The liberty movement must decide now, once and for all, where our allegiance truly lies: Team Cap or Team Stark. We are talking, of course, about the new summer blockbuster Captain America: Civil War, and the epic showdown between Captain America and Iron Man. Warning: here be (some) spoilers.
The film starts in the aftermath of the previous Avengers movies — briefly summarized: very destructive battles between good and evil, in which the Avengers heroically save the day, but unfortunately, in their efforts, a large number of innocent people are killed. In its opening scene, Civil War shows us the danger the Avengers pose to bystanders, when Scarlet Witch and Captain America accidentally cause the deaths of seven civilians in Nigeria.
"If we can't accept limitations... We’re no better than the bad guys."
In response to this international incident, world leaders design the “Sokovia Accords” (named after the site of a previous Avengers’ battle) to regulate the superheroes. Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross tells the Avengers the treaty is “approved by one hundred and seventeen countries. It states that the Avengers shall no longer be a private organization. Instead, they'll operate under the supervision of a United Nations panel, only when and if that panel deems it necessary.”
Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) insists that the Avengers need the Accords to provide accountability and oversight. Citing their history of deadly collateral damage, he argues, “We need to be put in check! Whatever form that takes, I’m game. If we can't accept limitations... We’re no better than the bad guys.”
But Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) warns against the dangers of government control. The UN, says Rogers, “is run by people with agendas, and agendas change. … If we sign this, we surrender our right to choose. What if this panel sends us somewhere we don't think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go, and they don't let us? … The safest hands are still our own.”
The Case for Team Stark
After a speech like that, most libertarians would side with Team Cap, but Stark’s arguments should not be dismissed out of hand.
Holding powerful people accountable for their actions — whether it’s the government or a nominally private vigilante group — is not a weird or unreasonable idea. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (the nerdy alter ego of the Hulk) created an artificial intelligence named Ultron to protect Earth from aliens and other super-threats; instead, Ultron ran wild and nearly destroyed all human life.
Even though Stark was vital in ultimately stopping Ultron, he was also responsible for a huge amount of damage caused by his creation, including the destruction of Sokovia. Similarly, Ultron’s former henchman Scarlet Witch eventually helped stop Ultron, but only after she sent the Hulk rampaging through a city, causing massive damage and likely many casualties.
In Civil War, after Scarlet Witch has joined the Avengers, she accidentally contributes to seven innocent deaths in Nigeria. But merely by being part of the “good guys,” she appears protected from any kind of accountability, with no real repercussions nor even a process for assessing responsibility.
As a viewer, we have the benefit of perfect information and perfect hindsight on the Avengers’ actions and intentions, but the people living within the Marvel Cinematic Universe do not, creating reasonable fears that the Avengers' great power may not be exercised with great responsibility.
The Case for Team Cap
Stark’s appeal for accountability has merit, but Captain America astutely notes the dangers of government control when he asks what would happen if the UN orders them to do something they shouldn’t, or stops them from doing something they should. “We’re not taking responsibility for our actions,” he says of the Accords. “This document just shifts the blame.”
Cap essentially asks, if we give power to these governments to dictate the Avenger’s actions, what will prevent them from making misguided decisions or being infiltrated by malicious forces? In other words, the Accords don’t solve the problem of holding power accountable, they just shift it from the Avengers to a new and unknown group, who will get to dictate their actions.
Secretary Ross and Tony Stark cite three major cases to argue for government oversight of the Avengers: 1) the battle against the alien invaders in New York City in The Avengers, 2) the violence in Washington, DC, in Captain America: Winter Soldier, and 3) the destruction of Sokovia in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
From their perspective, the destruction and collateral damage caused by the Avengers naturally justifies government control. “Whatever form that takes, I’m game,” Stark says.
Captain America sees a basic public choice problem with government taking over the Avengers: why would world politicians do any better?
However, the relevant question is not whether private actors behave perfectly — of course, they don’t. Rather, the question is whether governments, composed of equally fallible people, can reliably improve the situation given their information and incentives. Identifying a problem does not inherently justify government intervention to fix it without first showing both that the government can fix it and that its specific policy would fix it — without also creating a worse problem or sacrificing other more important values.
Captain America sees a basic public choice problem with government taking over the Avengers: why would world politicians do any better? Do they have better knowledge, better incentives, or better intentions? Cap argues, “I know we’re not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own.”
Who’s Really More Trustworthy?
Two of the cases cited by Stark and Secretary Ross cut directly against the case for more government. First, during the alien invasion in The Avengers, the government tried to stop the invasion by firing a nuclear missile at New York — which Stark intercepted and sent into the alien spaceship, thus simultaneously saving New York from rampaging alien hoards and government “oversight.”
Second, in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Cap saves the world from the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D., which had been secretly taken over by a Nazi death cult and was planning to kill millions of people with a fleet of flying death machines (“helicarriers,” not drones).
Government supervision during the alien invasion nearly killed everyone in New York, and the violence in Washington, DC, resulted from Captain America stopping the harm caused by the government itself. Based on their past experiences, the Avengers should be very skeptical of government control. In most of the cases, government posed a much bigger threat than the alternative of (in Stark’s own words in Iron Man 2) “privatized world peace.”
Secretary Ross correctly identifies a real danger originating from the Avengers in the Ultron fiasco. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner created Ultron, and Sokovia was obliterated as a result. But, in this case, the Accords would not have helped. The Ultron problem did not come from the Avengers lawlessly rampaging around the world but from an R&D project gone awry. (Stark points out that the Avengers “dropped a building” on civilians while battling Ultron, but while that is their fault, it’s not clear how having UN-approval to go fight would have prevented such collateral damage.)
The only regulations that could have plausibly prevented Ultron would have been control over all research into artificial intelligence, control that would have had to extend far outside of the Avengers and into all computer science research around the globe — an unwieldy, unrealistic, and intrusive violation of people’s privacy, not to mention a huge burden on scientific progress.
The government does not have a such great track record on safe scientific research, either. In his condemnation of the Avengers, Secretary Ross sarcastically asks, “Tell me, Captain, do you know where Thor and Banner are right now? Cause you can bet if I misplaced a couple of 30-megaton warheads, there'd be consequences.”
However, as is often the case, the right process is behind door number three: the liberty approach.
Yet it was then-Lt. General Ross, while in charge of the Army’s supersoldier program, who accidentally transformed Banner into the Hulk in the first place, and then subsequently lost track of him! For him, the consequences of misplacing a 30-megaton warhead were to be appointed Secretary of State. Apparently, that’s the kind of supervision and accountability government bureaucracy actually fosters.
A Better Way
In forcing us to choose between Team Cap and Team Stark, Civil War presents a false dichotomy: either cede control of the Avengers to the UN or continue to have no accountability at all — a choice between the dangers of concentrated power and the dangers of unaccountable private individuals.
However, as is often the case, the right process is behind door number three: the liberty approach.
There are two basic ways to hold people accountable: command-and-control regulators telling them what to do beforehand (Ross and Stark’s solution) or courts requiring them to provide compensation to injured parties when they cause harm.
Centralized regulatory agencies have all the typical problems of government: corruption, bad incentives, insufficient knowledge, and stifling innovation. In contrast, tort law holds people accountable if and when they hurt others or recklessly put them at risk. This decentralized mechanism allows for a free, innovative, and diverse market, while still holding people responsible for their actions.
In the context of superheroes, torts could provide the accountability Stark needs without the dangers of government control Cap fears. Rather than having the government direct the Avengers’ missions or stringently regulate their actions, the Avengers can be held accountable through the courts: if they cause damage, they have to justify their actions and, if found liable, make restitution or face punishment.
Ultimately, in his quest for accountability for himself and the Avengers, Stark overlooks the dangers of state control, leading to abuse of his friends by a powerful and unaccountable government. On the other hand, although Rogers correctly identifies that threat, he attempts to unduly insulate his friends from accountability. He may be right that “the best hands are still their own,” but if those hands smash buildings to pieces, they shouldn't simply be able to hide behind government protection. Just like any private citizens, the Avengers should be subject to civil liability and criminal prosecution for their actions — and just like anyone, they may claim self-defense and necessity.
What is the correct outcome of such a process for the Avengers’ actions in Sokovia, Nigeria, New York, and DC? It’s hard to know in advance. Stark endangered the world by the mistakes he made creating Ultron, but he also helped save the world from it. Did he act recklessly or negligently? Should he have known better? Would jailing him make the world safer, or deter reckless behavior in the future by other scientists or superheroes?
These are hard questions to answer. A decentralized, open-ended approach won’t guarantee you a certain outcome, but that’s the risk of freedom. The risks of centralized government control you can see for yourself — in theaters and in newspapers.
Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.