Misdeeds in The Revenant spurred by absence of property rights, not capitalism gone wild
It is the season for American film awards, and the glitterati are all abuzz with adoration for The Revenant, which won a Golden Globe for best picture and is nominated for 12 Oscars. As usual, Hollywood’s stars are using their work as a platform to bash capitalism. The Revenant director Alejandro Iñárritu stated in a Guardian interview that his film attempts to portray the roots of capitalism, about the single-minded attempt to profit from the cutting of trees and the killing of animals and exploitation of the natives. Still further, according to Iñárritu, the early 19th century frontier life is the foundation for many of the ills of contemporary capitalism: “This is the seed, for me, of the capitalism that we live in now: completely inconsiderate of any consequences for nature.”
Leonardo DiCaprio (who stars as the film’s protagonist) “shared” his Golden Globe with indigenous people around the world, and used the stage to decry corporate exploitation of native people. Ravina Bains, associate director of aboriginal policy at the Fraser Institute, has written elsewhere on this site about DiCaprio’s comments, and suggests that we might more profitably begin by considering the troubled problem of private property rights amongst native populations, rather than corporate exploitation.
Capitalism is an economic system that depends on institutional arrangements, namely the rule of law and private property rights (there are others, but those two are foundational). Early 19th century America had neither of these things in the way we think of them now. The frontiersmen preceded the rule of law (or its enforcement), and it was unclear precisely how to think of Native American property rights. The vast tracts of land were thought of as limitless resources owned by no one. As we have learned from the former Soviet Union, China and other communist countries, it’s not capitalism that most devastates the environment, but socialism.
Indeed, the absence of private property rights in socialist and communist societies creates a “tragedy of the commons” scenario where no one is motivated to protect resources and everyone is motivated to get as much as they can before others. This is quite graphically portrayed in The Revenant, with groups of trappers sitting amongst piles and piles of bloody beaver hides preparing them for transport and sale. The appropriation of animals may have been motivated by greed, but it was the absence of property rights and a lack of respect for the native’s property rights (not “capitalism”) that resulted in the massive overkilling. (Similarly, the burning of the Amazon rainforest for cattle ranching and farming can be better explained by the absence of private property rights than a sort of “capitalism gone wild.”)
One of the fictions about Native American Indians is that they lived peaceful lives with no notion of private property before the arrival of western Europeans. But war amongst native tribes was common, and we know that the supposed collectivism was a myth. Native Americans had personal property rights (in artifacts such as weapons and clothing) and land-use rights (for farming, hunting and fishing) even if those rights were sometimes seasonal and based on a nomadic lifestyle.
Native people and those struggling in poverty in the developing world are done a great disservice by DiCaprio, Ińárritu and others who trot out the tired (and wrong) clichés about capitalism. For, as Richard Pipes, Thomas Bethell and Hernando de Soto (amongst many others) have argued, it is capitalism (and its attendant institutions of private property and the rule of law) that can best improve their lives.