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Cars and Its Attack on Progress

July 4, 2006

As avid and loyal Pixar fans, we have seen such great animated movies as: Monsters, Inc., A Bug's Life, Toy Story, and The Incredibles. The beauty of these films lies is the fact that they are geared toward children but usually have an economic or moral lesson that adults (particularly libertarians) can appreciate.

For example, in Monsters, Inc., the monsters live in a world powered by children's screams, a very scarce good. Through ingenuity the monsters discover they can power their world with a more abundant supply of children's laughter.

Pixar's latest flick, Cars, is kid-friendly, but it has fails to carry over to adults the capitalist themes exposed in previous productions. There are good economic lessons to be learned from the film, but the primary message is little more than a restatement of a conventional theme in politics today: the tendency to bemoan the supposed hidden costs of progress and to romanticize a past that resists innovation and change.

Cars tells the story of a egocentric racecar, Lightning McQueen, whose goal in life is to win the Piston Cup. McQueen finishes in a three-way tie with the equally self-centered, but morally objectionable Chick Hicks and the legendary, more team-oriented racecar — the King. A tiebreaker is scheduled to take place in one week at a racetrack across the country in California. The King is in his last season and plans on retiring after the race. This leaves his Dinoco sponsorship — the most desirable sponsorship in the circuit — up for grabs.

McQueen and Hicks must race across the country in an attempt to get to California first in order to rub elbows with The King's sponsor and schmooze their way into being Dinoco's new spokescar. The self-centered McQueen would drop his loyal but not-so-lucrative sponsor in a instant if he could get Dinoco as his sponsor.

A self-proclaimed "one-man show," McQueen has no sense of loyalty, and a single-minded quest for fame. This overriding obsession with winning and always putting himself first leaves the rookie racecar friendless. He fires his crew and feels no sense of loss. His only friend is his agent, whom he knows only through electronic communiction. "I work alone," he says several times, perpetuating the fallacy that to believe in individualism is to be isolated.

His isolation is brought home to McQueen when he suffers a mishap and finds himself stranded in Radiator Springs, a small town off the old Route 66.

Just like the famed road, the town Radiator Springs is nearly abandoned and almost completely forgotten by the outside world. This creeping obsolescence of the town was caused by the construction of Interstate 40. The citizens of Radiator Springs lament that they've been abandoned by a society that prides anything that is fast, new, or more efficient. Drivers clearly favor the new roadway over the more scenic, circuitous Route 66 that leads directly through town. "Just to save 10 minutes!" bemoans one of the cars when explaining Radiator Spring's plight. A ballad to the glories of rooted and changless communities follows.

(Incidentally, the movie can't be construed as a praiseworthy attack on a government road project since the road to which the town owed its previous prosperity was similarly government built.)

It would appear that  Cars is meant to remind us of our own supposedly failing society: like the car populace, in our world it is those who are obsessed with efficiency that cause the destruction of our towns. Under their influence we lose the local flavor and charm for the sake of something cheaper and faster, but certainly not friendlier and not more humane. Later in the film, competitive ideals are displaced by altruism: the would-be winner of the California race stops short of the finish line and wins the crowd in any case by turning around to help a wrecked car.

Does Pixar intend the viewer to draw the parallel that the Wal-Marts of our world are the interstates of Cars? The new interstate supposedly robbed the town of its former aesthetic value and its livelihood, but what is really targeted here are the values commonly associated with market economics: individualism, self-interest, competition, and striving for achievement. In this way one is led to the conclusion that the new businesses and economic progress in general cost is wrecking our communities, culture, and distorting our values.

The move taps into the common assumption that true happiness can only be found in preserving or recapturing the idealized past. Feelings that the world continues to spiral more and more out of control lead many to conclude that the only safe future lies in reliving — and if possible — reviving the "good ol' days." The viewer is inundated with the pop philosophy that progress is evil and that consumer demands are best left at a standstill.

In truth, progress is much more than just a progression of new gadgets, whistles, and lights. Every innovation becomes part of our lives is a result of human choice. For this reason, new technology and innovations, far from being a destructive force, have significantly improved and made modern life more enjoyable. More importantly, they reflect the choices that people have actually made. No economic change can occur in a market economy that is not approved by consumers.

We need not fault the residents of Radiator Springs for feeling a sense of attachment to their town regardless of how decrepit or antiquated it may have become. There is nothing wrong with holding sentimental values for something; however, it is wrong to claim the existence of injustice solely because others fail to mirror those beliefs. Instead of realizing that they needed to change in order to keep up with cars' ever changing value, Radiator Springsians refused to change with the times, and their town was literally and figuratively left behind. No amount of friendliness and accommodation could compensate for the fact that they were unable to provide passers-by with anything that people valued and desired.

If we look more closely at the ending of the film, however, we can actually learn some economics. What actually put Radiator Springs back on the map? Lightning McQueen essentially forces the town to realize that they must change in order to survive. The "towncars" clean up their act and improve their town.

One for the road: $18

After the final tie-breaking race, McQueen may not have won the Piston Cup, but he gained the adoration of all racecar fans. Through his fame, his endorsement of Radiator Springs as a great place to get tires and service created an international demand for the services offered by the community. This was effected despite being on a less useful and less efficient road.

Pixar has enjoyed a solid reputation for producing excellent films. The key reason behind their immense success lies in their intimate knowledge of their target audience: little children and the adults who have the final say in what children watch. The films are entertaining for kids, but also provide adult-humor and social mores for all members of the audience. Most parents want to guide their children to value their communities and friendships over an empty quest for fame. Thus, Cars shows them the ideal societal and personal value preferences.

For adults, we suggest that Cars presents a cogent lesson in demand and the fluidity of personal value scales. Unfortunately, these lessons remain hidden for most adults, since Pixar overemphasizes their characters' nostalgia for the past over the benefits to be gained from adjusting to new realities. In this way a disproportionate degree of attention is given to these superficial emotions, effectively obscuring for most the economic laws that are displayed by the movie.

For this reason, it is only the astute student of economics who can identify these facets of a market economy and enjoy the workings of laws that are integral to our world and to Cars.


Nicholas Snow is grad student at San Jose State University and a 2006 Summer Fellow at the Mises Institute. Mila Cobanov is a student at Wayne State Law School (Detroit, MI), and a 2006 Summer Fellow at the Mises Institute. Claire Popovich is going to study history at University College London, and a 2006 Summer Fellow at the Mises Institute. Send N. Snow mail. Comment on the blog.


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