1 Cheer for Police Corruption

Last night at Toastmasters, I delivered my most libertarian speech yet.


PoliceBribesLate at night, a tall, handsome cop is chatting up a hooker in New York City. He’s supposed to be patrolling 2nd Avenue, but he prefers to socialize with the streetwalker.

A short man with small spectacles and big teeth steps out of the shadows and tells the patrolman that he is neglecting his duty.

The police officer lifts his baton and threatens his accuser with a beating. The smaller man identifies himself as Theodore Roosevelt, the new commissioner of police, and tells the officer to report to his office the next morning.

There’s something very satisfying about this scene. A bullying cop brought down by a heroic reformer.

In 1895, before he was president, before he charged up San Juan Hill with the Roughriders, Theodore Roosevelt spent a brief spell as a police commissioner, conducting what the city papers called a “Reign of Terror” to root out corruption among New York’s Finest.

What does TR’s crusade teach us about police corruption in our own time? That’s what I’d like to address tonight.

The people of New York did not feel protected by the police. At best they found the cops negligent. At worst the citizens felt threatened by their supposed protectors.

Roosevelt’s early anti-corruption campaign made the city safer — and made him the most popular political figure in New York.

Three cheers for the great reformer, right? Well, I want to reserve one cheer for corruption.

If I were trying to persuade you that puppies are cute, or that love is good, I’m guessing I wouldn’t have a very hard time. But preaching to the choir is boring. Instead I’d like to play Devil’s advocate and argue that widespread corruption among the police is not necessarily a bad thing. It very much depends on which supposed duties the cops are violating.

OVER THERE

Let’s start with an almost absurdly easy case. In Nazi-occupied Europe, the law said it was a policeman’s duty — in fact, it was every citizen’s duty — to report Jews who hadn’t made themselves known to the government. The established wisdom in the West, ever since the Nuremberg Trials, is that “just following orders” isn’t enough to avoid culpability if the orders you were following were themselves morally reprehensible.

We look back on such corrupt party members as Oskar Schindler as heroic.

Has everyone here seen the movie Schindler’s List? A politically connected industrialist and a Nazi spy, Schindler helped 1,200 Jews escape the Holocaust.

We consider Schindler’s lawbreaking to be virtuous, but what about the Nazi officials he paid to let him get away with it? What if they had refused his bribes? Without their corruption, Schindler’s heroism wouldn’t have been possible.

That doesn’t make them heroes. But surely we should prefer their corruption to the duty-bound Nazis who followed the letter of the law and helped send innocent people to the concentration camps.

OVER HERE

Maybe it’s too extreme to invoke the Nazis. Let’s bring it closer to home.

Once upon a time in our own United States, it was the legal duty of a police officer, even a diehard Yankee abolitionist in the slave-free North, to assist Southern slaveowners in the capture of runaway slaves. There were heroic people, black and white, North and South, who risked everything for no immediate reward in order to smuggle escaped slaves into Canada. Again, these people were heroes — but what about the people they bribed? Shouldn’t we prefer the corrupt cops who profited from the Underground Railroad to those who insisted on obeying the law of the land?

HERE AND NOW

I’d like to bring it even closer to home. I have a friend who has cancer. He has an excellent chance of survival with chemotherapy — but the treatment is horrific. He feels like vomiting all the time, and the prescribed anti-nausea pills aren’t working.

Marijuana, however, makes the nausea go away. But medical marijuana isn’t legal in our part of the world. Think about how you felt the last time you were nauseous. For me it was on one of these puddle jumpers that fly in and out of CHO. I kept telling myself, Just hold out a little longer, just a little longer.

Now imagine feeling that way day in and day out, week after week, month after month.

Do we prefer the dutiful narcotics agent to the one who looks the other way, whatever his or her reasons for doing so?

BAD LAWS

I’m not trying to convince you that medical marijuana should be legal. I’m saying that there is some law on the books that you don’t want enforced.

If you doubt me, consider this short list of candidates:

  1. In Alabama, you can be sentenced to three months hard labor for playing cards on a Sunday. (And by the way, interracial marriage was technically illegal in Alabama only 15 years ago!)

  2. Over the mountain, in Waynesboro, there is still a law on the books that says a woman may not drive a car on Main Street unless her husband walks ahead waving a flag to warn other drivers.

  3. And throughout our fair state of Virginia, it is illegal to have sex if you are not married — and if you are married, you may only do it with the lights on, face to face.

Anyone with an ounce of moral sense has to consider some laws to be unjust.

Some laws should themselves be considered criminal.

For me, the distinction is easy: Good laws protect us from crimes — and by crimes I mean someone harming someone else. So-called victimless crimes aren’t really crimes at all.

BACK TO TR

This distinction must have been lost on Theodore Roosevelt. His anti-corruption campaign made him extremely popular with New Yorkers — at first.

Then he began to insist that the police enforce a very old and rarely observed law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday. For working-class people, that was their only day off. TR may have wanted all laws enforced equally, but the people of New York understood that buying a beer on Sunday was no more criminal than having a beer any other day of the week. TR went from being the most popular man in the city to the most reviled, practically overnight. And his campaign against corruption fell apart.

CONCLUSION

I’m certainly not saying that all corruption is good. We are right to be scared of bad cops. But whether or not the corruption is a bad thing depends entirely on whether the law being corrupted is itself a good or an evil.

Thank you, Madame Toastmaster.


For a far more hardcore libertarian treatment of this subject, see Walter Block’s “Defending the Dishonest Cop.”

my darling potato

RotatoExpress-PotatoOne thing Toastmasters is teaching me is that short is sweet. I need to be sweeter.

For my speech this past week, I spent 8 minutes talking about the history of the potato. That’s one minute longer than I should have.

Each of the first 10 speeches at Toastmasters is supposed to be 5–7 minutes long. To qualify for best speaker of the night, you need to end your speech somewhere between 5 and 7 minutes. That night, two of us went overtime and the third speaker didn’t speak for long enough to qualify. No one was best. ("And all the children are above average.")

When I write for the Freeman, where a feature article is supposed to be 800–1,200 words, my first draft is always too long. It’s tough to write anything substantive in so few words. Same problem at Toastmasters: my speeches run long.

The trick in both cases is to murder your darlings. (That authorial adage has been attributed to every major writer of the last century, from William Faulkner to Stephen King, but it seems to have originated with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.)

I’ve always taken murder your darlings as a directive to trim that fat in my prose, to kill off the side thoughts and turns of phrase I’m most proud of, because they distract from the main purpose of the writing. Clean and efficient prose can also be beautiful.

Murder your darlings applies to more than phrasing or side thoughts; it can refer to whole scenes, several characters, or even, sometimes, what you thought was the point of your piece when you first sat down to write it.

At Toastmasters, I wanted to tell one of my favorite stories, about how the 18th-century French potato evangelist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier got the working poor of Paris to adopt the potato into their diet.

Even though the potato reached Europe shortly after Columbus introduced the New World to the Old, it took centuries to become a common part of European mealtime. For one thing, both the best medical advice and the dominant religious instruction of the time told people to avoid the supposedly malignant tuber.

While religious wars fractured Christendom, Catholic priests and Protestant ministers were united in telling their congregations to shun the potato. Why? Because it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Surely, if God wanted human beings to eat potatoes, He’d have mentioned them in Genesis.

If that logic strikes you as questionable, wait until you hear what early-modern Europe considered the established medicinal wisdom. According to the "doctrine of signatures," any plant’s effect on the human body can be determined by its appearance. Crack open a walnut and what you find inside the shell looks like a little brain; ergo, walnuts are good for the brain. Dig a potato out of the dirt and what do you get? A filthy, pale, gnarled clump of vegetable flesh. Ergo … potatoes cause leprosy. QED.

By the 19th century, however, the potato had become such a central part of the Western diet that it caused a population explosion in Europe.

How did this maligned root vegetable go from unholy pathogen to European staple crop?

The answer seems to be war.

When soldiers descended on your part of the countryside, they carried away everything edible they could find — above ground.

If you depended on grains, you starved. But if you also grew a few potatoes, an army could pillage all your wheat, slaughter and consume all your animals, and trample your field for months without destroying your backup source of calories. As a Plan B for the downtrodden, the potato proved superior to expectations. It turns out that an acre of potatoes is more nutritious than an acre of wheat. It may have been ugly to the eye and bland on the tongue, but the potato made the peasants who adopted it stronger and healthier — and more fertile.

When Frederick the Great discovered that foreign peasants were surviving the Prussians’ invasions because of this secret buried treasure, he had seed potatoes delivered to all his Prussian peasants, along with instructions on how to plant and harvest them, and ordered all of Prussia to become potato eaters. He threatened those who failed to cooperate with having their ears and noses cut off! The Prussian people quickly adopted a potato-based diet.

Parmentier, the hero of the story I was so hot to tell at Toastmasters, served in the French military and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Prussians. Fed nothing but potatoes for three years, he emerged healthier than when he’d been captured. He returned to France with a mission: convert his fellow countrymen to this miracle food.

Freeman editor Max Borders writes, "Ultimately, there are only two forces in this world that matter: power and persuasion. Those who love liberty shun power."

Where Frederick used power, Parmentier used persuasion. And some trickery.

The king of France was easy. For His Majesty’s birthday, Parmentier gave him potato flowers and served him various potato-based dishes. Once the king was sold, the royal court rushed to follow, followed rapidly by anyone who aspired to greater social status.

Parmentier began to hold all-potato dinner parties for the VIPs of Paris, including such foreign dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — which is how the "French fry" came to America; Jefferson had them served in the White House.

That brings us to my favorite part of the story. The French working class wasn’t so easily persuaded. In fact, the aristocratic association with potatoes made them ever more suspect to the impoverished Parisians on the eve of the French Revolution. So Parmentier resorted to guile. He got the king’s permission to plant 40 acres of potatoes just outside Paris, and had soldiers patrol the perimeter and chase away the inquisitive. All of Paris was soon convinced that something valuable was growing in those 40 acres.

When the soldiers withdrew at night, the city’s poor snuck in and pilfered the royal potatoes. Et voilà: Parmentier’s triumph.

That last story, the tale of Parmentier’s cunning, is what took me over my time at Toastmasters. I knew I was going over time when I told it, but that last story was the whole point of my speech.

Each speaker at Toastmasters receives a small slip of paper from every person in the meeting with comments on that evening’s speech. My reviews were generally quite positive, but a couple of them told me I should have cut the last story and ended on time.

Before delivering my speech, and while delivering it, I couldn’t imagine leaving out that story. But as soon as it was over, it became clear that the story — much as I still love it — undermined the larger story I had told.

AudiblePotatoI opened with my lifelong love of French fries, and how I no longer eat them. The narrative then followed the potato from the Americas over to Europe and back again with Thomas Jefferson. From the end of the French fry in my life to the beginning of the French fry in America: a perfect narrative circle. And one that was easily told within 5–7 minutes.

But like my scheming hero, Parmentier, I had my eye on a prize that had nothing to do with the demands of my audience. Had I focused more on the organic shape of the story I was telling, the needs and virtues of that shape, and the experience of my audience — rather than my own darlings within the story — I would have realized that Parmentier was perhaps more like Frederick than I want him to be. I should instead have emulated Thomas Jefferson’s lighter touch.

celebrity sightings

One great benefit of traveling down to Texas for Voice & Exit was getting to hang out with some Texan heroes of liberty.

Before V&E with Albert Lu, host of The Power & Market Report:

(This was taken after my first taste of Texas BBQ! Yum.)

(This was taken after my first taste of Texas BBQ! Yum.)

At V&E with John Papola, creator of my favorite hip-hop video, “Fear the Boom and Bust” a Hayek vs. Keynes Rap Anthem:
bkPap

After V&E with Jeff Riggenbach, the voice of liberty, author of “The Libertarian Tradition” and Why American History Is Not What They Say:
bkRigg

Toastmasters joke

SyldaviaShirtAt last night’s Toastmasters meeting, I was the “Jokemaster.”

According to the agenda, the Jokemaster “Provides a light-hearted story or joke to kick off the meeting.”

Here’s the composed version of what I memorized, altered, and delivered a bit more spontaneously:

Mr. Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, esteemed guests:

I spoke last week about what a reclusive homebody I’ve become, about working from home and spending all my time on the Internet. But it didn’t used to be that way. Before Benjamin was born, Nathalie and I traveled the world.

For our honeymoon, we hiked in the Highlands of Scotland. We play bocci with the old men of Paris in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower (only in France they don’t call it bocci: they call it pétanque). We walked, hand in hand, on the raised platforms of the Palazzo San Marco over the floodwaters of Venice. We even crossed the Adriatic and traveled inland to visit the tiny autocratic puppet state of Syldavia — where, I’m sorry to say, we quickly ran afoul of the law.

I won’t go into details. I’ll just say that it’s all too easy to break the law in a totalitarian regime. We were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced all in one day. The sentence was death. The tribunal of judges asked if we had any last requests.

Well, when I was a younger man, I wasn’t as shy as I am now. So I requested, no I demanded to address my captors, my judges, my executioners, to speak about the glories of the tradition of freedom and the evil of their police state; to show them how their own interests, not to mention those of their oppressed subjects, would best be served by the light of liberty —

Nathalie cut in: "I have a last request too," she said. "Please shoot me before he gives this speech."

My Toastmasters Icebreaker speech

icebreakerMister Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, esteemed guests. The irony of the "Icebreaker" speech, at least for me, is that talking for 4 to 6 minutes about myself strikes me as neither easy nor interesting.

Last January, my wife Nathalie and I drove up to Baltimore to attend the annual cocktail party of one of our biggest clients.

We got all dressed up and mingled with hundreds of strangers.

Quick show of hands, who here has been to a party full of strangers in the past year or so?

When two strangers meet at a party, what do they say to break the ice?

Yes, right, here in America, we say, "What do you do?"

Nathalie informs me, by the way, that this typical American icebreaker is not what people say in Europe. When two French people meet, for example, the first question is "Where are you from?"

When I was growing up in New York City, watching way too much TV, the stereotypical socially awkward icebreaker — really a failure to break the ice — was "Read any good books lately?" And on TV, after this question was asked and the laugh track died down, the two strangers would grow quiet, look away, and silently admit defeat.

Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this, but I honestly don’t know why that’s supposed to be such a bad question. I’d much rather be asked about good books than about what I do for living.

What do I do for a living, you ask?

I’m a publishing consultant. I work with independent authors and free-market institutions to get their books onto Kindles and iPads and sometimes into print.

And if you met me at a party and asked me what I do for a living, I’d probably give you that answer in the same perfunctory manner in which I just did here.

But if you were to say, "Oh, you work with books? What sort of books do you read for fun?" — You’d see me light up. You’d see me come alive. As they say in books, you’d see me warm to my subject.

I work with economic books and with writings in the classical-liberal tradition, but that’s not what I read for pleasure anymore.

Those things are what I did read for pleasure when I was a web-application programmer for a big bank, but now I read quirky historical narratives, such as The Professor and the Madman, about a certifiably insane Civil War veteran and the role he played in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary; or A History of the World in 6 Glasses, which reviews the past 4 or 5 thousand years through the lens of beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee, and Coca-Cola.

What am I reading now, you ask? Actually, I’m mostly listening to this one as an audiobook. I go back and forth between text and audio. The book is by Tom Standage, the same author who wrote 6 Glasses. It’s called Writing on the Wall: Social Media The First 2,000 Years. One of the many things he talks about is the advent of the coffeehouse in 17th-century England.

Standage claims that coffeehouses and the publishing network based out of coffeehouses were really the first Internet. I love Starbucks, and I bet their coffee is better than what I would have been served in 17th-century London, but I still wish I could go back and spend some time in one of those old coffeehouses, where everyone was reading and writing and debating ideas.

I also read less-quirky historical narrative, but my favorite books are the ones that take two seemingly disparate ideas and see what results when you combine them.

And the truth is, my passion isn’t in books, either. It’s really in new ideas.

Better than "Read any good books lately?" would be "Had any interesting thoughts lately?" or "Learned any new ideas lately?"

I have a best friend whom I followed to Charlottesville 20-something years ago, and then did not follow back to New York when he left. He’ll phone me to say, "I had a thought I think you’ll appreciate." And then we’ll talk for an hour.

When I get off the phone, Nathalie asks, "How’s David?"

"I don’t know."

"What do you mean you don’t know? You just talked to him for an hour!"

"Yeah, but that’s not what we talked about."

When David and I were kids, we were sort of famous among our peers and the local grownups for walking around the streets of Manhattan deep in conversation, just the two of us. That turns out not to be typical for a couple of preteen boys.

As I mentioned before, I watched way too much TV, and it’s part of why I read so late and so slowly, but one contemporary criticism of television that never made sense to me back then was that it was a passive medium. You just sit there and zone out. I never zoned out! I engaged the TV as a source of ideas, sometimes a mentor, often an intellectual adversary.

We don’t let our 7-year-old son Benjamin watch too many videos — in fact we don’t have a TV in our home — but I can see him doing the same things with online cartoons and movies that I did with TV around his age. He wants to talk about them afterwards, ask questions, critique the premises, figure out how everything works.

Benjamin is also a lot more sociable than I was at his age. I suspect he won’t have any trouble at cocktail parties when he grows up, even if, like his old man, he’s most passionate about the kind of ideas that are better discussed over coffee than over cocktails.

This brings me to why I’ve joined Toastmasters. I think Tom Standage is right about the 21st-century Internet being our modern version of the 17th-century coffeehouse. Much as I love Starbucks, it’s not a hotbed of radical new thinking.

It provides the wireless Internet access I can use to get to the hotbed of ideas, but I engage those ideas in my writing and reading, and mostly online — not face-to-face with other human beings.

Through Toastmasters, however, I hope to become a more adept and spontaneous tradesman of ideas, presented and discussed in the real world, offline, where I don’t always have time to compose my thoughts (the way I composed this speech).

I thank you for listening to me, and I thank you for the help you’ve already given me in bringing my life out of the house, off of the Internet, and into the world.

Mister Toastmaster.

Is mediocrity intelligent?

ShortNeckedGiraffeWhen I graduated from college, I took a job working for the psychology department. I had unofficially minored in psychology and a couple of the professors liked me and wanted to keep me around.

One perk of this arrangement was that I got to go to Bell Labs (though it wasn’t called that anymore) with the biopsych professor as part of his entourage for a talk he was giving on signs of collective intelligence in species — not in the organisms, in the species itself as a sort of superorganism.

He was presenting to the "artificial life" department within Bell Labs, who wanted to see if phone networks could be made more robust by modeling the patterns of biological life.

The reason I was able to go was, in a sense, that I had decided not to go to graduate school, but here I was surrounded by PhDs who loved their jobs and were fascinated and passionate about their disciplines. And they got to work with high-tech everything. Very different from the bucolic environs of our tiny college campus. It didn’t quite inspire me to reconsider graduate school, but I think it did play a role in getting the biopsych prof to leave the academy for the private sector.

Anyway, it was in this presentation at Bell Labs that I first learned the evolutionary concept of the deme — an idea that has informed my thinking ever since, including my thoughts on politics. Before I was a full-blown libertarian, I was already opposed to uniformity, opposed to central plans, and in favor of decentralization of authority and decision making. That decentralism came from my understanding of evolution and information theory — of cybernetics in its broader sense.

Here’s what a deme is:

A deme is an isolated gene pool within a species. If a gene pool is isolated for long enough, its members can no longer reproduce with organisms from the main gene pool, and the deme becomes a distinct species. But while the deme is still a deme, still compatible with the species’ genetic mainstream (though distinct from it) it plays a crucial role in that species’ survival and future evolution.

The irony, from the perspective of the ever-upward model of evolution, is that this important subspecies is generally considered less "fit" than the main population. Because of its isolation, the deme hasn’t had the full benefit of progress made through the genetic trial-and-error process enjoyed by the mainstream. Not enough "cross fertilization."

Imagine an island where the giraffes aren’t as tall as their distant cousins on the mainland.

But what we often forget about the "survival of the fittest" is that fitness is relative and entirely contextual. What makes an organism better able to pass on its pattern to another generation depends entirely on the environment in which it strives to do so.

There is no absolute "better" evolutionary strategy. Better and worse depend entirely on time and place. As the environment changes, today’s better may become tomorrow’s worse.

FitnessHillClimbingTo make his point, my professor friend showed a "fitness landscape," a 3D graph, with fitness, in the evolutionary sense, mapped onto the vertical access, higher being more fit. Each horizontal axis represented some adaptation or variation of evolutionary strategy. You can only fit two more into a 3D map, but there could be an endless number of such dimensions. The purpose of this graph was to show "hill-climbing" behavior on the part of the abstract blobs that represented different species’ collections of survival strategies.

Now, hill-climbing behavior is not by itself a sign of intelligence. We don’t consider plants to be intelligent just because vines climb up out of the dark undergrowth or because leaves turn toward the sunlight.

But we do tend to consider an entity intelligent (or at least more intelligent) if it shows the ability to seek out higher peeks than the local hilltop it has managed to climb to. You can see that behavior in the graph above. The blob isn’t cohering at the hilltop; it’s sending tendrils downhill to explore the valleys and neighboring slopes. Those tendrils are the demes, lower on the fitness axis but essential to keeping the species-blob from stagnating on a peek that may prove temporary as the environment changes.

That may be too much to take in from such a sketchy but still dense description. You can download the paper here, if you’re interested in the details.

For now, just imagine some catastrophe that makes our vertically challenged island giraffes a successful Plan B for the species. Higher leaves are suddenly detrimental, but that’s what it’s easiest for the mainland giraffes to get to. If there is any cross-fertilization at all, the runty descendants of the island giraffes will begin to take over the mainland.

How fortunate for the species that it didn’t invest everything in the taller-neck strategy.

I have much more to say on this topic, but for now I will leave the political parallels as an exercise for the astute reader.

Batman vs James Bond

BatmanVsJamesBondI just read over my old blog post on the economics of Batman and James Bond to refresh my memory. My wife and I have recently caught up on the Daniel Craig trilogy of 007 movies, and my seven-and-a-half-year-old son Benjamin and I have been watching a bunch of the more recent animated superhero shows from the DC universe, so my thoughts have been full of action heroes — particularly the Dark Knight and Her Majesty’s secret servant — for the past few weeks.

I remember my father complaining about both characters and contrasting them to the lone-hero tradition of hardboiled detectives and their fictional forebears, the cowboys.

In fact, my father’s point to my preteen self was a continuation of a point he made to me when I was about Benjamin’s age. I’d just gotten a set of “Undercover Agent” accessories for my GI Joe doll (we didn’t call them action figures back then). Gone were the camouflage fatigues and assault rifle; now Joe sported a dark trench coat and a walkie-talkie.

GIJoeUndercoverAgentI said, "Look dad: It’s GI Private Eye!"

My father then explained to me that my rhyming name for my new hero was self-contradictory. A GI was an American soldier, an official agent of the US government, whereas a "private eye" was a private individual, a lone hero in the fictional tradition. If dad had been more of a libertarian, he would have said that the military agent is paid by coercively extracted taxes and operates by state privilege, whereas the private detective is an agent of the market, authorized only by private contracts, and liable to the same restrictions as any individual citizen. My father doesn’t talk that way, even now, but he would acknowledge that description as making the same point.

So after GI Private Eye, I grew up with an awareness of the distinction between heroes like James Bond, who was funded and sanctioned by the government, and heroes like Philip Marlowe, who was funded by private clients and sanctioned only by his personal code of conduct. (And such detective stories often turned on the question of what limits that typically unspoken code imposed on the hero.)

Now, a few years later, my father was making a different but related point about James Bond, this time inspired by my love of another toy: my Corgi Astin-Martin DB5, James Bond’s super spy car from the movie Goldfinger. "Look dad, isn’t this car cool?"

1964_Corgi_Aston_Martin_DB5Ever philosophical, my father saw the car as symbolic, not only of that state-agent/private-individual divide he’d addressed a few years earlier with my GI Joe, but also of a divide in heroic literature. James Bond worked for the queen, he explained, in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He was a knight for the monarch, and this tricked out vehicle from MI6’s Q Branch was the 1960s adventure-fantasy equivalent of the nobleman’s armor and mount.

I believe he felt the same about the Batmobile, but there are several important distinctions, some that put the historical emphasis on the “knight” in the Dark Knight, and some that put the “World’s Greatest Detective” more in league with the private eyes of American detective fiction.

For one thing, the medieval knight was a soldier for the king because he could afford to pay for armor, weapons, and a battle horse. He could afford to head off into battle instead of plowing the fields — and he could afford the time required for training between wars. The king didn’t pay him to be a knight. He paid the king for that honor. As far as we can tell, James Bond isn’t paying out of pocket for all those vodka martinis, and he certainly didn’t commission Q Branch for any of his gadgets. 007’s license to kill makes him a hired gun, even if he does restrict his paid murders to those sanctioned by his government.

Batman, on the other hand, pays his own way.

Like most of the medieval knights, his wealth originally came from privilege more than trade. The Waynes are old money. Even "stately Wayne Manor" suggests aristocracy, and where Superman’s Metropolis is shiningly new and forward looking, gothic Gotham is old, with deep roots in Europe. Frames of Batman on the rooftops harken back to Quasimodo atop Notre Dame.

But while WayneCorp may well have risen on government contracts, Batman is not on the payroll. Bruce Wayne is spending his own money to fund his war on crime. This may put him in the ranks of the feudal warriors, but it sets him apart from agent 007.

Finally, who are the bad guys?

For Bond, they are the enemies of the state — meaning that they are whoever Her Majesty says they are. In both the books and films, they are invariably evil, so James Bond will look like the good guy when he finally defeats them, but ultimately the double-O agents are weapons: the government aims them at its enemies and pulls the trigger. We know full well from history who ends up in the cross hairs.

Even my favorite fictional private eyes, however independent and heroic they may prove to be, don’t go looking for trouble until a client hires them to do so.

But for Batman, the enemy is crime — not mere violators of legislation and statute law, not people who manufacture without regulation, trade without license, or copy digital patterns in violation of copyright. A true comic-book fanboy could probably dig through back issues and show us the exception, but I can’t recall Batman ever even picking on drug users.

For Batman, as for libertarians, a crime isn’t a crime without a victim. And it is the victims Batman is fighting for; they are proxies for the parents he was too young and scared to rescue from the back-alley gunman. In the versions of the backstory that I prefer, Batman can never avenge his parents’ deaths, so even the target of his vengeance is a proxy: not a human criminal but crime itself. And by "crime," I mean rights violations, violence against person and property.

The Dark Knight may be on a perpetual quest, but it is not for a king; it is for the people.

[Cross-posted at LibertarianStandard.com]

DarkKnightReturnsPostscript

My vision of Batman comes from Frank Miller’s masterpiece of 1985.

Movies, TV, and comics have all kept the Dark Knight dark ever since.

As left-leaning Grant Morrison writes in Supergods, “Frank Miller brought the Dark Age style into line with a newly confident right-leaning America. His monumental Batman was no bleeding-heart liberal but a rugged libertarian.”

I introduced my father to Frank Miller’s work the very day I discovered it. He was reading issue #1 next to me as I read issue #2. I believe he loved it almost as much as I did. If he had been putting Batman in the same camp as James Bond back in the 1970s, he could only have had TV’s Adam West in mind. The campy television Batman of the 1960s may as well have been a costumed cop.

Here’s Grant Morrison again:

In the fifty years since his creation, Batman had become a friend of law and order, but Miller restored his outlaw status to thrilling effect. A Batman wanted by crooks and cops alike made for a much more interesting protagonist…