"Using hindsight, we discover that the individuals who
have been leaders came from strange and odd beginnings. No one of them could
have been predicted ahead of time."
— Leonard E. Read.
"Ratatouille," the new animated film by Disney/Pixar, is remarkably favorable to the free-market perspective. It praises human creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and property rights while taking a few well-aimed shots at welfare and government health inspectors. More than this, "Ratatouille" puts forth the idea that people must have the humility to learn from unexpected sources.
Unlike most films in which the hero is a talking animal, "Ratatouille" has a very strong pro-human and pro-entrepreneurial message. In this instance, the animal is Remy, a rat who becomes a great chef in Paris.
Early in the film, Remy is displaced from the French countryside to the big city. This would usually serve as the pretext for the screenwriters to make underhanded quips about the horrors of free enterprise and how urban life is destroying the environment. But Remy is actually a great admirer of the city and what it represents. He is sick and tired of being a rat, by which he means a freeloader, thieving or digging through garbage for food. He doesn’t want to live off the leftovers of others’ creativity. Instead, he longs to be more like humans, who "don’t just survive," but "discover and create." He often stops and stands in awe of the Parisian cityscape. He understands it is a living symbol of human creativity and achievement.
Remy’s admiration for the city and his surroundings inspires the viewer to be in awe of human creativity as well. The film is visually stunning. From the brass rails to the white soufflé bowls, everything in the movie is beautiful — each the product of human acts of creativity. While the action is going on, however, it is often too easy to take the spectacular surroundings for granted. It is worth taking the advice of Remy’s spirit guide, Gusteau: "Excellence is all around. You need only be aware to stop and savor it!"
Gusteau is a recently departed chef whose book and motto "Anyone Can Cook" is Remy’s inspiration. Throughout the movie, Gusteau appears as Remy’s invisible companion and conscience, encouraging Remy to take the risks necessary to be a successful creator and entrepreneur. In several instances, Gusteau helps Remy stand firm where others would turn tail and run. In fact, the whole story revolves around the main characters’ attempts to make their restaurant a successful enterprise and express their personal talents through their culinary craft.
The movie’s high energy chase scene revolves around the issue of property rights. Remy discovers that the head chef and arch villain Skinner has been hiding evidence that the garbage boy, Luigi, is actually the rightful owner of the restaurant. Remy takes the evidence to give to Luigi, but Skinner doesn’t give up without a chase. Skinner is not a villain because he is a "ruthless entrepreneur," as some might believe, but because he is an outright thief.
Finally, although Remy’s own work and creative abilities quickly enable him to live without freeloading, he remains tempted to steal food from the kitchen to feed his comrade rats higher quality fare than they’re used to. As he gives out free goods at other people’s expense, the welfare rolls predictably grow longer as more rats come to take advantage of his misguided philanthropy. In the end, however, the success of Remy’s enterprise — and his integrity — leads to the improved lot of his entire family by successfully serving others, not by stealing from them.
All these elements would do supporters of freedom proud. There is another theme, however, that will not strike most as particularly "libertarian," but which is the most libertarian element of the movie. This is the theme of learning from unexpected sources.
Gusteau’s motto, "Anyone can cook," is explored throughout the film and is finally illuminated by a soliloquy at the end of the movie. It is discovered that the motto does not mean "everyone can be a great cook," but that a great cook can come from anywhere. The stress is placed on the word "anyone," which is to say, we don’t know who it will be. It could be anyone. Of course, in the movie this is illustrated by a rat who turns out to be a great cook.
Gusteau’s motto is similar to F.A. Hayek’s argument for individual freedom and capitalism. Hayek argued that society cannot be centrally planned because planners could not possibly learn all the relevant information needed to direct and coordinate people’s actions successfully.
Hayek’s argument for freedom rests on the idea that a free society is the one that maximizes learning from unexpected sources. He explained that "nobody can know who knows best and that the only way by which we can find out is through a social process in which everybody is allowed to try and see what he can do."
A central agency could never know or come to know everything that individuals know about their own situations or capacities. Take Albert Einstein for example. He produced two of the most important papers in physics ever written when he was working in a patent office. Imagine being a director of the central planning agency in 1904: Could you ever have guessed to look among the clerks in a particular patent office to find the individual who would revolutionize our knowledge of time and space?
(You might argue that you could have found Einstein by looking at who did best in school. But Einstein was not a good student and he was terrible at math. No one would ever have known what Einstein had to offer if he hadn’t been allowed to try in the context of free institutions.)
In a society of free enterprise, in which everyone is free to try to see what he or she can do, the forces of competition tend to find out who can do what the best. Remy the cook, just like Einstein, is an utterly unexpected source of knowledge. When he is free to compete and offer his services to others, the world can discover his capabilities and talent.
On paper, the story of a rat who is a great cook may seem to take this principle to absurd levels, but its unbelievable aspects dissolve in celluloid and the principle is brought to life by the suspension of disbelief.
The freedom philosophy is a philosophy of humility that inspires respect for each individual because it reminds us that we never know what we have to learn from others, and because we never know who has the capacity to be a great advocate or even a great leader of our cause. Even the name of the movie is taken from a humble peasant’s dish.
"Ratatouille" successfully reproduces the inspiring message of the power of humility that lies at the heart of the libertarian tradition.
Andrew G. Humphries is a 2007 graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., and a research intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and the Center are properly cited.