The Philosophy of Batman: Political Sociology Edition

Over the past two weeks, much digital ink has been spilled about the political meanings and messages embedded in The Dark Knight. In this particular corner of the intertubes, considerable (over)thought has gone into dissecting the layers of philosophy in … Continued

Over the past two weeks, much digital ink has been spilled about the political meanings and messages embedded in The Dark Knight. In this particular corner of the intertubes, considerable (over)thought has gone into dissecting the layers of philosophy in the film. However, looking closely at the intersection of the two reveals that the filmmakers pose some very important questions that probe the very nature and origins of social and political order.

No spoilers here, so read on, even if you haven’t seen the film yet.


Words only after the jump, so if you’re just here for the LOLJoker, read no further…

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If All Men Were Batmen, Would Government Be Necessary?

In Federalist Paper #51, James Madison articulated one of the fundamental challenges in the design of political institutions:

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

This observation, which was used by Madison to argue for the necessity of checks and balances in the crafting of the United States constitution, has been reframed by Political Scientists as a central paradox in the study of the state: any government strong enough to enforce laws is also strong enough to break those laws. Thus, these researchers turn Madison’s normative prescription into an empirical question: under what circumstances will institutions that generate political accountability emerge?

Although droves of grad students are fanning out across the globe gathering more and more evidence to answer this question, many seem to assume that the industrialized democratic nations have solved this problem. The world of TDK turns this logic on its head, portraying an all too plausible picture of a failed state right in the middle of a major American city; it is essentially a more stylized version of the same thing the Wire has been trying to tell us for the past six years.

Viewed in this way, the emergence of Batman in Gotham fits right in with real world examples of vigilantism in settings as diverse as the 19th century American West, Columbia, Kenya, and Iraq; in the absence of state capacity, other specialists in violence have an incentive to respond to the demand for public order. It is also not terribly surprising for such a vigilante to be a lone billionaire. A long line of research tracing back to Mancur Olsen’s The Logic of Collective Action argues that public goods, such as security, will be underprovided by rational individuals. That is, if your neighbors are organizing a community watch, you’re better off staying at home and watching Project Runway while they patrol than spending your time (and risking your ass) helping them. Although more and more researchers are providing examples of communities that are able to solve these free-rider problems in novel ways (more on this in the conclusion), a classic way to solve the problem of public goods underprovision is for one individual to bear the costs.

However, Batman’s particular way of providing security doesn’t necessarily solve Madison’s Dilemma; although all Gothamites can benefit from the positive aspects of Batman’s actions, this also means that they are also vulnerable to the negative. As Fenzel and many of the commenters have all noted, Batman’s actions are accompanied by numerous deleterious side-effects, most notably, The Joker.

The type of state failure depicted in TDK is a different beast from what we have observed in cases such as Somalia and Sierra Leone. The problem with Gotham is not that it lacks the infrastructure necessary to enforce laws and provide public goods, but rather that these institutions are so rotten that they can be easily hijacked by the Joker to put his large-scale Rube Goldberg machine of a plan into action. Nearly all of the public institutions that we take for granted as part of urban life-including school busses, the police, public transit, and hospitals – play an integral part in the execution of his scheme. The very instruments of government that were designed to serve and protect Gotham’s citizens are turned into weapons against them. In this way we can read the Joker as Madison’s evil twin; each of his acts of public violence underscore the fact that men are emphatically not angels. Harvey Dent’s transformation from valiant crusader into violent creep hammers home the point that good people are no substitute for good institutions.

In the end, TDK doesn’t definitively answer the question of how Gotham will solve Madison’s Dilemma, but hints of it can be seen in the Ferry Bomb/Prisoners’ Dilemma scene. Although John Nash and his Beautiful Equilibrium would expect both boats to explode, they don’t. Mlawski attributes this to idealism, but an alternative explanation can be found in research on repeated prisoners dilemma games. In particular, groundbreaking experimental work by Political Scientist Robert Axelrod has shown that when individuals play Prisoners’ Dilemma games over and over again with the same partners, cooperating (remaining silent/not blowing each other up) is a stable equilibrium. This finding is not dependent on altruism, but rather on the fact that individuals realize that if they cheat their partner in one round, they will be punished in future rounds.

Although the “Ferry Bomb Game” itself doesn’t really have “future rounds” (if you blow up, its all over), it is possible to see the more general logic of Axelrod’s argument in the long-lasting relationships that are a central part of healthy neighborhoods and communities. In this way, strengthening social ties instead of perfecting government institutions could potentially solve Gotham’s governance problems. If Nolan and company take the next film in this direction, it may or may not be great cinema, but it will almost certainly be groundbreaking social science.

This is the third post in the Philosophy of Batman series. When you’re done, check out Part I, Part II, and Part IV .

9 Comments on “The Philosophy of Batman: Political Sociology Edition”

  1. lambman #

    What I find most interesting about this intrepretation is how strongly TDK does adhere to the Madison argument. You could look at Batman’s entire goal in TDK as trying to enable the government to control its citizens and control itself. The mob was out of control and Batman and Gordon enabled the government to control them, Joker would represent the ultimate lack of control a government has over its people. Batman strives to both stop the Joker (govern the citizens)and stamp out corruption (govern the government) throught the film.

    The more I think about it though I don’t think the prisoners dillema in any way can be found in the ‘ferry bomb game’. The film sets up the Joker as somebody who lies, and who doesn’t follow the rules of his own games. The Jokers only consistency is inconsistency. He made good on the kill snitch or blow up hospitol game, but he lied in the save Harvey or Rachel game. He tells multiple stories of how he got his scars. He isn’t somebody that can be believed and so it isn’t really the prisoner’s dillema. It is simply a moral choice of whether or not you would save yourself but be responsible for killing others or not.


  2. sheely OTI Staff #

    @Lambman-The more I think about it though I don’t think the prisoners dillema in any way can be found in the ‘ferry bomb game’.

    I think you’re absolutely right that the Joker’s unreliably changes the basic structure of the game, but I don’t think it totally obliterates the Prisoners’ Dilemma framework. Tather it shifts the setup of the game to what could be called a bayesian prisoner’s dilemma. That is, there is a whole branch of game theory devoted to solving for Nash equilibria when there is incomplete information or uncertainty. Using the framework developed by John Harsanyi, you would diagram this interpretation of the ferry bomb game by having “nature” (in this case, the joker) rig up the detonators and then having the passengers decide to press the button or not. If the ferry passengers believe that the Joker is unreliable, then all they know is that the detonator triggers the bomb on their boat with probability p and the bomb on the other boat with probability (1-p).

    My game theory solution skills are a little rusty, so I’m not going to work out the Nash equilbrium here. However, my intuition is that this uncertainty could provide another rational-choice-based explanation for why the ferries don’t explode; because the passengers are unsure whether they are in the state of the world where they will be blowing up themselves or the other boat, they are more likely to choose to not trigger the bomb. I invite anyone who does game theory more frequently or has a good basic text book to chime in with the solution.


  3. Gab #

    I must say, sheely, you’re a hero to me for using the Federalist Papers… I read those for fun sometimes, seriously.

    This is going to be long, so go ahead and flame me if you don’t like what I have to say- at least you read it.

    The roots of modern (western) liberal (and not in the dirty word sense) political theory reach back to, of course, Ancient Athens and Rome, both of which held onto two core principles for their own beginnings: security and, believe it or not, altruism. The purpose of establishing a government is to protect the citizens under its care and to have that government care for them once it exists. Hence the establishment of borders and services. The latter aspect of government is usually ignored, but delving deep into ancient as well as not-so-ancient theories like those of the Stoics to Locke or even contemporaries like Berlin and Arendt show that ideas of protection and security inherently lead to ones about servicing and assisting one’s fellow citizens.

    The problems arise in/with government when one aspect begins to overshadow the other. If government begins doing too much in EITHER case, it becomes corrupt and starts on its way down a spiraling waterslide of doom and into a deep, toxic pool of its own creation. If it takes to too much “protection,” it becomes a terror state and can lead to a government of fear and violence (Hitler’s Germany); if it becomes too involved in “services,” it can become nothing more than a corporation and way for a small elite to have everything while the majority is barely surviving (modern China). So the question is about positive versus negative freedom: how much can I do without infringing on the liberties of someone else? And how much can GOVERNMENT do without overstepping its bounds?

    TDK goes after this problem and leaves it ambiguously unanswered. There are various forms of the conflict throughout the film that hearken to real debates still going on right now. For example, the conflict between the Friedman/Chicago School (free market/privatized infrastructure) economists versus the Keynesian School (government regulations/ state-owned infrastructure) economists is represented in the subplot involving Lau.

    I think the point being made by Nolan is that it is impossible to find a perfect system in which there is no corruption, no unhappiness, and everyone is able to have what they need and hopefully some of the things they want because of human nature and the invariably inevitable bad apple in the bunch. Hobbes wasn’t the first to say people are greedy: it’s something we’ve known about ourselves since even before we could write (Homer, for example). But we are not inherently evil, either. We do also have a desire for happiness, not only for ourselves, but for others, too, even if only because we instinctively know that if others are happy, it will be easier for our own happiness to come to fruition. So we come up with ideas that on paper or in our heads look absolutely beautiful and utopian. But then when people actually become involved, they do not work. Nolan uses Batman as his own symbol of the altruistic part of humanity, the part that comes up with that utopia and is willing to do what it can to combat the corrupt part of humanity. Batman’s desire for peace and harmony is a utopian goal that he probably realizes will never happen. But, like those that establish governments, he also realizes that while it may not be actually reachable, the closer to it society can come, the better. (You can also think of it in terms of Platonic forms: we can never reach the Perfection of a true Form, but our goal in life should be to strive to coming as close to it as we can.) And he also, by admitting he’s an outsider and NEEDS to be an outsider for any of his efforts to have meaning, places himself in the same category as political leaders that speak out and even die for their causes in the name of the people they serve in the face of opposition. (So to end on a rather light but real note, Arlen Specter is the Batman of the Senate.)


  4. sheely OTI Staff #

    Awesome comment, Gab. really fucking rad.

    No flaming from me on this one-partially because I’m trying to put together the page for the LOLjoker contest, but mostly because I actually agree a lot. I’m far from a strict rat-choicer (much more on the sociology side of Poli Sci than the econ side), but leaned primarily on Axelrod for the sake of brevity. I totally agree with the reading that include altruism within the boundary of a political community as a key component of the western political tradition.

    What is even more interesting to me is that there is emerging evidence that this logic may in fact be a universal component of all societies. The best work in this vein is being done by the foundations of human sociality project, an interdisciplinary effort bringing together behavioral economists with anthropolgists. By playing experimental games (variants on the prisoner’s dilemma, plus related games such as the dictator game and the ultimatum game) in societies all over the world, these researchers present really convincing evidence for the importance of other-regarding preferences and fairness norms as the glue that hold human societies together.

    If I have time later, I’ll try to pick up on some of your other points about where TDK fits in to ongoing normative debates.


  5. abbey #

    loves the madison dilemma and state building/collapsing in pop culture. another angle in TDK is the dilemma the criminal underworld faced. they needed protection from batman, so had to cede power to someone stronger. in so doing, they exposed themselves to the danger that the sociopath would turn his sights on them. (why so serious, friends?) in this sense, the mobsters were like citizens needing a break from (batman’s) unpredictable banditry. but who can you trust?


  6. Sheely #

    Right, there would have been a fascinating twist if the mobsters decided to turn to harvey dent rather than the joker, becoming some kind of “loyal opposition” or even some kind of “local government” with a specific jurisdiction (specifically “the narrows” and the other skid row/slum areas). I’d say that the government of gotham would probably prefer the situation where they bring the mob under their fold and essentially “legalize” some of their activities to the mass destruction that batman and the joker each caused. But again, that’s more social science thought experiment than it is thrilling superhero film.


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