By Zack Beauchamp
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, given the fraught political debate, that the most interesting televised take on inequality is snuck in through metaphor. More surprising, though, is that the vehicle is a kids show airing on Nickelodeon. Yet it’s true: The Legend of Korra (the more-than-worthy sequel to the beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender) has been directly channeling the some of most philosophically sophisticated arguments on the morality and politics of redistributing wealth. It’s both a valuable public service and a joy to watch.
Korra is set in a world where some people, referred to as benders, have the ability to manipulate the four elements (water, earth, fire, and air). Benders have huge natural advantages over non-benders: being able to shoot fire out of your hands or freeze people in blocks of ice clearly gives you a decent leg up in a fight. But the show digs a layer deeper than that obvious use, creating a 1920s-esque industrial millieu wherein the social order constructed and maintained on bending abilities. Electricity is generated by firebenders who can manipulate lightning, the main professional sport is a sort of bending boxing, and so on.
The main thematic arc of Korra comes from a clear implication of that premise: benders and non-benders are not each others’ social equals. Because so many important roles are open only to benders, non-benders are systematically disadvantaged, denied access to important sectors of government and the economy. The police force, for example, is made up of specialized earthbenders who can manipulate metal. This state of affairs raises a basic moral question: is it acceptable to structure a society where the luck of being born a bender plays such a huge role in shaping your life chances?Interestingly, the show makes its villain a champion of the most egalitarian solution to this problem. The masked terrorist Amon leads a shadowy organization called The Equalists, whose is to eliminate bending altogether to create a more equal society. By contrast, the heroine Korra is the bending champion par excellence: she’s The Avatar, the one bender in the world capable of manipulating all four elements. On a children’s show, even one as sophisticated as this one, the message of the good guy/bad guy division is clear: the proponents of equality are in the wrong. Though it’s made clear that Amon has a point, the means by which he goes about “redistributing” talents — taking away benders’ powers — seems unjust.
The debate between Amon and Korra, and the show’s slant on it, could have been ripped from the work of the 20th century’s most influential political philosopher, John Rawls. Rawls is famous, in part, for arguing that the natural distribution of talents is morally arbitrary: just because you’re lucky to be born smarter, faster, or even more predisposed to working hard than your neighbor doesn’t mean you’re entitled to more stuff than she is. Governments, then, have no moral reason to allow more talented individuals to acquire more resources than their less-talented peers. This view, called “luck egalitarianism,” seems to support Amon’s position. Just because benders have natural advantages non-benders doesn’t mean they ought to be allowed to have greater opportunity from the get-go. Indeed, Rawls contemplated a version of Amon’s solution,casting a sympathetic eye to the idea that it would be a good thing to use genetic engineering to improve the lot of those born with natural disadvantages.
But Rawls explicitly rejects Amon’s actual proposal, the idea that we ought to take away talents from individuals in the name of promoting equality. Rawls was, in contrast to his Marxist opponents, a liberal progressive, willing to tolerate a degree of inequality inasmuch as that inequality improved the lot of the poorest people in society. Capitalism was good, Rawls thought, because the limited amount of inequalityit required significantly improved the lives of the poor by generating more wealth. In Korra’s world, destroying the technology that benders power would almost certainly make the poorest non-benders worse off. If all the firebenders disappeared, Republic City’s power grid would shut off overnight, hurting non-benders that depend on it for heating, refrigeration, and light. Rawls, then, likelywould have taken Korra’s side: benders should be allowed to keep their powers because it’s best for the most vulnerable that they do.
In this case, that solution seems like a bit of a cop-out. We feel like Amon is doing something wrong when (spoiler!) he takes away a famous pro-bending team’s abilities not because it hurts the poor, but because he’s doing an injustice to the team members themselves:
This raises the idea that while significant inequality might be wrong, it might also intrinsically wrong to forcibly take the abilities from people that give rise to some inequalities. Of course, we aren’t confronted with this trade-off in the current American economic climate, as much of our inequality is caused by policy that favors the not-necessarily-so-talented 1%.
Nonetheless, though, America’s inequality problem does force us to grapple with basic moral questions about why and how much redistribution is morally justified. The Legend Of Korra, by setting up a fictional world where radical left and progressive liberal views of economic justice clash, is helping us clarify our most fundamental beliefs on the topic. Not bad for a Saturday morning cartoon.
Zack Beauchamp contributes to Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish at Newsweek/Daily Beast. You can follow him on Twitter at @zackbeauchamp.