Elysium Rant

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Over the weekend I watched the movie Elysium. I had seen it in the theater a few years back but decided to watch it again as I was flipping through channels and saw it on TV.

For those who haven’t seen it before, Elysium is a dystopian movie starring Matt Damon. It takes place in the year 2159 and is set partly in an overcrowded, slum-ridden LA and partly on the clean, serene, and breathtaking space habitat, Elysium.

The film paints a stark contrast between a dying and poverty-ridden Earth, and the lush paradise of Elysium. At some point between our current time and the time of the story, Earth became so intolerable, overcrowded, and polluted that the wealthy decided to escape. Their solution was a massive space habitat orbiting high above our planet.

Though the movie never makes this clear, fan fiction describes Elysium as having a population of about 500 thousand. These people are depicted as living lavish and luxurious lifestyles free from sickness, crime, and all the troubles that plague Earth. Life on Earth, however, has become miserable and destitute. The population and pollution seem to grown to critical levels and the people are largely prevented from enjoying the same miraculous technology available on Elysium.

The story follows the story of Max (Matt Damon) on his desperate journey to reach Elysium (its medical technology in particular) after being exposed to a lethal amount of radiation. His mission later changes to one of making all citizens of Earth citizens of Elysium thus giving them access to the futuristic world above.

I like this movie. I am a pretty big fan of dystopian films in general, and am fascinated by the prospect of life in space or on other planets. In fact, my favorite scenes in this movie were the ones which showed Elysium and gave little hints about how it worked and what life was like on it.

Upon further reading I learned that Elysium is a type of Torus design. A Torus is a massive wheel-shaped station that spins at a velocity which creates Earth-like gravity—enough even to hold in an atmosphere of similar density as ours.

I love it. It’s extremely interesting and probably will be possible in some form in the not so distant future.

But that is largely where my fascination with the movie stopped. It had some solid action scenes and Matt Damon definitely kicks some ass. But the story was all too typical. One of the rich living at the expense of everyone else and their lifestyle being the reason that life on Earth is so miserable.

Now just to be clear, I’m not totally sure what the filmmakers wanted to do with this film. It strikes me as just another run of the mill 1% exploiting the 99% story. What isn’t made clear is whether or not they are trying to be critical of the rich just for being rich and creating a better life for themselves, or if they are being critical of the tendency of some wealthy and powerful to use their influence over the state to oppress the less powerful.

The nature of the political system is also ambiguous. At some points it seems like Elysium is effectively a separate country with its own government and state apparatus, but at others it seems as though the government of Elysium rules over at least the United States from above. This is an important distinction.

Here is the situation that I would have no problem with. The quality of life on Earth became so poor that some group of people (whether it was a company or just a group of individuals who pooled their resources) decided to use their own resources to build a space station. To both fund it and to fairly determine who could live there, the owners sell off future real estate on the habitat. Once the station is built the owners of the different pieces of property build houses and live there. There is nothing immoral or even slightly reproachable in this whole process.

Now, there could be a situation in which the builders of the station offer spots to lower-income people. That’s fine. They own the station so they can do with it what they want. I would imagine, however, that they could not have too much of a pro-bono system because of the massive amounts of funding necessary to undertake such a project.

Likely the only way to get enough private funding would be to sell off all the spots to the highest bidder at what would probably end up being exorbitantly high prices. But that is fair. Money is the fairest way to settle these types of things because it takes choice out of it. It removes favoritism, prejudice, etc. from the equation. And on top of that, selling to the highest bidder is likely the only way the station could be made a reality in the first place.

Once built and populated, normal property rights would apply. No one on Earth would be entitled to someone’s property on Elysium. It doesn’t matter how bad life is on Earth, or how much suffering there is. Theft is always immoral.

Unfortunately, this movie seems to further the idea that you can take someone else’s property if you feel your need is pressing enough. That you’re suffering or bad lot in life entitles you somehow to other people’s stuff. If Elysium were built by private funds and populated by individuals at their own expense and effort, then there is no quarrel that anyone on Earth can have with them.

On the other hand, however, if the station were built using public funds, the situation changes completely. The oxymoronic nature of “public ownership” would, in theory, entitle everyone who was forced to contribute funds a sliver (literally a sliver) of the final product. If this were the case then the destitute people of Earth (or at least of the countries whose governments contributed funds) would have every right to demand access to Elysium.

Another situation which would warrant legitimate grievances against the wealthy space-dwellers would be if they (as in the government of Elysium) were forcibly preventing the same type of technology available to the citizens of Elysium from reaching the people of Earth. But I have add that if it is the company which produces the technology, like the lifesaving Med-Bays for example, that simply doesn’t want to sell them on Earth, that is legitimate. A company may sell or not sell to whoever they want for whatever reason just as individuals may associate or not with whoever they wish.

But if there is no force present then I can’t imagine a situation like the one in the film ever occurring. The fact that it does in the movie stems from a misunderstanding of how markets work. If there were technology that could heal a person in a matter of minutes, you would not limit yourself to selling it only to a half a million people on a space station. The billions of potential buyers on Earth would be too enticing. So enticing, in all probability, that there would be huge incentives to reduce the prohibitively high costs.

So I doubt there would ever be such a technological divide. This is of course unless some government organization is involved in thwarting its proliferation. This is indeed the reason for the persisting technological divide between different regions of Earth and should definitely be fought against.

Alright, so to summarize so far.

-The poor masses have no right to a spot on Elysium if it were privately built, maintained, and operated with no unethical behavior or practices involved. The mere fact that there are poor people and rich people doesn’t mean that the former has some claim on the latter.

-If public funds were used then everyone who was forced to contribute would be entitled to a sliver. In a world of billions, this is of course ridiculous and brings to light the absurdity of public “ownership” of anything.

-If any force is involved to prevent transactions between willing buyers and willing sellers of anything, from technology to housing this is of course unethical. Notwithstanding any agreements or contracts (like a housing association charter) that predicated your ability to buy property on Elysium in the first place.

The film doesn’t make these things clear. Unfortunately this ambiguity paints a picture where the rich Elysium citizens are villains simply for building a better life for themselves. Would not everyone try to make a better life for themselves and their posterity if they had the means? Don’t we all already do this?

500 thousand individuals banding together and pooling resources to build an awesome space-habitat is in no way unethical or immoral.

It’s awesome.

The problem with this film—and indeed many dystopian or post-apocalyptic movies—is that they are based on some large assumptions, and they make some large assumptions.

First, the story of Elysium is predicated on the fact that Earth is getting worse—and will get so bad that people will have to leave. Though this might eventually be the case, and I am all for privately-funded space exploration, all current evidence points to contrary.

The Earth is better than it’s ever been. The air, rivers, and oceans are getting cleaner, not dirtier. And once the two most populous regions on Earth are in a post-industrial stage we will see an even cleaner world. Fewer people are starving than ever before. Fewer people live in poverty than ever before. More people have access to the internet (and with it all the world’s information) than ever before. The same is true for drinking water, upward mobility, human rights, and many other things.

Markets have opened up even the darkest corners of the globe and palpably improved the lives of everyone. Aside from the potential set-back brought on by a massive, government-induced financial collapse, all signs point towards the world’s continued improvement.

I also did not understand how people on Elysium made money. Due to their relatively small size, unless they live in some fanciful communist paradise, I would imagine they could only earn sustenance by selling goods and services to people on Earth.

In other words, the people of Elysium could only survive if they were improving the lives of people on Earth. If they are forcibly extracting wealth from the Earthlings then that is a different story. But again, the movie does not make this critical fact clear.

In market system, everyone except for state employees, politicians, and their army of cronies makes money by offering goods and services that other people value. Just as the relationship of cheaper Asian labor forces, Western intellectual capital, and bargain-hunting Western consumers makes everyone involved better off, so would the rich of Elysium and the not so rich of Earth be incentivized to join forces to improve each other’s lives.

Elysium also paints a picture of the rich people living on the space station indifferent to the suffering of the people on Earth. Considering that most of the citizens of Elysium had parents or grandparents (or maybe great grandparents—again, the movie does not make the timeline clear) that came from countries on Earth, there would probably still be a lot of common cultural identification and solidarity. I doubt the level of indifference to relatives and those of a similar heritage (or just to other humans in general) would ever arise—especially so quickly.

In addition to these arguably false assumptions, the movie’s ending is predictably lame. Lame and totally unrealistic. Since this movie was released in 2013 I feel fine in ruining the ending for you. Matt Damon succeeds in his theft of Elysium’s reboot program and his criminal friend/boss rewrites the code to make everyone a citizen of Elysium. Happily ever after.

This sucks! First of all, where are billions of people going to live in a confined area in the middle of space that was designed for under a million residents? You’d think scarcity would be even better understood by people living on such a resource-poor Earth, and especially when trying to live in SPACE. Space is in a constant condition that I would mildly describe as extreme scarcity.

Maybe the movie makers forgot this, but people need air, water, and physical space to live. In space these, like other consumer goods, must be manufactured and created by people. Just like manufactured goods of any order on Earth, air, water, and physical space do not just “happen” in space. Thought and effort must go into it. If people on Earth want to live on Elysium they can contribute (in the form of knowledge, money, or effort) productively to it to earn a spot.

They have no right to be there. Unlike physical space on a map, someone literally built the ground of Elysium. If you want to live there you need to legitimately acquire property there. Any other way is unethical and immoral.

This movie clumsily sets itself up as an allegory to our current immigration/emigration issues between the poorer and richer parts of the world. But it falls on its head. Elysium is an extremely finite area which is completely, legitimately, and verifiably owned by someone. Our real world immigration issues stem from the lack of legitimacy in the state’s claim of ultimate ownership over its given country’s geographical area.

The United States government cannot legitimately own anything from a moral or ethical standpoint. This means they have no right to tell me who I can sell my house to, hire, invite over, etc.—even if those people are from a foreign country. My right of association trumps their usurped “responsibility” of protecting me.

Elysium, on the other hand, is a piece of technology floating in space. You can clearly and definitively trace the ownership of every piece of it from the day it was created by people. All of the citizens would have actually and personally signed a contract agreeing to abide by the rules and system of governance. Both parties of the contract would have had a legitimate property claim. This is fundamentally different from government systems today and fanciful “social contracts” loved so much by statists.

The film tries to set up an extreme example to illustrate the problem of disparity between rich and poor regions on Earth as well our problematic attitudes and actions towards immigration. But it completely gets it wrong. The problems with immigration systems today all are a result of the state and its poorly informed protectionist and xenophobic policies. The solution is the strengthening of- and uncompromising attitude towards property rights. Not the further stomping all over them as Elysium suggests.

So this movie is interesting. If you like intense action sequences and are intrigued by people living in space then I would recommend it. But ultimately, any deeper meaning that the movie tries to convey is painfully short on facts and relies on a situation that in all probability would never occur. It is based largely on false and divisive assumptions and is annoyingly arrogant on the inaccurate and uninformed assumptions it makes.

Go for the thrills but forget the juvenile message it sloppily tries to get across.

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