Movies that understand economics #15: Dune

Arrakis. Dune. Wasteland of the Empire, and the most valuable planet in the Universe. Because it is here and only here, where spice is found. Without the spice, there is no commerce in the empire, no civilization. Arrakis. Dune. Home of the Spice, most valuable treasure in the universe. And he who controls it, controls our destiny.

DuneNow before we begin I’ll fully admit that a lot of this discussion will be shaded by a knowledge of the book that it is based off of.  I will also be confining my comments to the 2000 sci-if channel miniseries and not pulling anything from the 1980’s film…why?  Because pulling from a miniseries with some questionable production values but where the writers have actually read the book is far better than pulling from a movie that comes off as a bad acid trip that not only makes you wonder if the writers ever read the book, but if they even speak any of the languages the book has ever been translated into.  Also the movie doesn’t seem to understand any of the economic implications of the plot whereas the mini-series did.

For those of you not familiar with the story, shame on you, this is one of the greatest novels of the last century, go read it. But fine, I will give a brief summary of the events of the story.  Over 10,000 years in the future human beings have spread across the galaxy.   A galactic empire is maintained through commerce and the emperor’s elite personal military. Society has regressed into a form of feudalism with noble houses having control of whole planets. And all of this is maintained by faster than light travel made possible through the use of a chemical known as the Melange, or simply referred to as Spice. Without Spice faster than light travel becomes almost impossible, the empire will fall apart and humanity will fall into a new dark age. And Spice can only be found on one planet in the whole galaxy, the desert world of Arrakis. Better known as Dune. And this inhospitable world is populated only by the people who mine the Spice and a group of religious fanatics who live in the deep desert, the Fremen.  (Unless you’ve read the book you have no idea how much I’m leaving out just so I can focus on the economics.)

The fact that the entire universe is dependent on this one planet and its resources make it a contention point for every feudal house to desire control over Arrakis, for as the movie and book make quite clear, he who controls the Spice controls the universe.

So just to recap the entire universe is dependent on a single resource only found in a desert surrounded by religious fanatics. So for all the complicated sci-fi elements it’s just a metaphor for oil, and the stranglehold it has on our economy.  The Spice allows the economy of the future to run, just as our economy is based on cheap energy.  Without either the economy falls apart.

Now one should keep in mind that when this was written in the 1960’s a far greater portion of the world’s oil came from the OPEC cartel when they had the power to act almost as if they were a monopoly. And this is one of the things dealt with time and time again in Dune, the problems of monopolies.  There are lots of monopolies in Dune.  The emperor’s monopoly on military power, the Spacing Guild’s monopoly on interstellar travel, the Arrakis monopoly on Spice.  Lots and lots of monopolies throughout the universe.  And the problem is that when you have monopolies on essential items and services the entire system becomes very unstable. So unstable that one genius and/or lunatic with the power and will to destroy one of these could demand complete obedience from all the other parts—such is the hero of Dune.  But these downsides to monopolies are the ones you learned in high school, the ones designed to make you think the government was supposed to break up monopolies.

Of course what Dune makes clear, that your high school economics class did not, is that monopolies can’t exist without the presence of government power helping to sustain those monopolies and keeping competition down. That there are relatively few natural and permanent monopolies, and even they need government to sustain them.  All that is needed to break monopolies are the pressures that are usually provided by a functioning free market.    In reality most monopolies only come into existence with government help and are only sustained by government intervention.  The railroad of the 1800 are often touted as monopolies that needed to be broken up, but they were heavily subsidized and protected by the government in the early day.  Had the government not been involved at all no monopoly would have formed and no justification for government intervention would ever have been present. Even then you don’t need government to break up monopolies, the market will do that for you.  Just look at AT&T.  In the 1980’s it was broken up because it was one those terrible monopolies…the silly point about this is that as we now knew cellphones were just around the corner and would have destroyed the telephone monopoly on their own. OPEC exists only because a group of tyrannies and a few nations they bully hold a large portion of a needed resource…guess what, they over played their hand so much that we developed an efficient way to get at shale and now the US is the world’s largest producer of oil (sorry Saudi Arabia, but you’re still in the running for leading producer of fanatics…).

The fact is that for all the problems they create, monopolies are easily defeated by an unfettered free market. Even in Dune (if you read far enough) it is competition, not government mandates and regulations, that create alternatives to Arrakis, the Spice, and the Spacing Guild.   (In fact the universe is shown to do much better when there is no central empire but rather just free planets dealing with each other on a free market.)* If a market is so desirable that someone would want a monopoly, then by nature I will show you a field where there are multiple competitors who will prevent that very thing from happening. You show me a monopoly and I will show you a string of government acts and interventions that helped to create it.

The movie Dune, and more so the books, show among many basic economic principles** that not only are monopolies terrible things that cause problems but that they are due to the lack of free markets which create competition not because of them.

*Okay yes, the books also make it clear that organization is key when facing large scale evil, like an all encompassing evil empire bent on universal tyranny…but no sane person said the military wasn’t a just function of any government.

**There are at present 17 volumes in the Dune series with at least 4 more expected.   You could probably write volumes on any one of them about what they can show about politics, economics, ethics, psychology, sociology and a slew of other fields.


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Filed under Economics, Movies, Movies for Conservatives

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