Avatar: The Last Airbender

Dave Filoni

This site is dedicated to reviewing popular content in a libertarian perspective. As such, I assume that you don’t mind me giving away some details of the plot during our walk-through and analysis of important parts of these books, TV shows, and other media.

Even still, it’s not often that I reveal the surprise ending of that content. But this one warrants a deep inspection of what happened there. So beware! Please watch all of Avatar: The Last Airbender before reading on, or expect that you’ll know the ending. =)

The story involves a war-crazy nation, the Fire Nation, which seeks to dominate the world by military might and aggressive conquest. There are multiple generations of warlords who have continued the fighting over 100 years. The protagonists are a small group of various individuals including the Avatar, Aang, who hail from various nations (Earth, Wind, Water), albeit who are unsanctioned by any government or political power, and who are determined to stop the war.

In addition to the anti-war theme of the show present throughout the entire series, there are other, extremely valuable libertarian concepts and stories portrayed throughout the entire show. There are far more instances than can be listed below, so this show is definitely worth watching even just for the animation and action!

The “Good Guys” Aren’t Always So Good

In several episodes, we find out that the Earth King at one time had assumed the role of the tyrant warlord. Despite the Fire Nation = bad attitude of many people in the show, a previous Avatar needed to stop a different nation from trying to do the exact same thing: political domination through war and destruction.

She did so by “seceding”, or literally carving a new country away from the Earth King and declaring that his political power was no longer of any standing there. By parting the countries, she created an earthquake that caused the king to fall to his death. When questioned by Aang about her actions, she says that she doesn’t see any difference between his accidental death or her killing him directly; she was willing to do what it took to stop his tyranny and save the innocent people whom he was trying to enslave.

In another part of the story, the present Earth King is revealed as a puppet who was never told of the war (for 100 years; presumably his predecessors had not been told either), but his secret service/CIA military directors were instead running the entire show. They were brutally repressive to the people in the city: those who questioned their power or attempted to talk about the war were silenced, kidnapped, brainwashed, or worse. They ruled by fear and watched all communications, spied on people directly, and intervened secretly but heavily when their hegemony was threatened. This group, when finally discovered and defeated, then turned their allegiance to the Fire Nation, which reveals their deep lust for power and their dedication not to any nation/country in particular, but only to those who have power.

This case of political slavery came not from the Fire Nation, but rather from the very nation that was supposed to be “good” and on the “right side” of history! This is illustrative of the libertarian concept wherein any society with a government can be taken over by a cabal of political fanatics who desire power over others. Liberty is fleeting and must be defended constantly anywhere there is politics, as politicians will always attempt to expand their power at the expense of liberty.

Moreover, this power is most often seized during emergencies. Surely, wars and the invasion by the Fire Lord necessitates the most drastic measures of all! Indeed, wars have almost always been used as an excuse to increase government funding and power, which shows why they have been so prevalent in the past 100 years. It is a general rule therefore that if emergencies are used as an excuse to gain political power and seize freedom, we should expect then that emergencies come about more frequently and are either exacerbated or instigated by those who want power. This was the point of Robert Higgs’ very important work “Crisis and Leviathan”, where he explains how each crisis leads to an increase of government power some of which is never repealed after the crisis has rescinded.

The “Bad Guys” Aren’t Always So Bad

As is the case with any complex system of morality, black and white descriptions of “the enemy” and “the benefactors” is not always so clear. In it’s shining brilliance, Avatar: The Last Airbender sees this important truth. Zuko, the Fire Lord’s own son, starts out naively fighting only for the glory of his father and the Fire Nation’s military might. Over time, and through the wise and deep thought patterns his Uncle Iroh teaches to him, Zuko changes his perspective on the world. He sees his father for the bully and tyrant that he is; he sees also that his nation is willing to sacrifice the blood of millions of innocents in order to attain political power. He realizes this is wrong and evil.

However, far from being quickly accepted into the group fighting the Fire Nation given his past aggressions, Zuko needs to work hard to make amends and to be forgiven. He does so by turning with them to fight against his father and against the wars and violence he wishes to enact.

Libertarians are very specific in their moral framework: we do not see people or collectives (nations, companies, other groups) as good or bad. We don’t even see collectives as capable of taking action. Only the individual acts, and therefore only individuals can be judged.

Furthermore, only specific actions of individuals can be classified as good or bad. Hitler, arguably one of the worst dictators and immoral people to walk the earth, had times within his day in which his actions were perfectly moral and just. He played with his dogs, painted pictures, slept, talked with people (when not talking about killing and politics, of course), ate food, etc.

This doesn’t excuse his other, despotic actions, but it shines the light on our important insight of only judging specific actions. Theft is wrong, not because we hate the person who is poor enough to need to steal to give food to his family, but because the specific action taken to get food for his family was a violation of another person’s property rights. The thief needs only find alternative actions which would provide food for his family: providing a service to others for payment (labor/work), asking for charity, selling one’s own property, etc are all legitimate forms of property acquisition.

Moreover, committing bad actions does not sentence someone to a life of being bad. Recognize your actions as wrong, make amends to those who you have harmed by restitution, try to give them back whatever you’ve taken from them, ask for forgiveness, and change your future actions. The greater the evil committed, the more restitution required, but it’s never impossible. I think this show helps people understand that core concept.

Power Leads to Madness

Zuko’s sister, at the end, turns completely insane with the power she has been bestowed. She becomes suspicious and banishes all of her staff and military security. She is the only one she can trust, but she feels like she is starting to not even trust herself.

This story, so common in the history of political power, is no coincidence. When one has the power to control another person’s life, their happiness, their destiny; when one can control an entire society and dictate what should or should not be built, who should be invaded, literally who may live and who must die, the consequence is madness and insanity. This kind of power is not meant to be wielded by anyone.

The entire structure of politics/socialism/communism/fascism/Marxism itself is built on a sort of madness in it’s ideas. It is immune to reason and evidence; it refuses to see it’s own internal contradictions. It refuses to see the consequences of it’s own actions; it wishes those consequences away by blaming unrelated social phenomena in our complex ecosystem of millions of human interactions. It refuses to see the logic of A = A, 2 + 2 = 4, political action is necessarily a violation of property rights. It wants property rights for some but not others, special privileges for some but not others, taxes for some but not others, wealth seized from society given arbitrarily to some but not others, and on and on. It’s inconsistencies and wild eyed assumptions about social science are myriad.

It should be no surprise then when the rulers go mad.

Killing Innocents Doesn’t Work

Another important lesson comes from a rogue bandit named Jet the group finds in the woods fighting the Fire Nation. He has grand ideas about rebellion and fighting back. His group ambushes soldiers and stops them from hurting others.

Unfortunately, they also engage in another strategy that is quite averse to libertarianism: destroying entire cities of Fire Nation citizens. This is necessary, Jet explains, because the Fire Nation kills their citizens, too.

This idea comes from a very dark side of “democracy”. Democracy, being the idea that citizens control the government via the voting process, also implies that the citizens are entirely responsible for the outcome of the government’s actions. Therefore, they became the primary targets of warfare, notably in Lincoln’s war against the South in America, but also especially in WW2, The Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc. Entire cities are wiped out and slaughtered in an attempt to change the public opinion of the citizenry in a futile attempt to change the government’s stance on the war.

In addition to being absolutely ghastly as a war principle, it is futile because the citizens don’t actually control the government at all. Democracy is a ruse, a slogan, that merely gives the State the intellectual cover it needs to carry out it’s own selfish aims. While the people believe they all “have a say” in it’s outcomes, they don’t really. Special interests and corporate lobbyists with large pocketbooks gain the ear of the government; the individual citizen cannot hope to influence the State in any meaningful way.

Thus being caught in a double trap, one in which they have no control over the functions of government yet are blamed for those functions, they become targets of war by foreign States and mercenary groups. Millions were savagely killed in wars throughout the 20th century because of this fallacy.

Aang correctly understands that no single life may sacrificed no matter the “greater good” attempted to reach; a single innocent individual killed in war is a criminal action and a violation of property rights. On what basis could wars be fought at all under those circumstances? No wars at all, I would think, and humanity would be all the better for it.

Death to Tyrants Doesn’t Work

In the finale, Aang the Avatar, the keeper of peace among the worlds, the one destined to bring balance to the world, defeats the Fire Lord. Yet, he decides not to kill the tyrant. Why not?

It is tempting to say “well, the Fire Lord killed innocent people! He deserves therefore to die!” But, in a libertarian moral world, killing is wrong. We are not pacifists like Aang. We believe in self defense. But, we are specific that self defense is an action taken in the midst of an aggression, and it must be performed in a way that is the least aggressive in response as possible.

For example, if someone is charging at me with a knife with the intention of killing me, I may defend myself. If I have a knife and defend myself that way in the moment, no one will fault me. But, assuming that this is happening in my house, what else could I do leading up to that encounter?

  • I could have a security system on my house that locks my doors so the intruder never makes it in
  • I could shout at the attacker to stop, I have a weapon and he may not proceed any further
  • I could have a more serious weapon such as a gun and tell the attacker so, that if they do not leave immediately they will be shot
  • I could have cameras installed and tell the attacker that they will be recorded and the evidence will be sent to a judge/court system
  • If I am skillful enough, I can use techniques to disarm the attacker as they approach me so that they are no longer a threat

If all of these actions fail, I am again justified in using force to defend myself. But notice how all of these actions are softer than killing a person in self defense. All of them reach the same goal: defense of property and life against attackers. Yet, only one outcome (me using actual force to defend myself) results in anyone getting physically hurt.

Aang chose the softer route when he did not kill the Fire Lord; he chose to disarm him and take away his ability for destruction, instead. Killing, like all violence, usually doesn’t bring about the goal it’s trying to meet. Even killing tyrants doesn’t necessarily stop tyranny. Brutus, one of the group who killed Julius Caesar and recognized him for the tyrant he was, lamented after to Cicero that he did not achieve his goal of stopping tyranny:

“What was the end of our killing the tyrant, but to be free from tyranny? A ridiculous motive, and an empty exploit, if our slavery survive him! …I have destroyed a veteran tyrant; and shall I suffer, in a raw youth [of Augustus/Octavius], his heir, a power to control the senate, supersede the laws, and put chains on Rome?”

Marcus Junius Brutus

Despite his efforts, a parade of tyrants proceeded to take hold of Rome and ruin it for many years after Julius. Killing him did indeed do nothing; Rome was enslaved by political power regardless.

In fact, libertarians do not believe anyone deserves to be killed for their crimes; instead, they should be made to pay reparations to their crimes to those they have harmed. Indeed, the tyrant owes a lot to a lot of people because he has harmed so many, but killing him does not forward the goal of repaying those harmed.

Disarming them is, indeed, the only way to stop their tyranny. The most important means of disarmament is not to disable his militaries, police forces, secret ops groups, tax officials, bureaucracies, etc, although that would go a long way to removing him from power. The best way to stop tyrants is with the pen, in an ideological disarmament, and to remove their power forever by showing that no one should have political power over others and that property rights do not allow for one group called “The State” to be able to tax at will and another group called “The Citizens” who are disallowed from that same activity.

Unfortunately, when Zuko is crowned Fire Lord at the end of the show, I had to groan a bit. Here is Plato’s nonsensical “Philosopher King” at play; if only we can get a good king into power! If only he is wise, moral, just, fair, kind, and generous! Alas, those types of people are not attracted to politics. As George MacDonald noted:

“It is not in the nature of politics that the best men should be elected. The best men do not want to govern their fellowmen.”

But, hey, it’s a kid’s show. They can’t be expected to be realistic about politics all the time. 😉

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