Avatar, Property Rights, and the Environment

Published on: 10:42AM Jan 09, 2010
By Matt Bogard

Some may claim that Avatar could not have had a libertarian or pro-market theme, because the Na'vi people ( the natives in the movie Avatar) 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 indifviduals and resources. They  appeared to take exclusive ownership in some of the animal life. If  they had no sense of property, why would they care to fight for their land and homes?

Now it certainly did appear that they lived in harmony with their environment, but there was little mention of extensive institutions of property like deeds and titles. However,  the fact that they appeared to live in harmony with themselves and their environment indicates to me that they had some formal system of property rights vs. living in a commons.   If you review the literature on property and the environment (Coase, Demsetz, Hardin particularly) you will find a common theme illustrating the role of property rights in dealing with conflicts of interest, and providing the incentives for individuals to live in harmony with one another and their environment. In fact,  contrary to what some environmental activists may preach about property rights and environmental exploitation, property rights often evolve as a mechanism to specifically ensure that we are living in harmony with others and the environment. If this gets out of balance, new forms of property develop to deal with the problem. Of course this only works if property rights are enforced! As seen in the movie, the peace and harmony ended and environmental destruction began as soon as the 'Sky People' started disregarding the property rights of the Na'Vi.   

Property rights were not just an invention of western culture. 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 more complex and intricate forms of property than what they had. As I mentioned above, property rights often evolve to make sure that we are living in harmony with others and the environment. It appears in the movie, that the limited forms of property that the Na'vi had adopted were sufficient to keep the balance.  It doesn't mean that they rejected the idea of property, or that they wouldn't develop more complex systems in the future if necessary. 

"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