Capitalism, socialism and fan complaints about the role of giant eagles in “The Lord of the Rings”

NOTE: This post contains some plot spoilers Lord of the Rings and other Tolkien books.

In a fascinating recent blog post, economist Bryan Caplan points out some similarities between standard socialist complaints about capitalism and longtime fan claims that the Giant Eagles didn’t do enough to fight Sauron in JRR Tolkien Lord of the Rings. Most obviously, fans have long argued that the Eagles should have just flown the Ring of Power to Mount Doom and dumped it there, sparing the Fellowship of the Ring great suffering and saving the lives lost in the War of the Ring. The so-called “eagle conspiracy” has long been at the center of debate.

Caplan lists some other things fans believe the Eagles should have done:

“Why didn’t the eagles transport Gandalf everywhere instead of making him ride a horse?”

“Why didn’t the eagles fight at Minas Tirith?”

“Why didn’t the eagles fly Bilbo and the dwarves straight to the Lonely Mountain?”

“Why didn’t the eagles grab Azog from his command post in the Battle of the Five Armies and throw him to his death?”

Caplan suggests less criticism of the Eagles for what they do could did, but did not, and more gratitude for all the good that they are did does:

Leave the eagles alone! The Eagles are already doing a ton of great things for Middle Earth! They are giant eagles. Top of the food chain. They could easily just hide in the safety of their own eyes and live their lives in peace. Yet, without seeking even the slightest reward, these heroic birds…

…saved Gandalf at Isengard,

…fought the Nazgul at the Black Gate,

…saved the Dwarves from the trees when they were surrounded by Goblins and Wargs,

…and struck a blow in the Battle of the Five Armies.

Eagles aren’t perfect, but they are are super. Instead of asking the Eagles to do even more, how about some freakin’ gratitude?

It is worth adding that the Eagles were never rewarded for all the good they did. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, King Elessar (as Aragorn is now called) makes sure to recognize and reward all the different humanoid peoples and races that fought against Sauron. But the Eagles get nothing.

Caplan applies similar reasoning to standard socialist attacks on markets:

I argue that this is a convenient allegory for popular complaints about markets. They offer greatly greater benefits than Tolkien’s eagles. For starters, these magnificent markets…

…to fill our stores with wealth from the cornucopia,

…create endless new products,

…to endlessly improve the products we already have,

…offer great convenience,

… build huge amounts of spacious, comfortable living space,

…giving salaries ten, twenty, a hundred times more than our physical needs,

…offer a wide range of jobs: the entire continuum from low commitment to high commitment, low risk to high risk, low social interaction to high social interaction, low comfort to high comfort,

…will pay you something make practical anything,

…to encourage the most creative and hardworking people in the world to share their gifts with the world,

…while respecting the principle of voluntary consent. Really, no one is forcing you to shop at WalMart.

Yet in politics and popular culture, markets get even less love than eagles. Instead, we get childish complaints:

“Incomes are not equal.”

“Wealth is not equal.”

“This product could be better.”

“Why can’t these things be free?”

“My salary sucks.”

“My co-workers are bad.”

“My boss sucks.”

“We are such materialists.”

What makes such complaints about markets so childish?

First, most of them apply at least as well to any other economic system. Real-existing socialism is anything but equal. His products are notoriously clunky. The salary stinks. Many co-workers and bosses are still bad. Victims of socialist poverty are known as “materialists” because they spend most of their time struggling to meet their basic material needs.

Second, the market itself offers practical solutions to many grievances. Free immigration and free construction are powerful battering rams against inequality. Don’t like your salary, colleagues or boss? Find a better match using the first law of wing walking. With time and persistence, this Law fully works. Hate materialism? It’s easier to focus on the finer things in life if the coarser things in life are very cheap.

Like Tolkien’s eagles, markets aren’t perfect, but they are are super.

Just as the peoples of Middle Earth are much better off with the Eagles than without them, so the people of the real world are much better off with markets than they probably would be with any other economic system. Indeed, socialism in the real world looks a lot like Mordor under the rule of Sauron. The same is true of fascism and statist nationalism in the real world.

Caplan’s line of argument doesn’t work well against people who agree that free markets have great value, but argue that we need marginal tweaks and restrictions to make them better or eliminate negative side effects. For example, perhaps governments should do more to limit externalities, help the poor, or provide public goods. But it is a compelling point against the blanket rejection of free markets in favor of socialism and other such alternatives.

I’ll also take this opportunity to point out that the Eagles are even better than Caplan suggests. The main complaint against them – that they could easily destroy the Ring of Power by bringing it to Mount Doom – is completely unwarranted. The following is an adaptation of a 2017 Facebook post I wrote on the subject:

There is no “Eagle plot hole” because Eagle’s plan was a terrible idea all along! The Giant Eagles are very striking. The Eye of Sauron would literally see the Eagle coming from a thousand miles away. He would surely send his Nazgul to investigate; he will sense the presence of the Ring and capture him.

If the Eagle somehow managed to evade the Nazgul and reach Mordor, Sauron (by then already aware of the presence of the Ring) would order all the thousands of orcs in Mordor to fire on him. If even one of them manages to slip a lucky arrow or ballista through the Eagle’s Eye, it’s game over. Sending an entire squadron of Eagles (as suggested in some variants of the plan) only equalizes them more conspicuous, meaning that Sauron would have discovered them sooner.

And, by the way, the Eagles could not defeat the Nazgul, even with a numerical advantage, because the latter are immune to non-magical weapons (and, presumably, to non-magical claws and claws as well).

Besides, as Gandalf explains, the Ring is a great temptation to “those who already have great power of their own.” The Giant Eagles are very powerful, and would be tempted to take the ring for themselves, just as Boromir was (only more so, because they are more powerful than him). The eagle could easily overpower the ring bearer, then take the ring and try to use it, making himself visible to Sauron. This scenario also ends with Sauron retaking the Ring (or at best with a corrupt giant eagle becoming the new Dark Lord).

In short, the supposedly brilliant Eagle’s plan would end up handing the Ring to Sauron on a silver platter. The reason Gandalf didn’t bring it up to the Council of Elrond was because he would be embarrassed to present such a stupid idea to the Elves and Rangers. He would surely be laughed out of Rivendell! And the same fate should befall the fans who keep mentioning it.

Some might argue that this is still a plot hole because Tolkien didn’t explain in the book why this plan would fail. But he also didn’t have the characters analyze every other possible stupid scheme to destroy the Ring, such as leading dwarven sappers into a tunnel into Mount Doom. No one is arguing that Tolkien’s failure to address these theories is a plot hole. The same applies to the Eagle plan.

And, just as the Eagle plan proved a mirage dangerous to follow, the same is true of visions of a utopian socialist future. Unfortunately, unlike Eagle’s plan, few such visions have actually been tried in practice, with dire results.

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