Today on Out of Frame, we're gonna talk about Black Panther: What I loved about it as a movie, but also why Wakanda is a perfect example of what I call an "inconceivably advanced society".
As hard as this is to even comprehend, Black Panther is the 18th hit film in a row from the apparently unstoppable Marvel Studios. So far, it's made over $1.3 billion dollars worldwide, second only to The Avengers, so I guess it's fair to say that people really, really loved this movie.
And there is so much that's great about it.
Unlike a lot of Marvel's other films, it stands on its own without relying on cameos from other more established characters. Nor does it devote a ton of screentime to establishing the ground work for future movies so it really feels like it's own thing. It had tons of awesome supporting characters and also features one of Marvel's best villains in Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger.
There's a lot to say about the incoherence of Killmonger's overall philosophy, I mean... He is a bad guy with a skewed worldview, but his motivations were clear and mostly believable... And let's be honest, that's a big deal for Marvel.
But... Here's the thing... Wakanda?
I really hate being a buzz-kill on stuff like this, but this is a recurring problem in movies and we really do need to talk about it.
First, let me explain what Wakanda is for the three of you who haven't seen the movie or read any of the comics.
Aside from being the name of my home Wi-Fi netork, Wakanda is a fictional East African country that has managed to remain completely isolated and kept itself secret from the rest of the world. It was able to do this because it has the world's only deposit of the powerful (and also fictional) metal known as Vibranium.
The movie does a great job of establishing the country's history, but the gist of it is that a long time ago, a Vibranium meteor fell from space and imbued Wakanda's land and plant life with all kinds of fabulous properties. Plus, when mined and used effectively, Vibranium itself can be used to make all kinds of amazing futuristic technologies.
Never mind how any of that works, it's really not important. Just suspend your disbelief and go with it.
What's important to know is that Wakanda is uniquely rich in a natural resource that is more valuable than diamonds, gold, or oil.
And according to the writers both of the movie and the comics, this is why it is wealthy. In fact, if you really think about it, it's fundamentally presented as the only reason why Wakanda is wealthy.
Consider: Their government is a tribal Monarchy wherein the King is chosen by brutal combat to the death.
Wakanda's current ruler, King T'Challa, is an ethical, stoic character who tries to make good decisions, but apart from a council of Elders serving as advisors, it's basically a dictatorship.
If T'Challa went nuts or... Say, Killmonger beat him in combat... Well, then... All the ordinary citizens are screwed.
As a matter of history, anthropology, and economics, the societies where individual citizens' rights aren't respected and there's no real protection against deranged lunatics getting total control over laws, law enforcement, and military don't do very well.
As Lord Acton said, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
So right away, their very system of government is, let's say, highly questionable.
There's also a related problem that economists have come to call the "natural resources curse" or "paradox of plenty".
This might seem counter-intuitive, but countries that have the greatest abundance of natural resources actually tend to have lower economic growth, less stable governments, and more developmental problems than countries with fewer natural resources.
This happens for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, there are often destabilizing violent conflicts over who gets control over those resources.
Think Blood Diamonds and wars for Oil.
But also, state-control over access to a resource like Vibranium would invite rampant political corruption, especially where there are limited or non-existent property rights for everyone else.
The only people who would get access would be friends of the King or people who bribed public officials.
Economic freedom is necessary for entrepreneurship and without it, a lot of resource-rich countries end up being thoroughly dependent on the one industry the government decides to focus on instead of having a healthy mix of businesses.
So... If that resource runs out or for whatever reason becomes less valuable, the entire economy falls apart. And because it's all state-controlled, there's no flexibility for people to change course like there is when the economy is the product of millions of individual entrepreneurs and consumers making their own decisions.
But... If you can believe it, there's an even bigger problem with countries like Wakanda:
I can't really overstate what I'm about to say here. Countries that reject trade are doomed to poverty and eventual death.
The way Wakanda is presented is that it has essentially zero contact with the outside world. And because they hide their greatest assets, they don't have anything of value to trade with anyone else anyway.
And, yes. I know. Vibranium is awesome, and with all the technology you can create with it, maybe they don't need to trade with anyone else, right?
Vibranium might be amazing, but it's not actually the metal that matters.
Any resource is only as good as the amount of creativity and skill that goes into figuring out how to use it.
But Wakanda is a very small country with a limited population, and that make a difference.
Trade is the key to specialization and the more available trading partners and greater diversity of needs there are in an overall network, the more people can develop new skills and come up with better ideas.
Far from advancing faster than other countries, societies that get cut off from trade stagnate and even lose the the skills necessary to produce even basic goods & services over time.
Matt Ridley's wonderful book, "The Rational Optimist", talks about exactly this happening in various societies throughout history.
Technological innovation is highly concentrated around trade routes.
The anthropological record shows that people who lived in geographical locations that either drifted away from a bigger landmass or were cut off by mountain ranges don't just keep developing independently and wind up with a relatively comparable parallel society. They actually regress to using more primitive tools and having poorer health and other social outcomes than they had before the separation.
For example, humans first made it to the Southern tip of Australia -- what is now Tasmania -- about 35,000 years ago. But about 10,000 years ago the Bass Strait filled with water and the native Tasmanians were isolated from the rest of the continent.
According to Ridly:
"By the time Europeans first encountered Tasmanian natives, they found them not only to lack many of the skills and tools of their mainland cousins, but to lack many technologies that their own ancestors had once possessed. They had no bone tools of any kind, such as needles and awls, no cold-weather clothing, no fish hooks, no hafted tools, no barbed spears, no fish traps, no spear throwers, no boomerangs."
Ridley goes on to describe trading networks as people's "collective brain". Bringing together millions of people with different perspectives and skills creates far more opportunities for good ideas to form and spread than people can ever hope to have on their own.
This is part of the reason why markets are so essential to escaping poverty.
But the way Wakanda is presented, at least in the movie, is essentially the opposite.
And... That's why I say it's an "inconceivably advanced society".
It's shown to have a high degree of wealth and technology, with a peaceful, educated society... But it's got none of the institutions or the social and economic connections that actually make that possible in the real world -- and it has quite a few institutions like autocratic central planning and isolationism that keep people poor.
Unfortunately, you see this a lot in fiction and I think it's part of the reason a lot of people think that countries that restrict trade or have politicians control natural resources and make all the economic decisions for everyone are somehow "protecting" their country's wealth and technology, as opposed to what they're actually doing: Regressing towards poverty.
So... Go enjoy Black Panther for the fun superhero movie it is, but don't be fooled....
Economic isolation, restrictions on trade, and top-down central planning will not create a society that looks anything like Wakanda... But opening up the economy to entrepreneurship and international trade just might.
Thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. Leave a comment below and let's start a conversation.
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See you next time!
Out of Frame
About this show
Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.
What's Wrong With Wakanda?
May 3, 2018
Wakanda could never exist in the real world. Wakanda is frustrating because it perpetuates the myth that an abundance of a really valuable natural resource is all you need to create a prosperous and extremely advanced society. This is simply not true. Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, wrote about how isolationism actually leads to a regress in technology.
Check out these other articles to learn more about isolationism and protectionism:
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