Acton Institute Powerblog

A Jump on a Dark Knight

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Last night, I went to see the newest “Batman” movie with my fellow Acton interns. I thought it was a great movie, and I recommend seeing it and reading Jordan Ballor’s review of it. I also want to echo some of the themes that Jordan discussed in his piece.

After the movie was done, it turned out that the people who had parked behind me were in need of a jump for their car. I didn’t know these people, but I did see that they needed help. And so I did something that people obsessed with government or with markets should think is impossible: I gave them a jump. No one forced me to do it. No one paid me to do it. I just did it, because it was the right thing to do.

The episode sort of represented many of the things that have been annoying me recently about my fellow libertarians (there may also be some guilty conservatives). I think they put far too much emphasis on having a market based solution to nearly every social problem. Yet giving someone a jump seems to defy traditional money-chasing impulses. There simply are things which we do not rely on a market to provide.

On the flip side though, this does not imply that the government is the one that should provide these things. Arnold Kling wrote about how the government is actually one of the forces that can undermine and weaken civil society. Admitting that we have positive social obligations is an important element of “The Dark Knight Rises” as pointed out in Jordan’s review of the film. However, recognizing that these obligations exist does not imply that the government should enforce them through coercive action. Rather, these obligations direct us to find a way to meet these obligations. The market is merely one possible solution.

What I suggest is certainly not the platitude that “the market does not work” but instead that libertarians and others should stop prescribing it as a panacea for our social obligations. Likewise, I think that liberals and conservatives are misguided to argue for the government to take some action to meet our moral responsibilities, though liberals and conservatives disagree on which of these obligations the government should deal with.

An expression some libertarians are fond of, is that “you do not need to know how the cotton will be picked to know that slaves should be free.” Yet, I find they are frequently trying to answer the cotton-picking question with market oriented ideas. Yes, the market could provide many of the social goods that the government currently has a monopoly on. But it might not. That does not mean that we have to rely on the government to do it. Instead, it implies that we could take voluntary collective action that is not market driven. Let civil society handle it.

This is why religion is so important in a healthy society. Churches are an example of an important aspect of civil society (I believe the most important aspect). It provides charity and moral teaching. Is the idea of giving a stranger a jump for their car so strange to someone that understands the most basic elements of the parable of the Good Samaritan? Doesn’t the passage that Jordan Ballor cites from Proverbs seem obvious? “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act” (Prov. 3:27 NIV).

I agree that the government does too much. I believe that capitalism is fundamentally a moral system. But there is more to life than just the market and the government. It’s time to stop addressing all arguments against the government action as a necessary call for market action. There is a wide range of voluntary actions available to us. And as Batman tells Commissioner Gordon, there are a lot of ways to be a hero.

John MacDhubhain Recent alumnus of Michigan State, future student of George Mason