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The Libertarian Law and Economics of Batman:

I recently saw the new Batman movie, which is quite good. Overall, I have a much more favorable view of the Batman mythos than of the rival Superman series. Unlike Superman, who often seems to waste his immense powers on relatively minor villains, Batman/Bruce Wayne pays attention to the importance of opportunity costs. For example, he goes after the bigwigs of Gotham organized crime, not the smalltime petty thieves. He consistently attacks the most powerful villains he can realistically take on with the resources available to him.

The Batman story is also an interesting quasi-libertarian commentary on the shortcomings of government. Like the Mafia portrayed in The Godfather, the necessity for Batman's sometimes dubious methods arises because of the government's failure to protect people and their property against predation. This point is effectively emphasized in both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. In that respect, Batman is similar to The Godfather in conveying skepticism about government, its motives, and its ability to effectively fulfill even the core "minimal state" function of protecting the public against violent crime.

In two important respects, Batman's message is actually more libertarian than that of The Godfather. While the latter portrays private protection firms (such as the Mafia) as being basically similar to government in their predatory nature, Batman's crimefighting activities are depicted as being both more noble and more effective than those of the generally incompetent and corrupt Gotham authorities.

In addition, Mario Puzo was extremely skeptical about the ethics and motives of "legitimate" businessmen, whom he portrayed as being little different from the Mafiosi. By contrast, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire businessman and his control of Wayne Enterprises is viewed as essential to his crimefighting activities. At times, the Batman movies even hint at the possibility that big businessmen actually have a self-interested incentive to help provide the public good of reducing violent crime. After all, they stand to lose a lot of profit if high crime rates reduce investment and drive away their customers and skilled workers. Precisely because of the vast size of his firm, Wayne has less incentive to free ride on the crime-fighting efforts of others in providing the public good of crime control. He will capture enough of the benefits of crime-fighting to justifying investing in it, even if he has to pay a very high proportion of the costs himself.

SPOILER ALERT (Proceed below at your own risk, if you haven't seen the movie yet):

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Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Steve Bainbridge on Batman:
  2. The Libertarian Law and Economics of Batman:
hawkins:
Is it better than Batman Begins?
7.25.2008 12:00am
hawkins:
More importantly - not having seen Batman Begins, should I wait to see Dark Knight?
7.25.2008 12:00am
frankcross (mail):
Sure, Superman seems like more of a cultural conservative superhero, someone who has supernatural powers in whom to grant authoritarian trust. Batman seems libertarian, a private party using his skills and intelligence to overcome wrong, outside the government. It seems that Superman worked more closely with government, Batman and government had an uneasy relationship. Since all superheroes are vigilantes of a sort, are there any leftwing ones?
7.25.2008 12:02am
Ilya Somin:
Since all superheroes are vigilantes of a sort, are there any leftwing ones?

I think that Wonder Woman was intended to be a left-wing superheroine. She works closely with the government (without seeming to be an authoritarian moralist like Superman), and of course she has a strong feminist message.
7.25.2008 12:11am
Jim at FSU (mail):
I don't know badly they will ruin the movie, but Watchmen really did a good job of portraying how superpowerful heroes integrate into society. Dr Manhattan (virtually omniscient and omnipotent) wins the vietnam war and becomes a central part of the US's defense against soviet nuclear missiles. He also seems to be constantly advancing science and using his super powers to alleviate shortages of rare materials (lithium or berylium or something in the book). Most of the "superheroes" other than Manhattan are more like Batman.

I really liked the batmen with guns that stepped up to the plate in the beginning. I think this movie did a better job of discussing the morality of batman as the vigilante than any batman movie I have ever seen.
7.25.2008 12:11am
AnonLawStudent:
Hawkins,

You'll do well to rent Batman Begins first. I definitely agree with the broader implication that the plots of the Christian Bale Batman movies are more subtle and better developed that some of the earlier installments.
7.25.2008 12:13am
Hauk:
Sure, Dent fails. But does Batman really succeed? Has Gotham City gotten any better by the end of the movie?
7.25.2008 12:15am
Ilya Somin:
Hawkins,

I think that this movie is better than Batman Begins. But the point is debatable.

More importantly - not having seen Batman Begins, should I wait to see Dark Knight?

Yes you should probably see Batman Begins first.
7.25.2008 12:15am
Jim at FSU (mail):
Most of the collectivist/utopian characters with super powers have been villains. Nothing worse than someone willing to break a few million eggs to make their vision of an omlette.

But to be honest, collectivism goes against the whole individualist streak that comes with having vast powers. I think The Incredibles covered this angle really well.
7.25.2008 12:15am
SIG357:
Hmm, why do I suspect that Batman is not a big respecter of the "harm principle"?
7.25.2008 12:18am
Jim at FSU (mail):
Actually, now that I think about it, I can't think of any comic book villains that had really well developed political theories at all beyond world domination.
7.25.2008 12:19am
Splunge:
He consistently attacks the most powerful villains he can realistically take on with the resources available to him.

Some seriously questionable unexamined assumptions here, doc. Suppose arguendo the petty purse thief is responsible for x units of crime, while the kingpin is responsible for 100x. Your conclusion follows only if it costs Batman less time and effort to defeat the kingpin than it would take to defeat 100 purse thieves, or, conversely, if the kingpin's defenses are proportionately weaker than those of the purse thief.

That seems, to put it mildly, unlikely. A quasi-military operation usually benefits greatly from economies of scale. It's usually far more than 500 times harder to defeat a batallion of 500 men than it is to defeat one man, if for no other reason than that one man has to sleep, eat, defecate, while the battallion can take shifts as lookouts. The old adage divide and conquer applies strongly on the battlefield, as every general from Hannibal on down knew. If this fact applies to crime empires as well, then Batman would reduce net crime levels more by defeating many small fry than by taking on a few kingpins (kingspin?).

At times, the Batman movies even hint at the possibility that big businessmen actually have a self-interested incentive to help provide the public good of reducing violent crime.

No! Really??! Could it be that big businessmen often rank law 'n' order issues high when voting, and tend to vote for conservative (e.g. Republican) politicians who propose to lock up the criminals and throw away the key, not just because they love to see poor black people squirming under the boot of police oppression, but because, being more substantial property owners, they have a proportionally greater exposure to the evils of crime than Joe Average and hence value social order more highly? Naaaah.
7.25.2008 12:29am
Ilya Somin:
Hmm, why do I suspect that Batman is not a big respecter of the "harm principle"?

I don't know why. The only villains Batman goes after are those who have themselves violated the harm principle (usually by killing innocent people). He doesn't go after perpetrators of purely victimless crimes or people he dislikes because disapproves of the way they live their private lives.
7.25.2008 12:35am
Ilya Somin:
Sure, Dent fails. But does Batman really succeed? Has Gotham City gotten any better by the end of the movie?

It's hard to say for sure. But Batman (unlike Dent) did succeed in getting rid of the Joker. The city would surely be worse off if the Joker were still free. Moreover, Batman also seriously damaged the Mafia organized crime network. And of course he made the city better by eliminating Dent himself after he became "Two-Face." Not to mention that he saved the city from complete destruction in the first movie. So, on balance, it seems that Gotham City really is better off for having Batman, even if he doesn't succeed as completely as we would want.

Of course, he can't succeed completely, because then there would be no room for further sequels!
7.25.2008 12:39am
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):

Actually, now that I think about it, I can't think of any comic book villains that had really well developed political theories at all beyond world domination.



There was a pretty good philosophical discussion between the Red Skull and the Kingpin over why each of them participated in the drug trade in "Streets of Poison" (a Captain America TPB). Basically the Red Skull participated in the drug trade because he was a nihilist and wanted to see the United States brought down by corrupting our society with addictive drugs. The Kingpin (who was his rival in the drug trade) justified his participation because he said it made America stronger because only the morally weak would get hooked on drugs and enabling them to destroy themselves ultimately made America better off.
7.25.2008 12:55am
gattsuru (mail) (www):
Since all superheroes are vigilantes of a sort, are there any leftwing ones?


It depends on how you look at it. Green Arrow and similar individuals tend to be rather heavily politically "Democratic", so they certainly do exist. The current version of Wonder Woman is typically played as both a feminist and a very far left Democrat, if not nearly to the point of socialism. Dove, of Dove and Hawk, is heavily pacifist, although where that lies on the political spectrum seems to change significant over time. The entire Marvel Comics mutant lines like "X-Men" have turned into rather heavy-handed discussions on discrimination, with the heroes playing fairly left-wing placement, and the eventual result of "The Authority" is portrayed as an socialist utopia.

The Question was originally a (ridiculously and heavy-handed) objectivist, but more recent reinventions since Rorschach came around are more liberal.

The basic concept of superheroing seems like it would be a fairly conservative system -- it's about recognizing "good and evil" then responding individually -- but in practice it seldom comes across as such. Consider it a flaw of the Fantastic Aesop, if not intentional : superheroes become just another type of police officer with special rules. Superman quickly stops being about human responsibility; he's the only fix for any problem, and fixes everything. No one else can take down Lex Luthor or today's monster of the week. If Commissioner Gorden, or even better Joe Blow, put a bullet in the Joker, there's no Batman worth talking about. Anyone that tries otherwise must fail. Since canonically, most heroes become psuedogovernment officials (Captain America is treated like a police officer) or governments of their own (everyone in the Justice League, especially of the television Justice League Unlimited, ends up as a giant government of its own).

It's not about individuals fighting problems that the government can't deal with. It's about some magical group with their own badges and special permission dealing with problems.
7.25.2008 1:16am
gattsuru (mail) (www):
Actually, now that I think about it, I can't think of any comic book villains that had really well developed political theories at all beyond world domination.


Lex Luthor's got some interesting political beliefs, but they don't really match up much with conventional groupings. He emphasizes the importance of individual human greatness, even by normal folk, but he's got few issues with government interaction in the hands of important folk... at least as long as it's at his behest. He's mostly an authoritarian, but at least he rewards the good puppies.

Superman IV did make him a ridiculous conservative, but I don't think anyone wants to be reminded of that.
7.25.2008 1:36am
Displaced Midwesterner:

Actually, now that I think about it, I can't think of any comic book villains that had really well developed political theories at all beyond world domination.

Depends how you far you want to stretch the definitions of villain and political theory, but look at the work of Alan Moore in particular and also some of the X-Men villains (like Magneto and Apocalypse, depending on the era and writer, though).

But whether Batman himself fully internalizes the lesson or not, the movie certainly conveys a strong sense that government's flaws can't be corrected merely by choosing competent and idealistic leaders

It certainly does convey this sense, but there are also powerful non-libertarian currents. The tragedy of Dent's fall is personal, not really an inevitable product of government, and the movie takes a fairly strong stand that his role as a public and governmental leader was potentially the most effective force for good. If he had possessed Batman's personal conviction, the movie implies, it would have been a different, brighter story. Dent, it can be argued, as Gotham DA, was targeted by the Joker precisely because it was idealistic and effective government that presented the gravest threat to chaos and crime.
7.25.2008 2:21am
Steve Bainbridge (mail) (www):
As I argue over at my blog, I think you've missed the point. Bruce Wayne, as my friend John Carney observed, "takes corporate resources to pursue his own interests, uses underhanded means to acquire a majority stake in Wayne Enterprises after encouraging an initial public offering, and intimidates a potential whistle-blower. ... Bruce Wayne seems to feel no guilt about exploiting the minority shareholders in Wayne Enterprises or pillaging the corporate treasury for his crusade."

In addition, as I asked in an earlier post, Remember the main car chase in Batman Begins? Just how many millions of dollars in property damage did Batman inflict on Gotham in that one night? And how are those poor property owners going to explain things to their insurance company? Plus, if the mob runs the construction business and unions in Gotham, Batman's rooftop drives are helping subsidize organized crime.

Hardly a heroic archetype.
7.25.2008 2:43am
Angus Lander (mail):
The Dark Night seems to me pretty neutral between libertarianism and welfare-stateism. There are some corrupt and incompetent government officials. There are some corrupt and incompetent businessmen. And then there are, few and far between, some folks who are truly excellent at what they do. These include batman (entrepreneur), the joker (villain) and commissioner Gordon (bureaucrat).

The real villains of The Dark Night, to my mind, are not the Leviathan but rather: Hobbes, consequentialism and personal irresponsibility. Hobbes's "nasty, brutish and short" trope about the state of nature is debunked by the backfiring of the Joker's last social experiment, consequentialism by Batman's / commissioner Gordon's response to the Joker's hospital threat and personal irresponsibility by the fall of Harvey Dent and (rather brilliantly) the Joker's decision to keep changing the sob-story behind how he got his scars (thereby mocking the whole "he must have been beaten as a child" explanation of criminality); one of the great things about the Joker is that he actually is an astute student of human nature.

I guess you could somehow get from "people are responsible for their actions and must make hard decisions" to some sort of skepticism about government, but it's a longish road thereto.
7.25.2008 3:00am
Joshua:
hawkins: Is it better than Batman Begins? More importantly - not having seen Batman Begins, should I wait to see Dark Knight?

Yes, and yes. In fact Batman Begins was just released on Blu-Ray disc, so if you have a PS3 or some other Blu-Ray player that's definitely the route to go.

Back onto topic: In concept, Gotham City is clearly modeled after New York City. Indeed, the name "Gotham" (originally the name of an English town) predates the Batman comics as an alternate name for NYC itself. But NYC wrote the book on big-city liberal politics and the notion of city government as indispensable.* If GC ~= NYC, and if Wayne/Batman really represented a libertarian approach, it seems to me he wouldn't be nearly as cozy with Gordon, Dent and the other local GC authorities as he apparently is, and he certainly wouldn't be talking about hanging up the Batsuit and giving those same authorities back their monopoly on crimefighting.

* What's more, it turns out that The Dark Knight was filmed mostly on location in downtown Chicago, the city that wrote the first of many sequels to NYC's book.
7.25.2008 3:18am
Displaced Midwesterner:

Hobbes's "nasty, brutish and short" trope about the state of nature is debunked by the backfiring of the Joker's last social experiment, consequentialism by Batman's / commissioner Gordon's response to the Joker's hospital threat...

I'm not sure consequentialism is really debunked much given the wiretapping surveillance program and the final decision over the treatment of Dent's posthumous legacy.
7.25.2008 3:55am
Ilya Somin:
If GC ~= NYC, and if Wayne/Batman really represented a libertarian approach, it seems to me he wouldn't be nearly as cozy with Gordon, Dent and the other local GC authorities as he apparently is, and he certainly wouldn't be talking about hanging up the Batsuit and giving those same authorities back their monopoly on crimefighting.

Yes, Batman does try to cooperate with Dent, and considers hanging up the batsuit. But his efforts at such cooperation fail, and at the end of the film he decides that the city still needs Batman. The point is not that Batman personally is libertarian in his attitudes, but that the movie conveys something of a libertarian message. That message comes across more strongly precisely because Batman at first tries to return to a more statist path.

As for his cooperation with Gordon, it turns out that Gordon is well-meaning, but mostly ineffective.
7.25.2008 4:46am
Ilya Somin:
The tragedy of Dent's fall is personal, not really an inevitable product of government, and the movie takes a fairly strong stand that his role as a public and governmental leader was potentially the most effective force for good.

I don't think the movie as a whole does take that stand (though certain characters do). After all, Dent is corrupted at least in party by his own ambition and power - typical flaws of government.


If he had possessed Batman's personal conviction, the movie implies, it would have been a different, brighter story. Dent, it can be argued, as Gotham DA, was targeted by the Joker precisely because it was idealistic and effective government that presented the gravest threat to chaos and crime.

Actually, the Joker targeted Batman first, and Dent only secondarily. Even more to the point, Dent is targeted at least as much because of the fear taking him out would cause as because he is effective in combatting chaos and crime (in which fields Batman is the one who did most of the work). As for personal conviction, it's hard to argue that Dent lacked it. He seems to be willing to take great risks to advance his crimefighting agenda.
7.25.2008 4:51am
Jim at FSU (mail):
Holy law school batman, look at all the philosophy majors.
7.25.2008 8:39am
Hoosier:
"Since all superheroes are vigilantes of a sort, are there any leftwing ones?"

Well, Hellboy works for the government. Maybe he has an AFSCME card.
7.25.2008 9:05am
Master of Karate and Friendship (mail):
Batman is the best example of liberalism in the justice system gone awry. In the comics as well as in the movies, the city of Gotham is constantly paralyzed by a small group of terrorists. Arkham Asylum is a revolving door where criminals are rehabilitated and are re-released into society only to terrorize the populace again. How many people does the Joker have to kill before Batman can realize that there is a greater morality in killing the Joker or a Mr. Zsasz for justice.
7.25.2008 10:15am
PhanTom:
Well, Hellboy works for the government. Maybe he has an AFSCME card.


It's worse than that. Hellboy works for the BPRD, a private organization that is heavily subsidized by several major governments. He's on the dole, man.

Or is that better because the governments are contracting out to a private sector entity that is better equipped to deal with the unique issues raised by the Ogdru Jahad?

Oddly, I think the recent death of Captain America was set to move him to the left on the political spectrum, though it can certainly be viewed as a libertarian moment. Marvel Comics recently ran the "Civil War" crossover involving a US Government plan to require registration of all "capes" (costumed vigilantes), due to a tragic accident involving the destruction of a small town in Connecticut during a fight between a group of teenaged superheroes and b-list super villains. The Superhero Registration Act caused the superhero community to split as many heroes refused to register. Captain America became the leader of that group.


--PtM
7.25.2008 10:16am
Thales (mail) (www):
In the 1986 Frank Miller The Dark Knight Returns comic book miniseries, which supposedly inspired parts of both this film, which I haven't seen yet, and the first Tim Burton Batman, the theme Ilya discusses is taken to a gritty extreme. Superman is a misguided patriotic tool of an alternate contemporary version of a warmongering Reagan-led government that ignores all problems outside of the supposed threat of communism. Batman has aged and retired, leaving the state to its own devices in fighting crime. But the police are ineffective at best and corrupt at worst, and crime becomes so bad that Batman comes out of retirement. Despite his successes, he's branded as a vigilante and winds up having to fight Superman, who is brought in to arrest him. It's good stuff.
7.25.2008 11:37am
Hoosier:
It's worse than that. Hellboy works for the BPRD, a private organization that is heavily subsidized by several major governments.

So BPRD is like Haliburton or something? I have to admit that I'm not a big fan of the Hellboy comix, so I didn't know that he was a subcontractor. Back to the drawing board . . .
7.25.2008 12:45pm
Hoosier:
BTW:
The Superhero Registration Act caused the superhero community to split as many heroes refused to register.

Yeah. Marvel immitates 'The Incredibles.' Yuck.
7.25.2008 12:46pm
TomH (mail):
Actually, IIRC, Marvel resurrects a 1980s storyline from the X-Men. Concerning control of the mutants (Google - Henry Peter Gyrich)
7.25.2008 4:55pm
Paul R (mail):
The definition of vigilante is a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate); broadly : a self-appointed doer of justice. The Wikipedia version of vigilante is "a vigilante is a person who ignores due process of law and enacts their own form of justice in response to a perception of insufficient response by the authorities." Both of these sources agree that a vigilante dispenses justice and punishment, but that is exactly what Batman never does. Batman doesn't fine, imprison or kill the criminals he apprehends, he packages them up and turns them over to the police, sometimes also with the evidence of their crime if needed for a conviction. Batman is a rogue cop, a citizen making citizen arrests, but he never arrogates to himself a right to the retaliatory use of force if retaliatory force is understood as punishment.

I think that what some people in the movie are actually condemning in Batman's 'vigilantism' is a perceived stand against moral relativism; Batman judges which people need to be captured and in moral relativism people, especially people not in an official uniform, should not judge other people. Batman's fight for justice in Gotham inspires people to reject the passivity of moral relativism, and the rejection of moral relativism is exactly the issue highlighted by the two ferries which the Joker put into a variation of a "Prisoner's Dilemma".

The one thing he has done which was potentially problematic was kidnapping Mr. Lau from Hong Kong. However, China is a tyranny and has no extradition treaties, making it a criminal haven. Batman may well have provoked an international incident, but this is not automatically an immoral act. The Batman inhabits that space between the moral and the legal. Where a uniformed policeman is understood as an agent of the law, a suited up Batman is a personification of the moral. The law is supposed to serve a moral purpose and should be subordinate to moral considerations, so Batman is free to act where the law is not.
7.27.2008 10:25am
David Warner:
"Since all superheroes are vigilantes of a sort, are there any leftwing ones?"

If the word "leftwing" was not now devoid of nearly all meaning, I'm sure there would be, as there are superheroes (and villains) across the political/philosophical spectrum(s). It is our labels that are currently not up to the task.

As for libertarian themes in the movie, since nearly all libertarians recognize crime-fighting as a legitimate function of the state, I don't see how Batman's hopes that the state might competently perform that function could be non-libertarian.

I think the movie shoots for universal themes (those that don't lend themselves to our outdated labels) and only falls short when PC gets in the way. Historically, terrorists have been the opposite of nihilists (if anything, they believe too much). True nihilists do well to make it out of bed. Not killing Joker is a nod to framing the fight against terror as a crime-fighting issue, instead of a war-fighting one. Romanticizing convicts the the point of inanity in the ferry scene (fairly transparent anti-death penalty nod). Etc...

Such is the price of good reviews these days.
7.27.2008 3:24pm
Engineer (mail):
I took the moral more from a 2nd Law of Thermodynamics point of view. Batman stands for order, a classically capitalist one since his family is "old money". Joker is a nihilist who really seeks to disrupt order at about any level that he can. He even recruits from among the crazy. Joker even vows not to kill Batman so they can continue to oppose one another since the destruction attending their conflict serves Joker's greater purpose.

A different theme was how loved ones are merely hostages to fortune when you're a hero. Two-Face tries to take vengeance on Gordon through Gordon's family and the elusive goal of Batman in this movie is to find a new hero to take his place as Gotham's Guardian. Unfortunately for Bruce Wayne, being the hero isn't like a hitch in the Army.
7.28.2008 7:23pm