Batman, The Failed State Leviathan: Why Sociologists Are The Best Superheroes

Batman, The Failed State Leviathan: Why Sociologists Are The Best Superheroes

by David Metcalfe

November 8, 2018

There’s a major drug shipment coming to Gotham City, and a group of criminals are bringing it off shipping containers and into trucks to be distributed. But suddenly, they realize one of their guys is missing. Another one goes missing. They hear a thud and someone yell in pain. A metal object hits one of them in the head and knocks him unconscious. They wonder what the object could be, so they look closer, and it’s shaped…like a bat.

Before they have time to think, Batman, in his black, bullet proof suit, starts wailing on everyone. Within a few minutes, all of the criminals are on the ground in pain, and the cops are on their way.

Let me ask you: did Batman do what’s best for society?

If you don’t think about it too much, it seems as though he did the right thing. After all, these people were breaking the law, so he punished them with physical violence, and had them sent to prison for further punishment. But as we start to think about it more, the less “right” it begins to seem.

Firstly, let’s consider the burden on the economy.

These men all sustained injuries, and will need to be treated for them. It costs an average of about $2,000 per day in a hospital, including just simple treatments and surgeries (Ellison, 2016). Let’s say Batman hurt ten men, and they each have to spend two days in the hospital. We’re looking at potentially $40,000, and it’s unlikely these criminals are at a high enough income to pay their own health insurance, so the government will most likely pay the bill (or, in other words, tax payers). And this is not to mention any permanent or recurring injuries they may have incurred.

We then have to pay for a criminal trial, which, for a theft, averages around $500 per person (Hunt, 2016). The biggest expense to tax payers will be the jail time: assuming they each get an average of a 3 year sentence, it will cost about $100,000 each ($33,000 average cost per yer per person) (Vera, 2015). This now puts our total at 1.045 million dollars. We also should note that we are taking these men out of the economy, so they would have been purchasing food, rent, clothes, etc. but are not. This reduces potential business in a variety of fields, and over the course of 3 years, that would be a substantial amount for ten men. This will also prevent any potential economic output these men may have produced through legal means had they remained in the economy.

Already, Batman is costing tax payers well in excess of a million dollars.

Secondly, let’s consider the social impact on the criminals and their family.

When we say “criminals”, we are quick to reduce an entire human being to a label. In doing so, we forget that these are people with complex lives full of various relationships, work history, education, mental and physical health, and countless other things. Many of these men likely had families they were supporting.

Let’s say that John Smith works at a shipping plant, but the place closes down due to economic problems. He has a mortgage and family to pay for. As he is looking for work, he comes across a less-than-legitimate opportunity. He wouldn’t normally do it, but out of desperation, he takes it. He was planning to simply work a few shifts and then hopefully get a more legitimate job. However, because of Batman’s intervention, he is unable to be paid, and instead ends up in prison. His kids come home from school to find out their dad isn’t coming home. His wife defaults on the mortgage, and takes a second job to pay rent.

While in prison, John Smith is treated poorly by the prison guards, and develops a disdain for authority. He makes friends with other criminals. Upon release, he is unable to find gainful employment due to his criminal record. He’s now become a hardened, career criminal, and his contacts from prison set him up with more illegal work. Eventually, he gets caught, and the whole cycle begins again.

Batman has now put multiple families in poverty and created hardened, career criminals.

Thirdly, let’s consider the morality being communicated and represented. 

If one group of people are physically stronger than another group, and able to defeat them in physical combat, does that mean their ideas are more correct than the other group?

If you lived in certain ancient societies, you may answer “yes” to that question. However, in modern times, we understand that might does not make right. Just because someone is stronger than someone else does not give them any right to impose their will upon them.

But what Batman exemplifies is the idea that because he is able to physically defeat them, he is therefore right to impose his will that they should not be able to transport drugs. He offers no reasoning for why that is superior, and since he is not an instrument of the law, his will is essentially arbitrary.

You might say, “well, the police are doing the same thing, because they too use strength to impose their will on others.” But that is not the case, because it is not the will of the police officers being imposed; it is the will of society. Our laws are based on a collective understanding of individual rights as defined by the constitution, and how that gets carried out specifically is based on the will of the people. For example, the controversial “stop and frisk” procedures by police officers are a contentious debate as to whether they are beneficial to society. Left-wing people say it is an infringement on one’s liberty to be stopped and frisked without reason (and literally the Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights). Right-wing people say it is necessary to uphold our right to safety. Since the American people elected representatives who support “stop and frisk” procedures, they were recently re-implemented in several major cities.

The point is, the police officers, as instruments of law, are subject to the constitution and accountable to the will of the people. Their strength serves as the maintenance of societal order. Batman’s will is arbitrary. What if Batman were racist or sexist? What if he thought torture was acceptable? We are fortunate that Batman’s ideas happen to line up fairly well with modern American society, but there is nothing binding them lawfully, and the exercise of power through arbitrary will is illegal.

And on a strictly moral level, Batman communicates to these criminals that “might makes right”. If they were able to defeat him physically, they would have stopped him, served no punishment, and therefore, in their minds, done nothing wrong. So, the criminals work to become physically stronger, have heavier guns, and even resort to taking innocent civilians hostage or hurting them, in order to hurt Batman. Being right becomes all about inflicting pain on the person we deem “wrong”.

Safety, Society, and the Socialized Criminal

We can easily see that Batman’s supposed “good deed” actually carries a number of significant problems upon examination. It might be said that Batman’s primary function is to essentially act as “Leviathan” in the event that the government is not able to fulfill its duty. For example, the mob boss, Falcone, may have created power over the law for himself, and the police are incapable of upholding the law against him, due to bribery, extortion, sheer force, etc. The problem, in this instance, is not that the government is wrong, but that they are not able to fulfill their duty. If Batman does act in accordance with the law, simply as a maintainer of justice in the absence of police, then he is actually acting morally and legally.

But that is not even close to how a society should operate. That is an example of a failed state. While Batman may be a valuable tool in the event of extreme desperation, we want to do everything in our power to avoid ever getting there in the first place. Restoring temporary order to a failed state through a third party is far from the goal of a society. We want the government to have sustainable order. Obviously, from Ra’s Al Ghul to “The Joker” to “Bane”, within just a couple decades, Gotham falls into complete disorder multiple times. But these are, of course, fictional supervillains. However, societies do sometimes face major crime that governments cannot handle. The goal is for the government to have measures in place to maintain order on their own. The best way is not reactive, but proactive.

The best way for a government to maintain order is to allow the citizens to rule themselves through a collective understanding of core values. But it is hard to follow these core values when one is not effectively functioning in a society. When someone is able to be incorporated and achieve their goals through legal means, it is, of course, in their best interest to do so. After all, if someone could get 10 million dollars from the lottery, they would not bother risking prison to steal from a bank. And, in many ways, if someone is happy about their life, and feeling as though they have opportunity, they are significantly less likely to commit crimes.

Recall the example of John Smith. He took the job at the drug shipping place because he was unable to find work. Who of us wouldn’t steal a loaf of bread to feed our starving family? Society and government should do whatever possible to never put people in this position in the first place. What we find is that people who commit crimes are consistently poorly educated, have mental health problems, have lots of relationship and substance abuse problems, and are not part of a valuable community.

Powers of Social Improvement

Improving education is an invaluable aspect of reducing crime. Even a 1% increase in high school graduation rates would save the US an estimated 1.4 billion dollars of cost related to criminal activity (Lochner, Moretti, 2003). Education allows individuals to have the means to create a better life for themselves through legitimate means. It also means that they can develop as people, and understand better morality and lifestyle practices that lead to a more healthy and fulfilling life.

The tough prison system serves to harden criminals and give them increased challenges that exacerbate recidivism. Improving quality of life for prisoners, and investing time, energy, and resources towards rehabilitation will enable more criminals to re-enter society and not commit future crimes.

It’s estimated that more than 60% of prison inmates in America suffer from some kind of mental health issue (Prins, 2014). Identifying mental health concerns early, and getting the proper treatment, is extremely important. Many of these criminals, if given the right treatment, would never have engaged in criminal behavior at all. The same can be said of substance abuse, as over 50% of criminals meet the criteria for a substance abuse problem (Belenko, Hiller, Hamilton, 2013).

Since criminals are often low income, and do not have gainful employment, finding ways to lower unemployment is crucial. We can create work opportunities and initiatives that find meaningful and properly paid work for all people. And this means giving them a living wage. Paying people more increases the opportunity cost of committing a crime, and allows them to live a satisfactory quality of life without resorting to crime.


All these things are effective methods for not only stopping crime, but solving it. None of them have to do with martial arts, guns, or anything related to physical violence. The comic book superheroes may be ok for the very peculiar and desperate situation caused by fictional supervillains, but the causes of crime are primarily larger social problems. By shifting our paradigm to criminals as victims of a broken system, we begin to acknowledge the systemic injustices that lead to resulting criminal behavior.

The foundations of society are settled by philosophers. The implementation of social policy, including methods for crime reduction, are put forth by sociologists. The administration of help to individuals is performed by psychologists.

Thanks anyway superheroes, but more physical violence is not necessary for solving crime. We’ll call you if we ever become a failed state due to the presence of a supervillain.


Belenko, S., Hiller, M., Hamilton, L. (2014). Treating substance abuse disorders in the criminal justice system. Curr Psychiatry Rep. Retrieved from

Ellison, A. (2016). Average cost per inpatient day across 50 states. Becker’s Hospital Review. Retrieved from

Hunt, P. (2016). First Estimates of Judicial Costs of Specific Crimes, from Homocide to Theft. RAND. Retrieved from

Lochner, L., Moretti, E. (2003). The effect of education on crime: evidence from prison inmates, arrests, and self-reports. University of Berkeley. Retrieved from

Prins, S. (2014). The prevalence of mental illnesses in US state prisons: a systematic review. Psychiatric Serv. Retrieved from

Vera. (2015). Prison spending in 2015. Retrieved from






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