Capitalism, Socialism, and Fan Complaints About the Role of Giant Eagles in “The Lord of the Rings”

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

In a fascinating recent blog post, economist Bryan Caplan highlights some similarities between standard socialist complaints about capitalism, and long-running fan claims that the giant Eagles didn’t do enough to fight Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The 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 dropped it in, thus sparing the Fellowship of the Ring great suffering, and saving the may lives lost in the War of the Ring. The so-called “eagle plot hole” is a longstanding focus 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 drop him to his death?”

Caplan suggests less criticism of the Eagles for what they could have done but didn’t, and more gratitude for all the good they did do:

Give the eagles a break! The eagles are already doing a ton of great stuff for Middle Earth! They’re giant eagles. Top of the food chain. They could easily just roost safely in their eyries and live out their lives in peace. Yet without asking for the slightest compensation, these heroic birds…

…saved Gandalf at Isengard,

…fought the Nazgul at the Black Gate,

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

… and delivered the coup de grace at the Battle of the Five Armies.

The eagles aren’t perfect, but they are awesome. Instead of asking the eagles to do even more, how about a little freakin’ gratitude?

It’s worth adding that never once did the Eagles get rewarded for all the good they did. At the end of the Lord of the Rings, King Elessar (as Aragorn is now called) takes care to acknowledge and reward all the various humanoid peoples and races who fought against Sauron. But the Eagles get nothing.

Caplan applies similar reasoning to standard socialist attacks on markets:

I submit that this is a handy allegory for popular complaints about markets. They offer vastly greater benefits than the eagles of Tolkien. To start, these glorious markets…

…fill our stores with cornucopian wealth,

…create endless new products,

…endlessly improve the products we already have,

…offer great convenience,

…build massive amounts of spacious, comfortable housing,

…pay salaries ten, twenty, a hundred times our physical needs,

…offer a vast range of jobs: the whole 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 to do practically anything,

…incentivize the world’s most creative and industrious people to share their gifts with the world,

…while respecting the principle of voluntary consent. Truly, no one makes you shop at WalMart.

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

“Incomes aren’t equal.”

“Wealth isn’t equal.”

“This product could be better.”

“Why can’t this stuff be free?”

“My pay sucks.”

“My co-workers suck.”

“My boss sucks.”

“We’re so materialistic.”

What makes such complaints about markets so childish?

First, most of them apply at least as well to every other economic system. Actually-existing socialism is anything but equal. Its products are notoriously crummy. The pay stinks. Lots of co-workers and bosses still suck. And the victims of socialist poverty are notoriously “materialistic” because they spend most of their time struggling to fulfill their basic material needs.

Second, the market itself offers practical solutions for many of the complaints. Free immigration and free construction are mighty battering rams against inequality. Don’t like your pay, coworkers, or boss? Find a better match using the First Law of Wing-Walking. Given time and persistence, this Law totally works. Abhor materialism? It’s easier to focus on the finer things in life if the coarser things in life are dirt cheap.

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

Just as the peoples of Middle Earth are vastly better off with Eagles than without them, so real-world people are vastly better off with markets than would likely be the case with any other economic systems. Indeed, real-world socialism looks a lot like Mordor under the rule of Sauron. Ditto for real-world fascism and statist nationalism.

Caplan’s line of argument doesn’t work as well against people who agree free markets have great value, but argue we need marginal tweaks and constraints 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 wholesale rejections of free markets in favor of socialism and other such alternatives.

I will also take this opportunity to point out that the Eagles are even better than Caplan suggests. The main complaint against them—that they could have easily destroyed the Ring of Power by flying it to Mount Doom—is totally unwarranted. The following is an adaptation of a 2017 Facebook post I wrote on this subject:

There is no “Eagle plot hole” because the Eagle plan was a terrible idea all along! Giant Eagles are very conspicuous. The Eye of Sauron would literally have seen the Eagle coming from a thousand miles away. He would surely have sent up his Nazgul to investigate; they would sense the presence of the Ring, and capture it.

If the Eagle somehow managed to evade the Nazgul and got to Mordor, Sauron (by that time aware of the presence of the Ring) would have ordered all the thousands of orcs in Mordor to shoot at it. If even one of them manages to put a lucky arrow or ballista bolt through the Eagle’s eye, the game is up. Sending in a whole squadron of Eagles (as suggested in some variants of the plan) just makes them even more conspicuous, which means that Sauron would detect them sooner.

And, by the way, the Eagles could not defeat the Nazgul, even with the advantage of numbers, because the latter are immune to non-magical weapons (and, presumably, also non-magical talons and claws).

In addition, as Gandalf explains, the Ring is a major temptation for “those who have already a great power of their own.” Giant Eagles are very powerful, and would be tempted to take the ring for themselves, much as Boromir was (only more so, because they are more powerful than he is). An Eagle could easily overpower the Ringbearer, then take the Ring and try to use it, thereby rendering itself visible to Sauron. This scenario also ends with Sauron recapturing the Ring (or at best with a corrupted Giant Eagle becoming the new Dark Lord).

In sum, the supposedly brilliant Eagle plan would have ended up handing the Ring to Sauron on a silver platter. The reason why Gandalf didn’t bring it up at the Council of Elrond is that he would have been embarrassed to present such a stupid idea to the Elves and Rangers. He would surely have been laughed out of Rivendell! And the same fate should befall the fanboys who keep bringing this up.

Some may argue that this is still a plot hole because Tolkien did not explain in the book why this plan won’t work. But he also didn’t have the characters analyze every other possible hare-brained scheme for destroying the Ring, such as having Dwarven sappers tunnel into Mount Doom. No one claims that Tolkien’s failure to address these theories is a plot hole. The same goes for the Eagle plan.

And, just as the Eagle plan turns out to be a dangerous-to-pursue mirage, the same goes for visions of a utopian socialist future. Sadly, unlike the Eagle plan, several such visions were actually tried out in practice, with horrific results.

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