Greed vs. Capitalism in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

“Don’t underestimate the sickness of gold,” warns the wizard Gandalf. “Dragon sickness penetrates all who enter this mountain—almost all.”

The final installment of The Hobbit Trilogy—“The Battle of the Five Armies”—reveals the destructive nature of greed, which is—perhaps surprisingly—at  odds with capitalism and the free market. This film’s warning against the sickness of avarice supports a laissez-faire approach to both economics and politics.

The movie (spoiler alert!) opens with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), the enormous fiery dragon, descending upon Lake Town. The town’s cowardly mayor provides the first snapshot of avarice as he yells “the town is lost, save the gold!” Floating on a ship laden with precious metal, the mayor even tosses his most loyal servant overboard to salvage as much money as he can.

As the noble hero Bard (Luke Evans) downs the beast with a black arrow, Smaug falls to his death, landing on the very gold the town’s mayor prized so highly. Smaug and the mayor both sink to the bottom of the lake—undone by their greed.

The dwarves’ commander Thorin (Richard Armitage), who has returned to his homeland as King Under the Mountain, broods over Smaug’s golden horde. “Gold beyond measure—beyond sorrow and grief,” he chants, spellbound by the great riches of his ancestors. The wise dwarf Balin (Ken Stott) warns about “dragon sickness,” reminding Thorin that his own grandfather, Thrane, was undone by the very same avarice.

“The Shire is a shining example of free market capitalism.”

Having killed the dragon who would have reclaimed Thorin’s gold, Bard asks for a portion to rebuild the city of men—a portion that Thorin promised to give in return for the town’s aid. “We will take only what was promised to us, what we need to rebuild our lives,” the hero explains. Thorin, in his greed, turns him away, and invites war between dwarves, men, and elves.

The battle which gives the movie its name concludes with a line which captures this central theme: “If more people valued home above gold this world would be a merry place.”

But is the film a critique of capitalism as well as greed? Far from it. Each character overcome by greed takes gold by force, not by adding value in a free market.

By contrast, the Shire is a shining example of free market capitalism—hobbits work in the earth and enjoy the comforts of life through commerce, with minimal government oversight (the only government officials are sheriffs who defend private property). As Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt explain in “The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot,” Tolkien supported free markets and capitalism as the way to human flourishing. Tolkien didn’t even come to this conclusion through economics, but through the theology and philosophy of freedom in the West.

Both Lake Town and the elves profit by trading with one another, as dwarves, elves, and men once had a flourishing commercial society before the coming of Smaug. Smaug—and the greed he represents—destroyed trade and flourishing by hording gold for himself, rather than using it to buy goods and services or investing it to yield even more profits.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is a story about the return of freedom and flourishing through the destruction of greed and monopolistic power. Friends of the free market should praise it as a vindication of capitalism, rightly understood, and a powerful critique of the socialist tendencies of big government.

Admittedly, the movie is far from perfect—featuring simple villains, video game style graphics, slow motion action sequences that deny the laws of physics, and crude caricatures of greed. In life, avarice never looks this black-and-white, and the moviemakers could have easily made the characters’ struggles more relatable, and palatable.

Nevertheless, the film presents a fitting conclusion to The Hobbit Trilogy, with stunning battle scenes, moving character developments, and an attack on greed very much fitting with Tolkien’s original work—and his support for free markets.

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