October 20, 2019

Elysium: One freedom thumbs up, one down

TAMPA, August 25, 2013 – It is 2154. A small, wealthy elite live on Elysium, a floating paradise orbiting the earth with stately mansions, majestic landscapes, clean air and perpetual sunshine. The rest of humanity lives on overpopulated, diseased and polluted earth.

The wealthy enjoy 22nd century medicine that can instantly cure any disease or injury, no matter how severe. The earth dwellers have overcrowded hospitals where care is backwards and rationed.

The film doubles as allegory on the illegal immigration issue, with the earth dwellers representing Mexicans and Elysium the United States. Most people on earth appear to be bilingual in English and Spanish, while the elitists in Elysium speak English and French.

It sounds like a typical, leftist Hollywood narrative and in some ways it is. However, it also contains some of what used to be good about the left. Elysium is generally good on criticizing the police state and bad on economic freedom.

The plot revolves around Max, a former petty criminal who has gone straight. Early in the film, Max is harassed and assaulted on his way to work by robot police officers who ask him what is in his bag. Max must then discuss the encounter with his robot parole officer, who extends Max’s parole based upon the incident.

The central conflict is created when Max is ordered by his boss to enter a compartment where a mechanical door has jammed. When Max frees the door, it slams shut on him and the compartment floods with radiation, delivering a lethal dose to Max. His only hope to save his life is to get to Elysium.

When Max learns that his childhood friend has a daughter with terminal leukemia, his quest becomes one to save not only himself but the sick girl. In order to do so, he must make a deal with an outlaw revolutionary to obtain access codes that will open the door to Elysium to whomever possesses them.

The film succeeds in painting a dreary picture of a society that has allowed unchecked government police power to combine with technology. Max’s entire criminal history along with data gleaned from ubiquitous surveillance is instantly available to robot cops and parole officers, who use that data against him despite his being innocent of the current charge. The film also succeeds in conveying the hopelessness that accompanies a society where upward mobility is actively suppressed by an entrenched elite.

The film fails from both an artistic and freedom perspective for several reasons. First, it leaves too many questions unanswered. How did those who build Elysium acquire their wealth? Was it through production and trade or some form of plunder? How do they maintain it? If the earth dwellers are uniformly poor, who does Elysium trade with? Why are the earth dwellers unable to build their own wealth? Why are they unable to develop the same miraculous healthcare technology? The viewer is left to speculate.

Based on the film’s conclusion, one can interpret the film as an indictment of private property itself. The earth dwellers cannot improve their condition because the elite own all of the natural resources and means of production. Their property rights are enforced by the brutal police state, which also suppresses any attempt by “undocumented” earth dwellers to enter Elysium. This leaves them no alternative but to toil away as “wage slaves” for the corporations.

Typical of Hollywood, the film makes no distinction between those who have acquired their wealth in exchange for enormous benefits bestowed on others and those who have acquired it through tax-funded government contracts or privileges. The only private company we are told anything about is Max’s employer, which ironically manufactures the robot policeman who assault Max at the beginning of the film.

That’s a government contract, funded by taxes, which are collected by force. But all government contracts ultimately rely on someone, somewhere creating real wealth, i.e. goods and services that actually improve the lives of consumers enough that they will voluntarily exchange their money for them. Where are these private companies? Where is the justice for them at the conclusion? The film is silent on these questions.

The healthcare issue is treated in an overly simplistic manner that even critics of private, for-profit medicine would be disappointed in. In short, the film removes all economics whatsoever from healthcare. The treatment machines used in Elysium are so miraculous that there is no discernible cost to curing people, outside of manufacturing the machines themselves. It cheapens the healthcare question by characterizing it as cartoonish elitists who simply refuse to allow the rest of society to access care out of contempt for their inferiority.

This allows the film to avoid confronting the real barriers to healthcare access. It doesn’t ask why the price of healthcare constantly rises while the prices of computers and cell phones fall. Perhaps the answers wouldn’t conform with the film’s narrative.

The idea of scarcity in general seems to be lost on the producers. They do not acknowledge that either healthcare or the other riches of Elysium are scarce or confront the way in which wealth is created and exchanged. The conclusion of the film suggests that if all of humanity were simply allowed to divide up society’s products equally among themselves, everyone would live happily ever after.

The immigration motif is equally unrealistic. Depicting Elysium as the United States and the earth as Mexico doesn’t work, because the Elysium and earth of the film together represent the real United States. That seems to be the whole point of the rest of the film. Simply opening the borders wouldn’t change anything. The immigrants would simply find themselves joining the lower class or forming a new, even lower one.

Ultimately, the film fails to face several realities. One is that all property is eventually private property. An apple cannot be owned “collectively” unless no one ever eats it. Once someone does, he has excluded every other human being from eating it. This is true of all goods and services. Even in Soviet Russia property was privately owned. What was different was how it was acquired. How would property be acquired more justly in Elysium? The film is again silent.

The film assumes that private property ownership is a purely artificial concept invented by “exploiters,” which persists only through violent oppression of the exploited. The police state is mischaracterized as an enforcer of property rights instead of a violator of them.

No consideration is given to whether producers have any right to keep the wealth they have produced or whether those who wish to acquire it from them have any obligation to obtain their consent. There is no explanation of why the “have nots” have any more legitimate claim to Elysium’s wealth than the “haves.”

On a more practical level, the film also ignores the question begged by resolution. After the wealth of society is divided up equally among everyone, who will produce what is needed tomorrow to sustain even bare subsistence? What will motivate them to produce it?

The Soviet Union and 20th century China couldn’t answer those questions. Elysium doesn’t even try.

Elysium gets one freedom thumbs up for its ominous depiction of the police state. It gets one freedom thumbs down for its attack on private property and an additional freedom thumbs down for its oversimplification of complex economic problems, even by leftist standards.

Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.

Why Progressives Will Enjoy Atlas Shrugged, Part I

I had the opportunity to see Atlas Shrugged, Part I on Saturday in the only theater in which it is being shown in Tampa, FL. It is running at Cinebistro, a specialty theater where you can enjoy a high-end meal and fine wine served at your seat, which is very similar to a first class airline seat. Admittedly, it is just the kind of venue that progressives might associate with an elitist gathering of selfish capitalists. However, the movie itself tells quite a different story than they might expect if their understanding of Rand is limited to her interviews with Phil Donahue or Mike Wallace.

Like libertarians, Rand’s Objectivist economic theory was rooted in what we today call “the non-aggression axiom,” which Thomas Jefferson and the liberal faction of America’s founders called “the law of nature.” According to this philosophy, each individual has an inalienable right to keep the product of his labor and to dispose of it as he sees fit. The non-aggression axiom forbids any individual or group from using force to take away the justly acquired property of another. Neither does it allow for anyone to interfere with voluntary contracts, as long as those contracts do not involve the initiation of force against anyone else.

This prohibits the government, which is by definition the societal use of force, from redistributing wealth or enacting laws which go beyond prohibiting aggression. Establishment media figures who interviewed Rand immediately focused on the implications of her philosophy for social safety net programs, charging that Rand’s philosophy would not allow for programs for the poor or handicapped. While this is true, it obscures the most important implications of Rand’s philosophy for economic policy in the United States.

What would likely startle progressives watching the film is its emphasis on the evils of what free market proponents would call “crony capitalism.” This is completely consistent with the novel, which demonstrates that the beneficiaries of government regulation supposedly enacted for “the common good” or “the benefit of society” are really the super-rich. Indeed, the film never criticizes the beneficiaries of social programs. Instead, it spends all of its time demonstrating the difference between those “capitalists” who acquire their wealth through government privileges and those true capitalists who acquire their wealth by producing products that consumers voluntarily buy.

This is a crucial distinction that has eluded progressives from Woodrow Wilson to Michael Moore. After seeing Moore’s film, Capitalism: A Love Story, I pointed out in my review of that film that there was very little that libertarians would disagree with. All of Moore’s criticisms of what he calls capitalism are really the result of crony capitalism. The biggest culprit in the economic collapse of the last decade was the Federal Reserve, a central planning/wealth redistribution institution that Rand explicitly condemns in her novel. Unfortunately, Moore incorrectly concludes that the economic distortions, inequitable distribution of wealth, and widespread harm to middle and lower income Americans were the result of a free market.

Rand would agree completely with progressives on the injustice of today’s American corporate state. That might also surprise progressives who probably assume that Rand would have supported the mainstream Republican policies of George W. Bush. Not only would Rand have condemned Bush’s version of state capitalism, but she was openly critical of Republican hero Ronald Reagan. When asked by Phil Donahue about Reagan during his administration, Rand said in so many words that he should have stuck to acting.

The only opportunity that progressives might have to disagree with anything in the film is the portrayal of the labor union official who tries to sabotage Dagny Taggarts launch of a new railroad line. This encounter takes all of about 3 minutes of the 113 minute film and is not a condemnation of labor unions in principle, but rather the illegitimate power that corrupt union officials can wield because of government privileges. 

However, the true villains in the film are not union officials, beneficiaries of entitlement programs, or any other group associated with progressive philosophy. The villains are exclusively corporate executives and the government officials they get in bed with to illegitimately acquire wealth. The heroes are those who acquire their wealth by productive achievement and voluntary exchange. If one had to sum the film up in one sentence, it is an effective demonstration of the evils of crony capitalism and its difference from a truly free market.

I encourage progressives to see this film and to read Rand’s novel. If there is one thing that I hope they take away, it is that even great wealth can be acquired legitimately, when it is the result of human beings trading the products of their labor with the mutual, voluntary consent of all parties. Once progressives begin making the distinction between legitimately acquired wealth and wealth acquired because of government privilege, they will find libertarians and all other proponents of truly free markets standing by their side, fighting the evil corporate state.