Once upon a time, the word “libertarian” was barely known. The ideas it represented had not yet gained common currency, let alone blossomed into political significance. But in the 1970’s, a small group of libertarian filmmakers began producing educational films as a way to spread the word. They called themselves WRI Education (World Research Inc.). Their short films were like rain on an intellectual desert.
Directed at college and high school audiences, they articulated the concepts of liberty in a fun, entertaining way and thereby helped to recruit that first wave of young advocates who transformed the fledgling movement into a global intellectual force. The WRI Education films are now a little dated, but are nonetheless still useful and interesting in their own right as a window into the early libertarian movement. Here are four of their films, available free online.
The Incredible Bread Machine
Probably the most impactful of their films was The Incredible Bread Machine, based on the book by R.W. Grant. It was a primer on libertarianism, with the essentials explained and illustrated in a very entertaining way. The film covers, among other concepts: the nonaggression principle, risk as a necessary part of an enjoyable life, good intentions versus bad results, the link between personal and economic freedom, laws doing more harm than good, and government as a consumer not a producer of wealth.
The organizing mechanism for this film about the advantages of liberty is a freewheeling political conversation between four college students who, together, both ask and answer all the right questions. Interspersed within their dialogue are some compelling reenactments of misuse of government power as well as other explanatory presentations. These add both emotional appeal and humor. It’s a well-made presentation that’s still effective, entertaining, and serviceable as an introduction to libertarian ideas.
Another influential WRI Education film was Libra, which won widespread praise and has even been noted by the Smithsonian. Some distinguished talent contributed ideas to this film, including faculty and staff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, and the Boeing Corporation. Particularly interesting are the descriptions of techniques used to colonize and build in space.
As the story goes, an international planning commission is resisting the expansion of Libra, an orbiting space colony that collects solar power and transmits that power to earth via microwaves. The planning commission argues that “irresponsible energy production” will upset the delicate balance negotiated between existing producers. An energy crisis on earth provides the backdrop for this futuristic story of space-based energy generation. It’s not clear who’s going to win this battle, but the viewer can’t help but side with the innovative Libra management.
The film is mildly persuasive as an argument for free markets and makes its points with humorous Randian characterizations of good business people and evil bureaucrats.
Not Yours to Give
This film is based on a true story about American hero Davy Crockett. The story was originally revealed by Harper’s Magazine in 1867 and since been reprinted by The Mises Institute.
The film is essentially a reenactment of the conversation between then Congressman Crockett and one of his constituents, a highly-regarded local citizen named Horatio Bunce. As Congressman, Davy Crockett signed on to a bill to assist victims of a fire, a seemingly good thing to do and one for which he expected to be generally congratulated. He was, however surprised to find a mixed response. In particular, Bunce gave him an earful on the subject of publicly-financed charity: “If you have the right to give to one, you have the right to give to all; and, as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper. You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other.” The conversation awakened Crockett to dangers involved in government charity and he never voted for such bills again.
Dry stuff, you might think, but as the US now edges toward insolvency, they seem like remarkably wise words worth hearing.
The Inflation File
This is a film that has become of current interest again. When it was made, around 1980, the cause of inflation was not well understood, even by economists. Some thought it was caused by unions, who initiated wage increases that then rippled through the economy in terms of higher prices. Some thought price rises in the energy sector were to blame. And so on. Fingers pointed everywhere but to the actual cause.
Milton Friedman had already published his seminal work A Monetary History of the United States in 1963, which demonstrated clearly the dominant role of the Federal Reserve in inflation and more broadly economic change, but its impact had yet to be felt on public policy.
In The Inflation File, a private detective takes on the case of finding the cause of inflation, examining each of the suspects in turn, and finally discovering the guilty party. The comic element of a detective taking on an economic inquiry makes for an entertaining exposition.
Additional WRI Education titles
The Poverty Trap | WorldCat
Dignity | WorldCat
One Good Turn: Social Security Legislation | WorldCat
Inside the Hayek Equation | WorldCat
Non-Negotiable | WorldCat
Free Enterprise at Work | WorldCat
Chickenpower: A Fowl Look at Energy Prices | WorldCat
Chickenfeed: A Fowl Look at Money | WorldCat
Chickenomics: A Fowl Approach to Economics | WorldCat
The Best for Most | WorldCat
The Sting | WorldCat
Money, Money, Who Makes the Money | WorldCat
Equality of Opportunity: An Interview With Dr. Walter Williams | WorldCat
The Poverty Showdown in Dallas | WorldCat
Hard Questions | WorldCat