The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
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
but by day " wealthy
socialite Baruch Wane." We learn how this Jewish orphan became a crime fighter, but how he
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
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
Indeed "Berlin Batman" ends ominously for all the remaining statists in our day: "Von
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
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
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
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
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.