If you believe in free enterprise, going to the movies is all too often a painful exercise. Even those flicks you expect to be apolitical turn up gratuitous dialogue that peddles Hollywood’s pervasive anti-market sentiments. Apparently there’s a lot of money to be made criticizing the very marketplace that enables even the free market’s most superficial critics to get rich, with Michigan native and filmmaker Michael Moore being living proof.
On the silver screen, businesspeople are frequently vilified as greedy and heartless, while statists of every stripe are depicted as selfless, romantic idealists who want only to help people. If it’s "private" or "profit"-motivated, it’s routinely denigrated.
This is not a trivial matter. Movies and movie stars do more than simply reflect the popular culture; they help shape and move it in certain directions. It takes superhuman special effects to make big government look good, but Hollywood can make the most preposterous claims look like a documentary.
However, every now and then the film industry produces a memorable moment of dialogue — and once in a blue moon, even an entire movie — that breaks the mold. Here are four of my favorite films, both recent and not-so-recent.
In Ivan Reitman’s 1984 classic comedy, "Ghostbusters," three parapsychology cranks lose their cushy jobs at a state university. Lamenting their predicament, one of them suggests going into business for themselves. Dr. Raymond Stantz (played by Dan Aykroyd) expresses his reservations this way: "Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results!"
In one brief utterance, Stantz enshrined a cardinal rule of economics, and no one wondered what he meant. No firm in the private sector can long afford to squander resources on outputs of dubious value. The tax-funded public sector, however, usually encourages more spending and bureaucracy, expensively managing problems into perpetuity instead of actually solving them.
Ron Howard’s "Cinderella Man," released in 2005 and nominated for three Academy Awards, is a masterpiece from start to finish. In one poignant scene, boxer James Braddock (played by Russell Crowe) learns that his young son has stolen a sausage. The family is hungry and destitute at the bottom of the Great Depression. The boy was fearful that, like one of his friends whose parents couldn’t provide enough to eat, he would be sent to live with relatives who could afford the expense.
Without hesitation, Braddock escorts the boy to the store to return the sausage and apologize to the butcher. He then lectures his son: "There’s a lot of people worse off than we are. And just because things ain’t easy, that don’t give you the excuse to take what’s not yours, does it? That’s stealing, right? We don’t steal. No matter what happens, we don’t steal. Not ever. You got me?"
Poverty no excuse to steal? Private property defended by people who have almost none? Such time-honored, virtuous notions were once commonplace in America, but when Hollywood presents them in a powerfully positive way, it’s truly a Kodak moment. Braddock’s heroism soars later in the film when he does what no welfare recipient is ever asked to do and what perhaps not one in a million has ever done: He pays the taxpayers back.
Mel Gibson’s "The Patriot" (2000) features Gibson himself as an American colonist reluctant at first to join the struggle against the king. At a meeting of citizens, he resists the call for revolution, because he’s not convinced that a colonial government would be any better than British rule. He expresses his skepticism with a question that seems especially poignant today, when our own homegrown government takes more of our earnings in taxes than George III ever imagined possible: "Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away?"
My personal nomination for Best Picture of 2005 was Bill Paxton’s "The Greatest Game Ever Played," but it was apparently just too good for Hollywood to notice. Based on the true story of Francis Ouimet’s stunning 1913 victory in the U.S. Open golf tournament, it beautifully extols the virtues that underpin a free society: character, integrity, sportsmanship, honesty, perseverance and the absence of class distinctions.
Please, Hollywood, lose the statist bias, and make more films like these four!
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Portions of this commentary were adapted from his column in the May 2006 issue of The Freeman, a journal of the Foundation for Economic Education. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.