Impunity, Moral Hazard, and Spider-Man
“With great power comes great responsibility.” This is the motto of Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker. Parker, who had acquired great powers from a radioactive spider bite, was told the maxim by his Uncle Ben. But he rejected it, and allowed a violent robber to escape when he could have easily prevented it. Later the same robber murdered Uncle Ben. From then on, Parker dedicated his life to, as a super-hero, upholding the great responsibility that came with his great power.
Spider-Man, like most comic book super-heroes, operates outside of the state, and focuses on the protection of life and liberty, as opposed to enforcing state edicts. He pursues “justice enforcement,” as opposed to “law enforcement.” Furthermore, in stark contrast to the police, he never abuses his power by committing injustices “in the line of duty.”
This makes sense, because, unlike cops, Spider-Man does not enjoy the impunity of “qualified immunity.” Although he wears a mask, and anonymity can aid impunity, he in no way gets a “free pass”; indeed, Spider-Man faces great public scrutiny, often being depicted in the media (especially in J. Jonah Jameson’s Daily Bugle) as a “menace,” in spite of his record of public service and abstention from injustice. And when an imposter committed crimes in his costume, Spider-Man was threatened with arrest and prosecution.
Not having impunity is one sense in which Spider-Man is responsible; he is held accountable for any encroachments he makes on the liberty and property of others. His condition of responsibility in this sense impels him to be responsible in another sense: to use his power with judiciousness and discretion.
Conversely, having impunity is one sense in which police officers are irresponsible; they are not held accountable for their encroachments on the liberty and property of others. (For more on this, see my essays “We Need Cops Like a Hole in the Head” and “The Ring of Impunity”.) Irresponsibility in this sense encourages cops to be irresponsible in another sense: to use their power with reckless abandon and utter disregard for the rights of others.
Another meaning of responsibility is bearing the risks one undertakes, and any losses one incurs thereby. This condition of responsibility also encourages individuals to act responsibly. Spider-Man, who bears his own risks, regularly performs death-defying acrobatics, but he almost never performs a stunt that he can’t handle, and that isn’t worth doing.
Conversely, the state often creates irresponsibility in the sense of moral hazard, allowing individuals to externalize their risks and losses on others. This condition of irresponsibility also encourages individuals to act irresponsibly. State-sponsored medical insurance encourages individuals to over-utilize covered services with abandon, and to pursue unhealthy lifestyles. Promoters of government medical insurance even flaunt this, as in the “Brosurance” ads that enjoin college dudes to sign up for Obamacare so they can perform dangerous drunken antics like keg stands without worry.
Another area where the state makes for “moral hazard” irresponsibility is in high finance. The solvency of Government Sponsored Entities (GSEs) like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was always implicitly guaranteed by the government; the same was true of banks and other financial institutions that were considered “Too Big to Fail.” Such a condition of irresponsibility led the people running these companies to act irresponsibly, pursuing risky investments like subprime mortgages, secure in the knowledge that any severe losses will be externalized to taxpayers by way of a bailout. (See my essay, "American Dream, Recurring Nightmare".)
So, to rephrase Spider-Man’s motto: with state power comes great irresponsibility. The freedom to act, when not paired with responsibility, is not true liberty, but license.
Also published at Medium.com: