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By Art Carden*
It’s done: One month and twenty-two movies later, my kids and I have watched all of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe/Avengers series, from the original Iron Man through Avengers: Endgame. I was impressed with how they pulled everything together while setting up Phase 4 of the Disney franchise (spoilers follow, so if you’re waiting for Endgame to make its way to the second-run theaters or make its way to video, you should probably stop reading).
It all would have been different, however, had Thanos not clung to a flat-earth theory of the limits to economic growth.
Thanos is wrong
As Thanos explains to Gamora in Infinity War, “it’s a simple calculus: this universe is finite, it’s resources finite; if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.” And how does Thanos plan to correct it? He collects all six of the infinity stones, snaps his fingers, and makes half the life in the universe disappear.
Just like President George W. Bush “abandoned free market principles to save the free market system” during the Great Recession, Thanos ended life on a massive scale in order to save it. Or, to borrow from another fictional character who shared his dismal outlook, one Ebenezer Scrooge, Thanos took proactive steps to “decrease the surplus population.”
Alas, both Thanos and Scrooge are wrong: There’s no “surplus population.” Every new life is a blessing, not a curse, because it brings with it not just another mouth to feed but another mind with which to have ideas and with which to create resources. This is the simple insight that, in my humble opinion, should have won the economist Julian Simon a Nobel Prize (and that might have, had he not died in 1998): the mind is the ultimate resource.
Thanos assumes, apparently, that “resources” are defined objectively. This isn’t the case: we can describe the physical, temporal, and spatial characteristics of objects, but what makes something a “resource” is our ability to identify how we can use those characteristics to satisfy our wants. Something isn’t a resource until we know how it can be used (I explain this in my chapter in the Cambridge Handbook of Classical Liberal Thought, available as a working paper here).
Prosperity is unlimited
Thanos extols his will and his steely resolve to save life by ending it, but his most important weakness is his lack of (economic) imagination. What would have happened had he discarded his plan to end half of life in the universe and had instead noticed Adam Smith’s insights about the productivity-increasing effects of the division of labor? One of the first lessons students learn in an economics class is that trade creates wealth: It allows us to get more out of a fixed quantity of inputs, or what is essentially the same thing, it allows us to get a given amount of output with fewer inputs. The possibilities on an Earth with an open, vibranium-exporting Wakanda are practically endless. But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what would be possible with interstellar trade, migration, and division of labor. Thor and the Asgardians are “superhuman,” but even he had trouble with his cable service and needed assistance.
Thanos might reply that this just pushes the problem back a step because we would eventually run up against an interstellar production possibilities frontier and then the “simple calculus” of growing population against finite resources and, therefore, the decline to subsistence famously predicted by Thomas Malthus.
There is more to economic growth and prosperity than the material, however—and the entire Avengers franchise illustrates how prosperity is unlimited. It’s a retelling and reimagining of stories told using characters first introduced decades ago who, in turn, were then modern updates on classic heroic tropes and, in the case of Thor, specifically lifted from an ancient mythological tradition. There is no limit to the number of ways we can reimagine Thor and the other Avengers just as there is no limit to the number of ways we can reimagine Spider-Man or Shakespeare or “When the Levee Breaks.”
In March, I wrote about how the music of The Prodigy shows that there are no limits to economic progress. As long as there are new ways to combine sounds and images, and as long as there are new ways to tell stories old and new, there will be new ways to live fuller, richer, and more meaningful lives. Had Thanos understood this, then perhaps there would have been a wholly different, more prosperous, and less destructive Endgame in which Gamora, Black Widow, and Tony Stark—among so many others—would not only have survived but would have thrived.
Here’s a video from the Foundation for Economic Education on what Thanos gets wrong (disclosure: I do contract work for FEE and serve on their Board of Scholars).
*Art Carden is a Professor of Economics, author of “Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World” published in 2020, co-editor of Southern Economic Journal, and recipient of the 2021 Faculty Outstanding Scholarship Award at Samford.