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March 1998
Volume 16, Number 3

Holy Praxeology, Batman!
Paul A. Cantor

A Jewish Batman? A female Robin? The Dynamic Duo battling on behalf of truth, justice, and Austrian economics? Are we in a parallel universe or what? We are indeed if we are reading The Batman Chronicles, the Winter 1998 issue, devoted to "Elseworlds," in which "heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places."

Writer and artist Paul Pope has created the story of "Berlin Batman," nemesis of the Nazis by night but by day " wealthy socialite Baruch Wane." We learn how this Jewish orphan became a crime fighter, but how he managed to maintain a prominent social position in Nazi Germany in 1938 we are not told, and, indeed, with his pink smoking jacket, cubist paintings, and all-around Helmut Berger-like appearance, he seems a relic of Weimar decadence.

But Wane is merely masquerading as a "ne'er-do-well dandy," as he points out to the decidedly female Robin who accompanies him, though not yet on his crime-fighting missions.

And what is the mission of this Teutonic Fledermausmensch? No less than to rescue the personal library of Ludwig von Mises, seized by the Nazis in an effort to prevent him from writing the book that eventually became Human Action. Apparently Mises's fame has spread to the comic book world and specifically the story of the miraculous recovery in a Moscow archive of his personal papers taken by the Soviets from the Nazis who originally stole them.

Though Berlin Batman struggles heroically to save Mises's library "after all, Wane tells Robin: "I once met him, and I've read his work--the Nazi goons prove too much even for the Caped Crusader. Still, as an afterword from Robin's notebooks points out, the Nazis could not stop Mises from finally publishing Human Action, "now considered one of the great libertarian works of our times."

Many have pointed to Friedrich Hayek's winning the Noble Prize in 1974 as the moment when Austrian economics achieved widespread intellectual respectability. But it seems to me that having Mises linked with a revered superhero like Batman is a better measure of how deeply Austrian ideas have finally penetrated into our culture.

Indeed "Berlin Batman" ends ominously for all the remaining statists in our day: "Von Mises's anti-authoritarian ideas were first a threat to the Nazis, then the Soviets, and to all increasingly regulatory governments in our own times." Evidently our political leaders in Washington should be reading comic books instead of just behaving as if they belonged in them.

The Batman Chronicles left me wondering: Could the 1930s really have been the first time superheroes came to the aid of champions of the free market? A quick check into a few more parallel universes proved rewarding.

For example, it turns out that Adam Smith was indebted to an enigmatic eighteenth-century figure named Lamont MacCranston. Apparently it was while having his mind clouded by the man known as the Glasgow Shadow that Smith first discovered the power of the Invisible Hand. MacCranston's signature phrase should sound familiar to modern ears, though free of the constraints of radio timing in his more leisurely age he could be expansive in formulating it.

Just picture young Adam Smith's eyes lighting up when he first heard the Glasgow Shadow intone: "Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men, but if expressed in a competitive market system it will be channeled into productive activities that will increase the wealth of nations?"

David Ricardo was similarly influenced by London Superman, whose secret identity back in the early nineteenth century was as a clerk from Kent. Living early in the Industrial Revolution, London Superman was not yet the Man of Steel but only the Man of Iron. But this means that when the clerk from Kent presented his bill to Ricardo for work as an auditor, the economist had his first inkling of the Iron Law of Wages.

If it seems strange to us today that a mere Man of Iron could have once been Superman, we must recall that superpowers are always relative to a given stage of technology. London Superman was billed in his day as "faster than a speeding stage coach, more powerful than a spinning jenny, able to leap St. Paul's Cathedral with a single bound." It was while reflecting on such considerations that Ricardo first hit upon the Law of Comparative Advantage.

I could go on documenting the impact of the great superheroes of the past on the classical liberal tradition. Once one learns that Victorian Wonder Woman adopted the name of Harriet Taylor in civilian life, a great deal in the career of J.S. Mill can be readily explained, but perhaps the less said about that the better.

One might have thought that now and then a superhero would have tried to give a boost to the opponents of the liberal tradition, but evidently these figures were too smart for that. Thus anti-free-market forces have been compelled to invent their own superheroes. Since Keynesian economics is largely fictional anyway, Lord Keynes cheerfully accepted this situation. For example, he tried to create a mysterious power known as the Multiplier, but unfortunately for comic book illustrators everywhere this would-be superhero never quite took off.

In fact, it will come as no surprise to Austrians that over the years Keynesian economics has shown far more affinity with supervillains than with superheroes, as illustrated once again in the career of Batman. The Riddler, the Joker, Two-Face--are these not all aliases for Lord Keynes himself?

And we must always look to the full names of the supervillains in Batman, sometimes suppressed by leftists in the media. For example, the character played by the great Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger in the most recent Batman film was originally called "Mr. Wage and Price Freeze."And in a subtle reference to the insidious source of Keynesian economics in the United states, the supervillainess played by Uma Thurman was intially named "Poison Ivy League."

You can learn a lot from comic books. And is it true that the Viennese Incredible Hulk, bulked up on Sacher Torten, once had to save Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk from marauding Marxists in the Prater?


Paul Cantor teaches English at the University of Virginia.


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