The Dark Knight Rises's Libertarian Batman

'The Dark Knight Rises' shows that free people can do good without the mandate of big government.


Stephanie Slade has been a project director at The Winston Group, a political strategy company, since September 2011.

The days since the conclusion of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy was released have seen an eruption of columns and blog posts dissecting the movie's political implications. Pundits at outlets like the New York Times, National Review Online, and Jacobin Magazine have described the story as everything from anticapitalist to antipopulist to antirevolutionary.

On the Thomas Jefferson Street blog Monday, Robert Schlesinger added one more to the list when he characterized the film's protagonist as an "anti-libertarian." According to Schlesinger, Bruce Wayne represents a "repudiation of Ayn Rand's everyone-for-themself philosophy, where wealth equates to virtue." But this reading of the man behind the Bat mask fails to hit the mark. Wayne's character may well be antithetical to Rand's objectivist philosophy—but there is nothing anti-libertarian about that.

A common misperception is that unconstrained greed is a libertarian ideal. Under that view, free markets are characterized by narrow concern with material wealth and a ruthless lack of regard for other people. It's hardly surprising so many find that philosophy reprehensible. In real life, of course, individuals regularly exhibit a desire to serve causes greater than themselves. It is a trait of our humanity that we abhor suffering, even in those to whom we have no relation.

An ideology that does not recognize that truth can do little to explain the world.

[Read the U.S. News review of The Dark Knight Rises.]

But libertarianism does recognize it. It relies on it, in fact. Yes, much incidental good can come of people pursuing their self-interest. Parents go to work every day less out of a love for those they'll serve there and more out of a desire to put food on the table at night. Personal gain leads them to be productive, but we're all benefactors.

Still, there are those for whom that will not be enough. And a basic tenet of libertarianism is that where enterprise fails, human goodness will fill the void. Charity and philanthropy are as much a part of a well-functioning free market as is the exchange of bread for money.

Libertarians find government redistribution not just unseemly—they find it unnecessary. To think we require bureaucrats to take from some and give to others is to assume people can't be trusted to do what's right by one another. It dehumanizes the population by preempting society's right to solve problems together, through selflessness and ingenuity.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

That assumption is the opposite of what Bruce Wayne believes. On the contrary, Wayne has great faith in his fellow man. When in The Dark Knight the Joker gives two boats full of people the ability to blow up their counterpart to spare themselves, only the Batman is sure they won't succumb. Similarly, Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments opens with the following passage:

How selfish soever a man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

Clearly, even the father of laissez-faire economics was a believer in altruism.

[Read Robert Schlesinger and other U.S. News columnists by subscribing to U.S. News Weekly.]

For libertarians, government not only isn't necessary to facilitate that altruism—it often stands in the way. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne quite literally has to outrun the cops, who want to arrest him as a menace. Only then can he begin to help the terrorized people of Gotham.

Which isn't to say the Batman movies treat the police as bad guys. They are as much a paean to law and order as anything else. But at its core, this is a story about the difference a single private citizen is capable of making, without the need for government coercion, incentive, or direction.