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The Dinosaur Collective

June 12, 2000

As the father of a three-year-old boy, I've had the privilege to watch quite a few dinosaur movies lately.

My total viewings of Land Before Time I, II, III, IV, V and VI has to be nearing triple figures.

I also recently took my son to see the new Disney feature, Dinosaur, out at a theater.
The special effects are truly spectacular, but besides sharing with
John Derbyshire the feeling that the writing was sub-par, I also began to contemplate a strange similarity in the plots of these films.

In every one of these pictures, the dinosaur society confronts some crisis.
The dinosaurs are faced with the choice of either getting through the difficulty by cooperating and sharing, or by adopting an "every dino for himself" strategy.

Of course, those who choose the first course triumph in the end.
In Dinosaur, for instance, the male leader of the dinosaurs is portrayed as a Social Darwinist who is happy
to see the weak collapse, so that they will slow down the predators following the herd. The hero is a sensitive,
new-age kind of guy who allies himself with the elderly and infirm. Not surprisingly, the infirm prove to be stronger than
the hale, and the power of collective action greater than that of individual action.

The dinosaurs and other animals depicted in this genre of movie are blessed (cursed?) with many human capabilities.
They can talk, they can reason, they can make plans and ethical decisions.
However, oddly enough, they have no money, no exchange, no division of labor, and no market.

Why this conspicuous absence?

Perhaps it's because the animals have no thumbs to retrieve bills from their wallets.
Of course, they also lack the physiological equipment necessary to speak a complex language, and have brain's even smaller than James Carville's. So why should thumbs stop them?

Moreover, as the philosopher Ernst Cassirer demonstrates, humans would not have developed language to its current level of elaboration without having adopted a division of labor and complex, multi-staged methods of production.

No, this absence is essential to the moral of these movies.
It allows the filmmakers to depict brutal domination of the weak by the strong and cooperative, compassionate socialism as the only two possible ways of organizing society.
By implication, a market economy is among the first class of systems, since it is clearly not of the second.

However, the market is a profound form of human cooperation.
Because weaker members of society are able to provide services under the division of labor, they are not a "burden on the herd," as they would be without such a system.
In fact, Mises proved that the market is the only such system possible for beings with human rationality.

All attempts to construct a system of cooperation under socialism founder on the complete inability to plan and calculate in a system lacking market prices, ultimately leading to a collapse of social organization.
It is socialism, not the free market, which will return us to the war of all against all.

Some might argue that I'm making too much of this—these are just kids' movies, after all, just for fun.
Why should they be consistent?

But this argument is either naïve or disingenuous.
These movies are clearly not "just for fun"-—they are intended to convey a moral and are suffused with an ethical Weltenschauung.
Nor are they inconsistent in the sense that this view varies—for instance, we never see a movie of this genre where the "rugged individualist" animals turn out to have been right, and the plans of the "communitarian" beasts end in predictable disaster.

They are especially consistent in this glaring inconsistency—-of all the advanced human capabilities and institutions that these animals have acquired, it is always the system of voluntary exchange that is left out.

So what’s a parent to do?
Attempting to isolate your children from the cultural milieu only makes these messages seem more appealing, a fact that can be testified to by anyone who can remember their teenage years.
For those with large ambition, making your own movie is one answer.

But with far less investment, you can raise your awareness of the textual strategies employed in the production of media, and the ideological bias behind those strategies.

Then, it is possible to share this awareness with your children, so that they realize they are receiving other messages along with the plot, and can shift from being passive recipients of media to active interpreters.

As Umberto Eco said, the most important seat at the revolution is the one in front of the screen.


Gene Callahan is a programmer and writer, and a member of the board of directors of the
Suharto Financial Institute.

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