Batman’s Lessons

Given the enormous amounts of money advocates of bigger government throw about these days, many market liberals long to find our own “George Soros.” Left-liberal activists have long dominated major philanthropic foundations like Pew, Rockefeller, and Ford. Yet  the new wave of entrepreneurs now entering the philanthropic circles seem oblivious about supporting free market groups. The Washington Post noted that one group of left-leaning entrepreneurs agreed to raise another $80 million annually to bring “balance” to the think tank world. Balance, really? Economic statists already control most major foundations, the schools and, the media, hold critical slots in business and government bureaucracies—and now they want to dominate the think tanks. Fighting the battles for economic liberty has been hard. It is likely to get even harder.

Advocates of free market have yet to resolve the logistical battle—how to garner the resources to wage the war for economic liberty. Free market platoons have been waging a multi-front war against collectivist divisions. And, unfortunately, as history shows, victory generally goes to side with the biggest battalions. Ideas matter, but, as the last century shows, bad ideas can win out over good ones. So how can we acquire the resources to ensure that our ideas are heard in the cacophony of the public policy world?  One answer is suggested in that memorable line from the movie Jaws, where the great white has nearly chopped to bits the fishing vessel: We need a bigger boat! That is, resources matter and we need more of them.

I thought of this recently, when I saw Batman Begins—a movie that many free market advocates have enthusiastically endorsed for its individualist message. I liked it also. Gotham’s crime problem, the movie showed, was strongly linked with government corruption. But when it became obvious that: 1) Bruce Wayne was very wealthy; and that 2) he planned to use his wealth to finance a personal crusade against crime, I thought:   

No, Bruce, be entrepreneurial! Leverage that investment to create a portfolio of liberty-promoting groups to challenge the whole corrupt system.

But, of course, he didn’t. Movie theatres—at least from the audience side of the screen—are not an ideal venue for policy strategizing. Still, if and when, we find the equivalent of our George Soros, I’ll certainly make those points. 

Yet Bruce Wayne’s course of action is not surprising. Entrepreneurs are doers, not intellectuals. They want to act directly and rarely understand the need to invest resources to defend the institutions critical to their own success and to continued economic liberty. Absent these institutions—rule of law, private property, enforceable contracts—few wealth-creating enterprises would thrive.  

So what should they do? Entrepreneurs are unlikely to find allies among the Chattering Class. An alliance with the remnant of market liberal intellectuals is their—and our—best hope to counteract the trial lawyer-bureaucrat-intellectual coalition that so threatens economic and individual freedom. 

Bruce Wayne’s major shortcoming was that he sought to go it alone. The economic success of Wayne Enterprises was the achievement of many individuals working for a common goal. Had he assembled a group of his fellow businessmen to join in the fight for liberty, he might see more lasting results. Resources matter and alliances make it possible to mobilize those resources.

Bruce Wayne had a lofty goal. He sought to do as much as any one individual might expect to achieve. But he did not think through the reasons why Gotham had become so corrupt, why so many good individuals sought to profit by rent-seeking rather than by wealth creation. He sought to combat evil but not to expand the institutions of liberty. He did not think through the ways in which economic liberalization would reduce the temptations to seek political preference, and lower the likelihood of violence and fraud. Yet he certainly realized that political control of public safety had not made Gotham City secure. 

My message to Bruce Wayne and the entrepreneurial community is simple: Think of public policy the way you think of other investments. Is it best to put all your eggs in one basket or to fund a diverse portfolio of policy initiatives. Which approach is more likely to yield the highest return? A leveraged use of your resources would make it possible to defend and expand economic liberty not only in Gotham but throughout America and the world.