Saturday, January 02, 2010

Avatar, Property Rights, and the Environment

Some may claim that Avatar could not have had a libertarian or pro-market theme, because the Na'vi people in the movie didn't have a strong notion of property rights. Never was there mention of deeds, titles, or stock exchanges among the Na'vi. One might even go so far as to say that these people lived in harmony with their environment, and really had no conception property.

First, the movie was full of clues that the Na'vi people embraced property. First of all, what is property, other than a formal relationship between oneself, others, and resources. The Na'vi appeared to live in a society that embraced monogomous marriage, where two individuals take exclusive ownership in one another. They also appeared to take exclusive ownership in some of the animal life, and if they had no sense of ownership, why would they care to fight for their land and homes?

Now it certainly did appear that they lived in harmony with their environment, and there was little mention of extensive institutions of property like deeds and titles. If you review the literature on property and the environment (Coase, Demsetz, Hardin) you will find a common theme illustrating the role of property rights in internalizing negative externalities- in other words, mitigating conflicts of interests and leading to choices that put individuals in harmony with one another and their environment. Demsetz looks specifically at various groups of Native Americans and the relationship between resources, scarcity, enforcement costs, technology, and property. In cases where technology is insufficient or enforcement costs are too great, property rights may not evolve. In other cases, when resources become scarce, there are not technological barriers, ( or there are technological breakthroughs) and enforcement costs are low, more extensive systems of property rights may develop.

It appeared from the movie, that on Pandora, resources were relatively abundant. There appeared to be no need to develop intricate forms of property to internalize any negative externalities resulting from common ownership of some scarce resources. However, that does not imply that they were alien to the notion of property.

"Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place." — Frederic Bastiat

"The system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not." -Hayek.

"[A] private property regime makes people responsible for their own actions in the realm of material goods. Such a system therefore ensures that people experience the consequences of their own acts. Property sets up fences, but it also surrounds us with mirrors, reflecting back upon us the consequences of our own behavior." –Tom Bethell


'Tragedy of the Commons.' Science, Vol 162 no 3859 Dec 13, 1968 p. 1243-1248 Garret Hardin

Towards a Theory of Property Rights.
Harold Demsetz
The American Economic Review. Volume 57, Issue 2. May, 1967

The Problem of Social Cost
R. H. Coase
Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 3, Oct., 1960 (Oct., 1960), pp. 1-44

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