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Batman vs. Superman

Jonathan Klingler | Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Those of you who may have read my column in the past know that I have occasionally written about some controversial issues, from the fall election to the war in Iraq. Though these subjects can provoke arguments and long-lasting discussions, in my experience they pale in comparison to the debate over whether Batman or Superman is superior. I’ve seen good friends stop talking for days after stumbling into this hornet’s nest, and when I have listened to these conversations, opinions have been surprisingly immovable and reactions quite hostile.

I bring this topic up because I flew out of town for a graduate school visitation event last weekend, and while breaking the ice with some fellow prospects at a local pub, one of them posed the aforementioned question. As I braced in anticipation for the fight to come, another student proposed that Batman was a libertarian and Superman was a socialist. After all, he said, Stalin means “man of steel” in Russian, which also serves as Superman’s title.

According to his theory, Batman is a libertarian because he is a brilliant entrepreneur who trained himself to master the martial arts, and uses skills obtained through merit to defend Gotham against criminals and its hopelessly corrupt government. On the other hand, Superman is a socialist because he wears a red cape and has a big “S” on his chest, embodies the belief that only those born well can prosper and spends his time fighting his archenemy, a rich businessman. In addition, while Batman is never truly able to eradicate the evil underworld of Gotham City, under Superman’s benign control, Metropolis becomes open, modernist and democratic.

Though one could easily argue the opposite is true, this theory provides an interesting perspective not only for dining hall comic book debates but also for government as a whole. Though crime fighting is clearly a core responsibility of local government, organizations like Habitat for Humanity, America’s Second Harvest and Goodwill are able to grant a great deal of support to our neighbors in need when cities and counties fail to provide for those in need. We all have the opportunity to take matters into our own hands when we participate in service organizations like these and become a little more like the Dark Knight.

Like Batman, voluntary associations are often more efficient than local governments in addressing problems. In cities across the country, elected officials have worked to create partnerships with citizen groups so the people can enjoy better services with a smaller tax burden. For example, in Indianapolis, former mayor Stephen Goldsmith worked to create voluntary neighborhood councils that were empowered to help maintain parks, advise the city on the proper use of funds and report crime.

When citizen groups and individuals are empowered to help contribute personally to our counties and cities, there is greater accountability and more opportunity for democratic participation on a local level. A charity that is caught misusing funds will adapt quickly or face elimination, while corrupt or grossly inefficient local government programs (like the overabundance of snowplows in Chicago) are allowed to go on indefinitely. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed a vibrant and effective democratic system in the town halls of New England, and as we all become increasingly detached from our government, it makes sense to bring policymaking back to the people. Cities and counties are able to do this because of their small size while state government cannot. Sensible local officeholders would be wise to expand the use of effective open decision making – not just “listening sessions” that look good on the news.

Batman would not be nearly as effective in his mission if it were not for his working relationship with Commissioner Gordon. Similarly, local governments would benefit greatly by actively fostering and working with volunteer organizations. Sometimes, the problems of collective action can prevent an association from forming. Local government support should provide the seed needed for new Habitat chapters, for example, to start in areas where they do not exist. Increased use of faith-based initiatives and public-private partnerships as well as increased civic education initiated by local governments all serve to support individual volunteer action and allow such a system of free associations to flourish.

You can decide for yourself whether or not Batman and Superman represent a libertarian or socialist worldview, respectively. Either way, there is a lot that can be learned from the situation and applied to local governments outside Gotham and Metropolis. By relocating non-coercive responsibilities of government closer to the people (whether it’s from the state level to cities or the local level to citizen groups) the same services can be provided at lower cost and with greater accountability and oversight. This allows cities and counties to take on more responsibilities from state governments and foster the sort of one-to-one democracy this country was built to enjoy. Though none of us can be a lone Superman flying around South Bend, we can all be Bruce Wayne-style superheroes. As you go about your day, I challenge you to ask, “What Would Batman Do?”

Jonathan Klingler is a senior management consulting major and president emeritus of the Notre Dame College Republicans. He currently resides in Keenan Hall and enjoys Tolstoy and Matlock. He can be contacted via e-mail at jklingle@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.