Lord of the Rings: Economist uses Prometheus Hall of Fame classic to expose false complaints about capitalism – and about Tolkien’s underappreciated Eagles

Why didn’t the Eagles fly the ring to Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings?

Even if you haven’t heard fans argue over the alleged “eagle plot hole” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Prometheus-winning trilogy, you should find economist Bryan Caplan’s recent blog post illuminating – as well as Ilya Somin’s Reason posting about it.

An economics professor at George Mason University and a New York Times bestselling author, Caplan finds many parallels – and similar flaws – between such fan criticisms of Tolkien’s classic fantasy trilogy and socialist criticisms of free markets.

Thanks to Reason magazine, which published constitutional lawyer Ilya Somin’s column highlighting Caplan’s intriguing arguments (and some of his own) on Reason’s Volokh Conspiracy legal blog.

Both Somin and Caplan are clearly devout Tolkien fans, well-versed in the intricacies and plausible world-building in his Middle Earth. So they both see through the false argument that the Eagles easily could have destroyed the Ring of Power (and much more simply and quickly) by flying it to Mount Doom to drop into the sea of lava.

That fan knowledge, combined with their expertise on economics and law, makes for a fascinating and unusual commentary that sheds further light on the anti-authoritarian and libertarian themes and other manifold virtues of LOTR, the 2009 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

In an essay that should appeal more to sf/fantasy fans and libertarians to the degree they are familiar with Lord of the Rings, Caplan defends both much-maligned markets and the heroic but underappreciated Eagles of Tolkien.

“Like Tolkien’s eagles, markets aren’t perfect, but they are awesome.

“Just as the peoples of Middle Earth are vastly better off with Eagles than without them, so real-world people are vastly better off with markets than would likely be the case with any other economic systems. Indeed, real-world socialism looks a lot like Mordor under the rule of Sauron. Ditto for real-world fascism and statist nationalism.”

LFS leader William H. Stoddard offered fresh insights about LOTR in his now-classic must-read 2018 Prometheus Blog post “What Do You Mean ‘Libertarian’? (and why Tolkien’s trilogy deserved its Prometheus.)”

Stoddard and Michael Grossberg later wove additional insights – about the corruptions of power and the peaceful cooperative libertarian aspects of the hobbit’s Shire – into their co-written Prometheus Appreciation of The Lord of the Rings.

But now Caplan and Somin – both intelligent and articulate in their libertarian understanding of society and markets – have added new dimensions of understanding and appreciation to Tolkien’s masterpiece.

Here’s an excerpt to give you a sense of the attention to specifics from Somin’s and Caplan’s blog, which deserves to be read in their entirety:

“Caplan lists some other things fans believe the Eagles should have done,” Somin writes.

Among them, Caplan asks these questions:

“Why didn’t the eagles transport Gandalf everywhere instead of making him ride a horse?”

“Why didn’t the eagles fight at Minas Tirith?”

“Why didn’t the eagles fly Bilbo and the Dwarves straight to the Lonely Mountain?”

“…Caplan suggests less criticism of the Eagles for what they could have done but didn’t, and more gratitude for all the good they did do,” Somin writes.

Caplan argues, in turn:

“Give the eagles a break!  The eagles are already doing a ton of great stuff for Middle Earth! They’re giant eagles. Top of the food chain. They could easily just roost safely in their eyries and live out their lives in peace. Yet without asking for the slightest compensation, these heroic birds…
…saved Gandalf at Isengard,
…fought the Nazgul at the Black Gate,
…rescued the Dwarves from the trees when they were surrounded by Goblins and Wargs,
… and delivered the coup de grace at the Battle of the Five Armies.

The eagles aren’t perfect, but they are awesome. Instead of asking the eagles to do even more, how about a little freakin’ gratitude?”

Caplan then argues that that’s a “handy allegory” for complaints about markets.

“They offer vastly greater benefits than the eagles of Tolkien,” Caplan writes.

J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1940s (Creative Commons license)

“To start, these glorious markets…
…fill our stores with cornucopian wealth,
…create endless new products,
…endlessly improve the products we already have,
…offer great convenience,
…build massive amounts of spacious, comfortable housing,
…pay salaries ten, twenty, a hundred times our physical needs,
…offer a vast range of jobs: the whole continuum from low commitment to high commitment, low risk to high risk, low social interaction to high social interaction, low comfort to high comfort,
…will pay you something to do practically anything,
…incentivize the world’s most creative and industrious people to share their gifts with the world,
…while respecting the principle of voluntary consent. Truly, no one makes you shop at WalMart.

… Yet in politics and popular culture, markets gets even less love than the eagles….

Like Tolkien’s eagles, markets aren’t perfect, but they are awesome.”

Worth noting: Caplan’s blog also throws in a fun link to a YouTube video about how “Lord of the Rings Should Have Ended” – with eagles saving the day.

And as a bonus, his blog links to a YouTube video in which Tolkien himself explained why the Eagles didn’t fly the Fellowship heroes to Mordor.

For more information, visit Caplan’s Bet On It blog on Substack.

Economist Bryan Caplan (Creative Commons license)

Note: Bryan Caplan is an economics professor at George Mason University, specializing in behavioral economics and public-choice theory; an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute; a self-described “economic libertarian” and a New York Times bestselling author.

Among his books: The Myth of the Rational Voter, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money; Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration (co-written with cartoonist Zach Weinersmith); Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun; Authority, Obedience and the State; and How Evil Are Politicians? Essays on Demagoguery.



* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch  videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, end slavery and war and achieve universal liberty, respect for human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.










Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.