hood would be a clear-cut exemption to Henderson’s Law if the rich he robbed had earned their money. But invariably Robin Hood’s rich victims are those who themselves robbed first. Robin Hood reclaimed from the rich and gave back to the poor.
I have not yet found an exception to Henderson’s Law, and not for lack of trying. When I think I have one, it turns out either to be consistent with libertarianism or to lack a hero.
Take Norma Rae, a movie about a worker at a cotton mill who grows out of her low self-image and who courageously and effectively fights to unionize the mill. The movie qualifies as heroic. It is also consistent with libertarian premises. The turning point for the union’s success comes when Norma Rae’s father – who also works at the mill – dies because his employer refuses to let him sit down during a heart attack. The employer clearly violated an implicit contractual agreement: I know of no advocate of freedom who thinks that when you agree to work for someone, you also agree not to take a break during a heart attack.
Of course, when the union forms, the large minority of workers who voted against it will be represented by the union against their will. Forcing a bargaining agent on these people and forcing them to pay dues as well violates the workers’ right to choose their own representatives, not to mention the employer’s rights. But nowhere does the movie even hint that those who oppose the union will be forced to join. If the movie had covered this issue, then Norma Rae’s heroism would not have been so clear-cut. The only way the director and scriptwriter could keep the movie both heroic and prounion was to mislead moviegoers about the antifreedom aspects of unions under American labor law. American labor law, not Norma Rae, is antifreedom.
Country is another apparent exception that turns out to be consistent with Henderson’s Law. This movie portrays as a hero a woman, played by Jessica Lange, who tries to hold on to her farm and to prevent the government from foreclosing on it. I could nitpick and say that the movie is not antibusiness because the government, not business, is foreclosing. But I won’t, because one can easily imagine a business doing the same thing. The more relevant points are that the government is not portrayed as clearly villainous and that the heroine attempts to hold on to her farm within the law. The neighbors help out, not by breaking laws or by violating property rights, but simply by refusing to buy her assets, a very creative use of their freedom.
Of course, in the late ’60s many antibusiness movies were hostile to freedom. But they were also antiheroic, and therefore not exceptions to Henderson’s Law.
Henderson’s Law gives me hope. That heroic movies are based on or consistent with the principles of freedom means that millions of people can see as heroic only someone whose actions do not violate others’ rights. This shared belief in freedom is a huge common ground. What remains, if believers in freedom wish to persuade people, is to show them this common ground and then to address the factual issues on which we disagree, the main one being whether corporations can easily rip people off without the government’s help. Those who love heroes love freedom.
Contributing Editor David R. Henderson, an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and a former White House economist under President Reagan, loves heroic movies.
I’m glad I’m not the only one to see the connection.
The quote –
The energy of rapid growth in the city and on the frontier, people moving faster than laws could bind them, gave birth to the setting and with it the idea that a moral individual is a better force for good, than the system. There is something inherently libertarian about that. And indeed some of the more influential forces in both genres have been libertarian or libertarian-leaning. The comic book heroes looking down from the movie theater marquee at your today were often created or co-created by libertarians.
But there is a dramatic shift that takes place between the two genres. And it is a revealing shift. The cowboy is human. The superhero is increasingly inhuman.
Read about this movie on lewrockwell.com – read an excellent synopsis there too.
It took some searching to find it, though (try Google) – my copy is on loan from a chap named Kaspar I met at McDonald’s.
It’s well-meaning film, but it’s hampered by the TV movie budget they must have had, even back in 1968, not to mention the anachronisms on display. Get past those, and you’ll find it pretty entertaining.
It’s especially amusing that Gene Hackman(!) is billed third in the movie, after John Forsyth and Jackie Cooper. I suppose you take what you can get early on – three years later, he got The French Connection, so I guess that makes up for it. Hackman is pretty good here, but when is he not?
At least one reviewer seems to think that this was a pilot for a TV show on ABC – I’m tending to agree, since the movie ends rather abruptly. In fact no less than J. Neil Schuman reviewed it there.
Via Big Hollywood…
(I’m apparently not allowed to reprint the article in full (like that’s stopped me before) but I’ve got respect for Steve Ditko*, so I’m merely going to excerpt…)
Here, he echoes Rand…
The much maligned B-westerns showed a clearly defined moral code, a standard. Those westerns identified a range from good to degrees of wrong, to the bad/evil.
The cowboy in the “white hat” (good), the hero, fights fair, helps people in distress, defends the law, fights rustlers, lawbreakers, etc. He acts as an agent of justice.
The cowboy in the “black hat” (the bad), the villain, fights unfairly, cheats, stabs, shoots people in the back, steals property, robs banks, rustles cattle, etc. He acts as an agent of the bad.
The cowboy in the “grey hat” (a sneak), tips off the villains about gold shipments, spies on the sheriff, on honest people with wealth, spreads lies, is an agitator, etc. He is an agent of compromise and corruption.
The honest but uncertain sheriff doesn’t have the information, knowledge, about the newcomer hero, so he’s suspicious, tending to believe the lies of the local black and grey hats who are posing as helpful and honest townspeople. He is an agent still collecting, weighing, actions, evidence, for a legal judgment.
The confused heroine is also not trusting the hero because of the uncertainty of the sheriff and the lies from the black and grey hats. She is an agent of emotional and moral uncertainty.
Later, the anti-hero western’s realism muddied the clear identities into greyness: “We’re all alike,” “Nobody is better than anyone else.”
Black, grey, white western identities were “smashed” and the new “status quo” offered a character menu of hash or a stew with no clear identities to recognize, know and savor.
While in this essay he’s mainly talking about comics (and in particular, about Joe Quesada’s multi-comic storylines such as Civil War**, that take Marvel’s cadre of heroes and puts them on a (for them) world-changing story arc, the point does come across that moral clarity should be valued. A fictional narrative (such as a super hero comic book, no matter how outlandish) or a B-movie Western or action movie (being as many of them also have the same structure as Westerns) seem to be very good delivery systems for libertarian thought. Think not? How many libertarians got their start reading Atlas Shrugged?
* Google him up someday – can’t find fault with a man living his values.
** And I’m going to review that series when I finally acquire all the trade paperbacks to the series.
Perhaps I’m going about this the wrong way – maybe I should try to state what I think Libertarian Media Theory should be, as Rand did, rather than try to frame it through already made projects…
Well, then – I believe that it should start with a clear protagonist, and adhere to the Zero Aggression Principle. A lot of Westerns conform to this sort of structure: no pre-emption of others’ evil actions, and one helluva lot of provocation before the Hero opens the old trunk where the sixguns were placed because Mary was a churchgoer.
The antagonist, well, they are tresspassing on property rights in some sort of way. Using all the water from the river, drying out the rest of the farmers downstream, or refusing to take a “No” from the pretty schoolmarm.
I’m thinking that a lot of superhero films don’t match the test – most superheroes act as extralegal police on steroids.
Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union. Samuel Goldwyn*
Two things prompted this post – one, I get a hit every once in a while from somebody searching for “libertarian media theory” and two, I picked up Ayn Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto the other day, and some of the points she brings up point to that sort of analysis. No one will mistake me for a Philosophy professor, and for dipping my philosophical toe into the river like this, I’ll probably get it bitten off by an epistemological snapping turtle, but here goes. I will not extend this essay to all of her points, but rather to the moving-picture (including both film and video) and written-word end of her arguments (the ones I personally am most familiar with). I’m also addressing Rand specifically, since most Libertarians start with her as a major influence.
Rand’s definition of Art is 1) it “serves no practical, material end” (Chap. 1, pg. 4)**, that it “belongs to a non-socializable aspect of reality which is universal (i.e. applicable to all men) but non-collective: to the nature of man’s consciousness” (ibid) and, probably most important for her, Art is, “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” (Chap.1, pg. 8).
Throughout her book, she examines particular art forms and decides which meet her standard of Art. To her credit, she does believe that one can recognize a particular work as Art, but disagree with that work’s premise on a personal level (as an example of this, Chap. 3, pgs. 33-34). Music in the Western mode (I assume that she’s speaking of Western Classical music here, since she mentions The Blue Danube) is better than Primitive or Oriental music, which has “a paralyzing, narcotic effect on man’s mind”. (Chap. 4, pg. 53). Hindu Dance, negative: Ballet, positive (Chap. 4, pgs. 58-59). Eventually, she arrives at film as a medium and generally finds favor with it (although Fritz Lang’s Siegfried seems to be her high point for the art form (Chap. 4, pg. 62)), but still photography, not so (“a technical, not a creative skill” and makes the distinction between film and still photography being Film having a story, without which the primary artist of Film, the director,”is merely a pretentious photographer”(Chap. 4, pg. 65).***
Later in the book, she also finds favor with certain writers (Victor Hugo, Margaret Mitchell, Ian Fleming) which, I believe, she shares certain traits with as a writer, especially so with Ian Fleming. Character driven, tightly plotted novels, with protagonists being “larger than life” and moving the plot along through “the character’s values (or treason to values)” (Chap. 6, pg. 100).
So, what would be my point in going through this? My belief is that libertarian media theory is based solidly in showing idealized individualism coupled however tenuously with character-based principles, whatever those may be. Consider: look at the James Bond franchise (according to Wikipedia, the longest running and most financially successful English-language film franchise to date). Or look at The Dark Knight (#24 on the Top 25 All-Time Box Office Winners according to IMDB) reaching $500 million in 45 days. I hate to make myself look like a fanboy here by talking about spy movies and super hero movies, but I choose to believe that their success had a lot to do with the way they were portrayed as being (dare I say it) heroic (and not just because James Bond gets women and Batman gets cool stuff AND gets women)?
Am I making any sense in this? Commenting is enabled for this post simply to see if anybody could define it any better.
* And by the way, every malapropism attributed to him they published on Wikipedia rocks!
** All references to Rand are from the Signet Centennial edition of The Romantic Manifesto (ISBN 0-451-14916-5)
*** I cannot believe that she discounts the screenplay as being one of the primary elements of what makes a film great – she swallowed Truffaut’s auteur theory HOOK, LINE, & SINKER!