Food for Thought #4: Batman and Robbery

So we’ve finally met Francisco D’Anconia, and because of all the Francisco-as-Bruce-Wayne allusions I made in the Chapter 5 recap, I shared a link on the Facebook page to this excellent post by Taylor Martin about The Dark Knight and the collapse of social order. The key passage:

Heath Ledger’s hyperactively schizophrenic Joker is so compelling because … he embodies an anarchic concept of state failure that’s deeply foreign to most audiences. The Joker’s insistence that “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules” is disconcerting because [we fear] it is true — in the absence of the social order guaranteed by government’s monopoly over the legitimate [use of] violence successful individuals are those best able to employ violence.

Another good example of this from Batman canon is the No Man’s Land arc from the comics, in which Gotham City is quarantined and members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery become the only power-brokers in town, forming gangs and fighting over black markets and turf.

Atlas Shrugged is about the decay of social order too, but in the opposite direction, towards a Hayekian dystopia like we discussed before where the threat is a government monopoly over everything and the threat doesn’t grow out of the barrel of the gun, it grows out of the philosophical bankruptcy of mass culture. In The Dark Knight, The Joker’s anarchic liberties threaten democracy. In the Randverse, democracy threatens liberty.

At this point it becomes important to differentiate between two kinds of liberty.

‘Positive liberty’ is the kind of freedom that comes with a good standard of living and economic opportunity. The freedom to ‘be all you can be,’ or at least not work 80 hours a week in a coal mine for sub-minimum wage at the age of nine to stay fed.

‘Negative liberty’ is the kind of freedom you have when the government isn’t on your back about what you can and can’t do. The freedom to own guns, smoke weed, and have actual privacy.

Both kinds of liberty have their virtues, but they are in conflict. To promote positive liberty is to infringe on negative liberty. To expand negative liberty is to endanger positive liberty. Liberals who generally want positive liberty still believe in negative liberties such as freedom from surveillance. Conservatives who generally want negative liberty still believe in positive liberties such as secure property rights.

In The Dark Knight, Batman takes complete negative liberty to bring positive liberty back to Gotham. The Joker works to prove that the joke is on Batman: once anybody claims complete negative liberty, social order and positive liberty simply become illusions.

That same tension between liberties lies at the heart of the American politics of the Gilded Age, that era which Rand so idolizes in Atlas.

In what is easily the fastest and most fun read I’ve yet suggested here, The Money Men by H.W. Brands covers the highly entertaining stories of crazy 18th and 19th century titans like Hamilton, Jackson, Grant, and J.P. Morgan, all in under 200 pages. Here the Gilded Age Morgan is the most relevant.

In the real world of that era, as in the Randverse, economic power was all about the railroads. They were revolutionary. They created national markets and companies that operated at scales never seen before, not to mention an unprecedented need for finance and credit. The stock market inevitably exploded into a hotbed of speculation and intrigue. By the end of the century, one Wall Street colossus stood over all the others, and this was J.P. Morgan. His influence in finance grew so powerful that he once single-handedly made the banks bail out the government.

Which sounds bizarre post-2008, but only in the way it suggests that our financial sector is actually more morally bankrupt than that of the Gilded Age. But Morgan did at least make a profit on the deal, and despite the scope and scale of his power he considered his business entirely private.

You gotta admit this guy's a Boss.

When brought before congress to testify about his apparent monopoly over the country’s credit, he claimed that a monopoly on credit was impossible and that the only condition he required to qualify someone for a loan was strength of character.

With that sort of worldview Morgan would definitely have been hanging out with Ned Taggart and the Senor D’Anconia of his day, if they’d existed in the same universe. Perhaps they’d meet in a bar on top of a skyscraper, although they probably wouldn’t plot an industrial cartel among railroad companies to carve out regional monopolies and reduce competition.

Oh wait, yes they would, because that’s literally true. When the railroad market became saturated with too many lines competing for too little traffic, causing economic growth to stagnate, J.P. Morgan had railroad company owners over his house to call a truce and focus each one on his home turf. One gentleman spending a day on Morgan’s yacht wasn’t sure he was down for this, but slowly came to realize that they would not be going back to shore until he agreed to the deal. That’s right: the very robber barons whom Rand fetishizes as exemplars of virtue and merit did exactly what James Taggart & Orren Boyle do to spark the plot of the book.

This makes the dynamic of the Gilded Age clear. Moneyed interests had nearly endless negative liberty, and so economic elites enjoyed tremendous positive liberty. But the vast majority of people were effectively disenfranchised on both counts, and the democracy of which Rand is so skeptical was their only recourse to justice. J.P. Morgan may have been a benevolent economic dictator of sorts, but that’s still a dictator.

So Morgan’s real-life adventures in central planning as orchestrated from the private sector expose Rand’s visions of socialism and capitalism to be simplistic caricatures.

I will fuck you up to save America.

The move from the Gilded Age into the Progressive Era was not a rise in human mediocrity as Dagny Taggart’s constant reveries suggest. It was due to a growing monopoly on negative liberty that threatened to destabilize the state monopoly on violence, forcing the state to act for positive liberty before the market for freedom was cornered and the market for violence was freed. What seems like a radical turn towards liberalism was in fact a conservative measure — it was the only way to conserve a society that was both free and prosperous.

But appreciating both sides of an issue is not exactly Ayn Rand’s strong suit. Everything in the Randverse suffers from being defined by polar extremes, just like Gotham City in The Dark Knight. The successful are those who take extreme liberties, such that the only effective defender of justice is a wealthy radicalized vigilante and his foe is an anarchist out to prove that seeking justice at all is a bad joke.

So with that in mind as we wade deeper into the Randverse, the question becomes — which one is Francisco?

Is he Batman…

or is he The Joker?

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