A friend of mine invited me to go to new movie The Jungle Book this past Friday. Because I had plans Friday night, we decided to go to the matinee, not fully appreciating the fact that we would be in the movie with a bunch of 4 year olds until we arrived to the theater. Taking our seats amongst a bunch of miniature humans I went into the theater with few expectations for the movie other than expecting a nostalgic, fun loving children’s story. Not only was the movie entertaining and charming for both children and adults, it contained numerous economic themes that I did not recall from my first exposure to the story as a child.
For example, the animals in this story are surprisingly ordered and disciplined. The wolves that raise Mowgli adhere to a strict code of interaction which they call “The Law of the Jungle”. Multiple times throughout the film the pack, Mowgli included, recite this creed that provides a oral contract which the wolves have agreed to live by in order to ensure peaceful relations amongst themselves and the other animals in the jungle.
(The whole law can be found at http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_lawofjungle.htm)
Kipling presumably included this into the story to humanize the already inherent pack mentality that wolves have, in order to make it more relatable to people. The part in the law “for the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack”, functions to overcome the collective action problem that the wolves face. These wolves are not the strongest or biggest animals in the jungle, however, because they travel and fight in packs, they are able to take on animals much more dangerous and powerful than any one of them alone. You see this pack mentality in the movie when they collectively fight the huge tiger Shere Khan. The leader of the wolf pack, Akela, stresses honor among his wolves and makes arrangements with other animals in the jungle to ensure peace amongst the wolves and others.
Another remarkably sophisticated institutional component that Kipling included in the story is the “Peace Rock”. In the story, the jungle experiences an extreme drought and water is very scarce. The water level of the communal watering hole decreases rapidly to expose parts of the bottom of the hole. There is a rock at the bottom of the hole called the “Peace Rock”. When the water level gets so low that it exposes the Peace Rock, a pseudo state-of-emergency in the jungle is automatically called. These laws include the notion that any animal will be protected by the rest of the community and by “The Law of the Jungle” if they come to the watering hole to drink. Presumably, in times of plentiful water, animals who ventured to the watering hole were on their own in terms of taking a risk of being attacked and eaten. However, in this time of drought, to ensure relative peace and a stable population equilibrium, the animals have decided to suspend the normal rules of animal conduct in order to provide safe passage to the watering hole.
This type of state-of-emergency rule is common amongst subsistence level cultures and primitive societies. They provide an institutional framework to prevent people from falling into extreme and perhaps inescapable poverty. The creation and enforcement of these norms safeguards the society against an even more deleterious outcome in already challenging times. A modern day example would be the concept of “cousinship” in Western Africa. This is the notion that family and friends of yours and friends of friends of yours are all considered “cousins”. When a “cousin” comes knocking on your door, you are culturally obligated to care for them, providing them with food and clothing, potentially for an extended period of time, if necessary. This cultural constitution acts as a privately enforced social safety net in which community members care for one another in times of desperate need.
Not only is the new “The Jungle Book” entertaining and contains some impressive CGI you will definitely learn some institutional economics to boot!