The classic story of Peter Rabbit is ultimately a tale about property rights: where they come from, how they are enforced, and the consequences of their violation. Here is the core of what makes the film remake of this story so wonderful. It challenges us to think carefully about the topic, and, as a bonus, offers up a Humean-Misesian view of property (an improvement over John Locke [1632-1704]) and its meaning in our lives.
I’ll get to that in a bit but first things first. The movie is astonishingly beautiful, charming, hilarious (in a mature, not a kid-pandering, mode), and delightful in every way. It strikes me as a perfect integration of a classic story, extended to a full motion picture, plus mind-blowing CGI technology (omg the wonderful birds at the beginning and throughout), plus a subtle wit. It shows great deference to the original story while giving us a modern rendering that will convince even those who are squeamish about such projects that this was exactly what had to be done.
Bravo to this film! It enters into the annals of my own mind as one of my top favorite films in the last ten years.
However, not everyone agrees. Beatrix Potter’s biographer, Matthew Dennison, has condemned the movie, saying with certainty that she would have objected to the extension of the plot and the turns it takes. I don’t know how he can presume to know that. In fact, you can’t really know how the mind of a person who has passed from this life would or would not have responded to contemporary events or retellings of stories that have become part of the cultural framework.
Also, like all good movies, this one has attracted the usual parade of pearl-clutching protestors. Allergy sufferers have objected to how the movie belittles their plight. Others have objected to the presence of guns in the films, the supposed glorification of bullying, the supposed violence in general (ever seen the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote?), and, of course, the supposed sexism and racism of the film. You can follow all the high dudgeon at #boycottpeterrabbit.
These protesting people have become caricatures of themselves.
Who Owns the Garden?
In the original story, Peter Rabbit is warned not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden in search of food. Peter does so anyway. Mr. McGregor has to chase Peter out of his garden. Peter barely escapes but loses his shoes and pretty blue jacket, which end up on a scarecrow. Peter returns home to face the consequence of his disobedience. His mother figures that losing his jacket is punishment enough, and so gives him tea and puts him to bed.
The lesson here as regards property rights is pretty straightforward. You might want something that is not yours but violating the rights of another, even if the person is a bit villainous like Mr. McGregor, is imprudent and leads to very bad results. The point is that it is better to recognize and comply with existing property rules. There are other and better ways to get fed.
The retelling takes the story to a second generation. The original Mr. McGregor dies in pursuit of Peter and his siblings. Upon realizing their good fortune, the rabbits spread the word, and all the animals come to ravage the garden and live in the very nice estate. A distant cousin in the McGregor line shows up to reclaim the house and garden and faces an epic struggle against nature, in which both sides do very bad things to each other.
The struggle here is to find a way toward mutual coexistence. They have to put aside their antagonisms and find a way toward peace. The story is morally complex because it doesn’t take the easy path of assigning roles of angel and devil to the main protagonists; there are shades of gray here just as there are in life.
Locke and Hume
You could say that the original version of the story takes a pure Lockean view of property rights. The land is justly titled to Mr. McGregor, and this ownership is reinforced by his working of the land. He cultivates the land and grows the vegetables so he is justly entitled to dispose of the products of his work as he wishes, while driving out interlopers. He has mixed his labor and therefore owns the product of his labor of his own land. Here is a clean application of the Lockean idea.
The new movie adds an interesting complication. The animals have a theory that they were the first owners of the land. It is Mr. McGregor, not they, who are the interlopers. Therefore they should be entitled to whatever is on the land, regardless of who worked the land to make the product. In other words, the initial Lockean conditions never applied, in the animals’ view, because this land was never justly titled to Mr. McGregor simply because the land was not previously unowned. He is the thief. He should give back the land.
This is indeed a wrinkle. You could announce that the animals are wrong, but there is still the problem of enforcement. That is the practical reality. There are no agents of the state who can show up and sort out this mess. It has to be negotiated by the stakeholders operating within the arena of conflict.
As I watched the animals theorize along these lines, I was initially a bit befuddled. Don’t they have a point, according to strict Lockean principles? They and not Mr. McGregor were the initial homesteaders of the land. How does Lockean theory deal with this?
I wanted to put the film on pause and think about it a bit but the action continued quickly, requiring that I put such thoughts on hold. Only later did I come to a full realization of the trouble with the animals’ property theory: in reality animals are not rational in the way people are nor can they communicate this way. In the movie, they have a point; in reality, they could never make such a point. They can’t actually speak!
But before we jump too far down this rabbit hole, consider another implication of the film. If someone’s claimed property rights prove essentially unenforceable, in what sense do they actually exist in any operational sense?
Property Must Be Enforceable
Consider an example. Let’s say that every time you put a planter on your porch, it is taken from you by the next morning. You do this every day and every day it is stolen. You can fulminate about your property rights but clearly they are not being recognized. In practical reality, you are not the effective owner in any sense.
What is happening here? Your just claims in the Lockean framework are running headlong into the practical realities emphasized by David Hume (1711-1776): the social context here is not prepared to recognize your claims. What is necessary in the Humean framework is the social assent necessary to make your property claims realizable and operationally authentic.
In Hume’s view, this isn’t really about some external dispenser of justice; it is all about the organic development of norms within society. As Hume writes, property rights emerged “by a convention enter’d into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry.” There’s no more to it than that. There is no great judge to stand outside the system to resolve conflict.
The rabbits and the animals clearly reject the Humean convention. Therefore, Mr. McGregor has a problem. He needs a technology that would protect his rights claims against invasion. Until he can do so, there is no practical sense in which he can really say: this house and garden are my own.
I was struck by watching how closely this accords with the social theory of Ludwig von Mises from his 1922 book Socialism. In his view, the enforcement of rights claim – by the owner himself or by contract with another – is the crucial stage in which private property becomes socially and economically relevant. No amount of theorizing and moralizing can overcome the practical problem that you have no “rights” if the society around you fails to recognize them as such.
Thus does Mr. McGregor set out on his quest firmly to establish his ownership claims. He uses traps, guns, security fences, electric shocks, and, eventually, explosives. In each case, the rabbits continually outwit him. Meanwhile, he is falling in love with his next-door neighbor, cleverly named Beatrix, who loves rabbits and draws pictures of them. So McGregor has to pretend that he actually loves the rabbits, leading to some hilarious scenes of duplicity in the effort to secure his garden.
All parties involved in this unending dispute eventually find ways to resolve the conflict. This involves taking responsibility for causing unnecessary conflict that leads to destruction suffered by everyone. Both Mr. McGregor and the animals admit their moral culpability and we have the basis for a new property-rights arrangement that meets the demands of social peace while accommodating the moral sensibilities and practical needs of every stakeholder.
This is the realization of the Humean/Misesian world view in one film, and constitutes a subtle correction to the overly simplified view of property advanced by the Lockean framework. No, I don’t think the filmmakers intended such a philosophical advance, but that’s just fine. It is what the film in fact achieves on its own.
All that Aside
Even if you leave aside all philosophical considerations, this is a wonderful fun and hilarious movie. Every few minutes, something happens that is delightful, from the melodiously singing birds (who eventually turn to rap to get across their message) to the fishing frog who jumps into the water to get away from the rain. I’ve only seen it once but I was left with the desire to see Peter Rabbit another dozen times. Here is the proof: even the best of classic stories can be improved.