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The Anti-Capitalism of Batman Begins

July 1, 2005

Tags Media and CulturePhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

Pro-market movies seem atypical for Hollywood, and a thoughtful summer blockbuster seems almost an oxymoron. So when Batman Begins opened to praise not only from film critics but also free-market thinkers, the impossible appeared suddenly possible. Upon further reflection, however, claims that a pop culture outreach tool for market-based ideas has arrived wither away when compared to evidence to the contrary.

Batman Begins manages to undermine both capitalism and freedom by displaying a deep discomfort with those who engage in business, reinforcing stereotypes of capitalistic production and promoting the concept that the answer to crime and corruption is greater force rather than greater liberty.

Director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer effectively employ flashback sequences throughout the film to cast Bruce Wayne's father Thomas as a saint-like figure. While some of these could be dismissed as merely the perspective of a grieving son, clearly they are also used to develop key plot points regarding his father's character. Specifically, we learn that Thomas chose to disassociate himself with Wayne Industries - the family business - and instead pursue the more noble profession of medicine. During one scene, he grins at his wife and tells young Bruce that he has left running the company to "more interested men."

Viewers later learn that he does have at least one role within the business - spending its money. The butler informs Bruce that Thomas nearly drove Wayne Industries into the ground financing a massive public transportation system that Thomas claims would "bring the city together" during a time of economic depression. While there is certainly nothing wrong with philanthropy, the implicit message is that such actions are morally and economically superior to running a successful industry.

Wayne Industries is presumably the largest employer in Gotham, but never once is the firm's success or failure mentioned as a determinant of economic stability. Bankrupting the company by pouring money into a monorail is hardly the best way to benefit those in need of jobs and security. In fact, as Ludwig von Mises explains in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, "Nobody is needy in the market economy because of the fact that some people are rich. The riches of the rich are not the cause of the poverty of anybody. The process that makes some people rich is, on the contrary, the corollary of the process that improves many peoples' want satisfaction."

This misunderstanding of how capitalism functions carries over into the movie's depiction of Wayne Industries itself. Viewers witness a succession of men - Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne, and the "evil" Wayne Industries executive played by Rutger Hauer - who benefit greatly from the company but display little knowledge of how the company works, what it does or what its products are.

At one point, Hauer's character - who has been pushing company board members toward high profits through heavy arms production - even asks another character for information on just what exactly is one of the weapons produced by the company. This idea of an abstract "big business" that hovers over a populace and is run by men with no special talents is a cartoon version of the real marketplace.

Again, Mises provides us with an insight into how such a caricature comes into being: "The common man...never learns from personal experience how different an entrepreneur or an executive is with regard to all those abilities and faculties which are required for successfully serving the consumers. His envy and the resentment it engenders are not directed against a living being of flesh and blood, but against pale abstractions like 'management,' 'capital', and 'Wall Street.'"

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for lovers of liberty, the film unfortunately takes the view that corruption and crime stem from a lack of civic spirit rather than poorly crafted laws. The answer the film provides - that greater force provides the necessary balance to restore order - should be abhorrent to libertarians. In contrast to this view, Lord Acton tells us that "Men cannot be made good by the state, but they can easily be made bad. Morality depends on liberty."

Corruption of laws and officials occurs when lawmakers stray outside of protecting life and liberty. So, the question should be raised as to where the law went wrong in Gotham. The "War on Drugs" seems to be the clear reason. This created a black market where drugs come in on regular shipments but authorities are impotent to enforce the very restrictions they have created. Crime is bred and laws become malleable. In Power & Market, Murray Rothbard charts this progression: "Paradoxically, the prohibition may serve as a form of grant of monopolistic privilege to the black marketeers, since they are likely to be very different entrepreneurs from those who would succeed in a legal market. For in the black market, rewards accrue to skill in bypassing the law or in bribing government officials."

The solutions Batman Begins offers to Gotham's struggle with economics and ethics are thus 1) redistribution of wealth and 2) a violent "crackdown" on those engaging in trade deemed unacceptable.

Is this a message that should excite those passionate about free markets? A film truly rooted in the market philosophy would instead suggest that what struggling cities need is more capitalism and liberty - not less.

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