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WALL-E: Economic Ignorance and the War on Modernity

Mises Daily: Friday, July 04, 2008 by

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The Disney-Pixar film WALL-E has been adoringly received by the majority of the theatergoing public. This adoration is unjustified. The film blatantly conveys environmentalist, anticapitalist, and antitechnological propaganda — and aims it at an audience of children, who still lack the critical faculties and intellectual sophistication to evaluate all relevant aspects of the issues presented.

But I will not focus here on how egregiously unrealistic the film's scenario of humans completely trashing Earth is. A simple look around you will suffice to refute this possibility. Garbage is not piling up around us, and landfills are in fact remarkably effective at storing it safely and even using it to generate useful natural gases.

I will, rather, concentrate on a much more egregious error made by the creators of WALL-E — an error made in ignorance of basic economics and of commonsense insights regarding the nature of human behaviors and the incentives facing individual economic actors.

This error pervades the film's depiction of life aboard the Axiom, a starship made by Buy'n Large (BNL) corporation — a cross between Wal-Mart and the George W. Bush administration — to house the human refugees from Earth for 700 years after the Earth becomes too littered to remain habitable. First, the film makes the Marxian assumption that it would be possible for a single corporation to take advantage of ever-increasing returns to scale and thereby subsume the entire world — and still remain profitable and continually patronized by everyone. But as Ludwig von Mises showed as far back as 1920 in Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, without the presence of multiple providers of goods in the economy, the single dominant firm is in the same position as a socialist central planner. In the real world, BNL would have no market price signals to help it discern consumer demand for and the relative scarcity of resources. It would not be able to engage in rational economic calculation and would make decisions arbitrarily. Surely, this state would not please many consumers, and the BNL monopoly would be short lived at most.

The startling aspect of life aboard the Axiom is its total homogeneity. Everyone is morbidly obese; everyone drinks fatty meal-replacement shakes; everyone rides around in automated carts instead of walking; no one engages in direct personal communication; no one exercises; everyone follows the BNL corporation's fashion advice (when the announcements tell the people that "blue is the new red," all Axiom inhabitants switch their suit color from red to blue at the press of a button). Not only does this homogeneity mark one instant in time; it has been present all throughout the Axiom's seven centuries of travel through space. During that time, there has been no technological progress, no cultural innovation, and no noncosmetic changes in the aesthetic, philosophical, and political arrangements aboard the ship. Imagine in 2008 if nothing had changed in human affairs since the year 1308.

The humans in WALL-E are not portrayed as evil; they are polite and well intentioned, but ignorant and torpid. Strangely enough, the ship has an extensive information database about life and conditions on Earth, and nobody bothered to examine this easily accessible information for seven centuries, until the Captain suddenly has a burst of interest. Are we to assume that curiosity and elementary initiative are such rarities that they are exercised only once in 700 years?

WALL-E is egregiously wrong in assuming that technological conveniences such as easily accessible food, transportation, entertainment, and communication render all people lazy, indulgent, and devoid of initiative. Some people, to be sure, respond in this way. In the real world, however, this response tends to be temporary. In the more economically advanced countries, it tends to affect lower-income individuals who have just begun accessing historically luxurious standards of living and have not yet developed cultural habits for managing their newfound wealth and opportunities responsibly. These habits will come with time — as they always have among groups of people that have lived prosperously for generations.

Already in the United States, the big fast-food chains are racing to offer health foods — salads, fruit, and other low-calorie snacks — to keep the patronage of those who would have been satisfied with Big Macs and Whoppers in the past. Meanwhile, a wide variety of health foods and diet foods — some genuinely effective and others of dubious merit — are being consumed more broadly than ever before.

In the meantime, of course, millions of people have never neglected healthful habits, even though they have for decades been surrounded by consumer goods that — in the anticapitalists' eyes — would lead them to ruin. Just as the ready availability of guns does not automatically turn peaceful people into rampaging maniacs, neither does the ready availability of all sorts of foods turn responsible, educated, self-respecting individuals into rage-of-the-moment hedonists.

With some kinds of wants met — such as food, shelter, and transportation — people virtually always tend to develop new wants or to focus on existing lower-priority wants not yet addressed. As Ludwig von Mises showed, people will act so long as they are faced with uncertainty and believe themselves capable of somehow affecting the uncertain future. These conditions will never stop existing — no matter how comfortable and prosperous people become. Thus, humans will always act and will always strive to improve their lives. A wholly static, apathetic, sated, and torpid society is inconceivable in reality.

The economy aboard the Axiom does however seem to be the dream economy of popular "static equilibrium" models, where nothing ever changes — not production, consumption, preferences, or expectations of the future. Yet, as Austrian economics informs us, such conditions have never existed nor can they exist. At best, they are merely useful theoretical constructs — certainly not accurate depictions of any realistic economy.

In the real world, there exist immense changes of preferences, widely dispersed information, tremendous uncertainty about the future, and numerous entrepreneurs who alert themselves to possible opportunities for satisfying people's wants in a better way than they are currently being satisfied. That there is not one entrepreneur aboard the Axiom prior to the Captain's paradigm-shifting discovery of information that was easily accessible to everybody for the last seven centuries is testimony to the filmmakers' ignorance of what makes economic change possible and ubiquitous.

The humans' return to Earth and attempt to "rebuild" their lives is ludicrous from any sound economic perspective. After having had a sustainable automatic food production system aboard the Axiom — which had apparently worked without fail for seven centuries — humans all of a sudden decide to resort to traditional agriculture. The one thing they have machine capital to do for them, they decide to do manually instead. Rather than devoting the precious time bought by the ready availability of food to, say, create art, repair all those broken skyscrapers, or design even better robots, the humans decide to manually dig holes in the ground and grow their food through backbreaking toil that led millions throughout history to die premature deaths. Oh, by the way, the film left that part out. Virtually no one today who romanticizes the "good old days" of traditional agriculture recognizes how nasty, brutish, and short life under such conditions had been for millennia. Once the first industrial factories opened — with their long hours, dangerous equipment, and meager pay — people flocked to them in droves, because the factory conditions (including the sanitation provided and wages paid) were greatly preferable to those of toiling virtually all day on the traditional farm.

The creators of WALL-E, sitting in their comfortable Hollywood studios, did a tremendous disservice to the civilization that made their work and high standards of living possible. They glorified a lifestyle that would likely have killed them — and countless others — had it actually been revived. I for one have seen a semblance of these "good old days," having spent summers as a child with my maternal grandparents in a remote Belarusian village — where little had changed since the 1917 socialist revolution. Those extolling the virtues of traditional farm life never mention the perpetual manual labor, lack of sanitation, lack of health care, and widespread inclinations toward alcoholism. I have spent my life to date moving increasingly further away from that, and I will resist vigorously the efforts of those who seek to drag our entire civilization back into miserable, decrepit premodernity.

WALL-E is an assault on modern civilization, borne of deep economic and historical ignorance. The film shamefully betrays the efforts of countless heroic individuals who have raised humanity out of the muck of barbarism. Its antitechnological, anticapitalist message needs to be exposed and countered by all thinking individuals.