BLACK MUSIC CUE: Captain America theme. SEAN I know what you're thinking... "Another Marvel Movie!?" I hear ya. But I swear, this one's a request. IMAGE: "civil-war-comment.png" SEAN Panperl asks, "Please make a video about Captain America: Civil War and discuss the division of Cap and Iron Man. Who is right? Should they be registered and controlled by the government? Or should they decide what to do with their powers?" It's a great question, and I think it is a topic worth mentioning, so with that in mind... MOTION GRAPHIC: Out of Frame Logo Animation SEAN Welcome to Out of Frame. SEAN Now, before we get to Civil War and why Tony Stark and Steve Rogers end up fighting each other, I think we should back up a little bit to make sure everyone's on the same page. I think the best place to begin in order to explain the division between Iron Man and Captain America is with Captain America: Winter Soldier. This was a pivotal film for the MCU. It radically changed the tone of Captain America as a character from being a sort of plucky do-gooder to a guiding voice of moral clarity. CLIP -- Captain America: Winter Soldier STEVE ROGERS I know I'm asking a lot. But the price of freedom is high. It always has been. And it's a price I'm willing to pay. And if I'm the only one, then so be it. But I'm willing to bet I'm not. SEAN More importantly to the point here, it revealed that SHIELD - the organization that established and oversees the Avengers team - was actually compromised by corrupt politicians working for the Nazi splinter group, Hydra. B-ROLL -- Image from the comics and movies of Captain America as a WWII soldier, fighting Hitler and the Nazis. SEAN Just like his comic book counterpart, Captain America started his existence as a loyal soldier, doing whatever his government asked of him because he believed that those actions were morally justified. B-ROLL -- "Captain America: Winter Soldier" Nick Fury introduces Cap to the new Helicarrier fleet. SEAN But when Steve sees how modern society traded freedom for a false sense of security, he also sees how this exchange empowered evil people to negate individual rights on an epic scale and abandons SHIELD. CLIP -- Captain America: Winter Soldier STEVE ROGERS We compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so the people could be free. This isn't freedom, this is fear. Continue B-ROLL from the movie. SEAN This is critical character development for Steve Rogers, and it's mirrored by the shift we see in Tony Stark between the first Avengers movie and the second... So let's talk about Iron Man for a minute. B-ROLL -- Avengers, Iron Man III, and Avengers: Age of Ultron SEAN After his near-death experience battling a monstrous army of space aliens, Tony spends virtually the entirety of Iron Man III dealing with PTSD. And although he overcomes some of his fears in that movie, he goes on to create the eponymous central antagonist of Avengers: Age of Ultron using the exact same reasoning that Nick Fury used to justify targeting people for pre-crime with flying death-machines. CLIP -- Avengers: Age of Ultron TONY STARK I see a suit of armor around the whole world. SEAN Of course, like far too many of Tony Stark's other creations, Ultron turns evil and murders thousands of people, which in turn leads to the United Nations proposing a new law that would bring the Avengers - and all superheroes - under political control. CLIP -- Captain America: Civil War (~21m) THUNDERBOLT ROSS Berates heroes... Describes Sokovia Accords. B-ROLL -- Continue previous clip over VO. SEAN I hope all that backstory wasn't overwhelming, but now that we're all caught up, let's talk about whether or not the inciting incident for Captain America: Civil War... B-ROLL -- Show the Sokovia Accords document. SEAN actually a good idea. There are probably a bunch of different ways to approach this question, but for the purposes of this video, I think we should assess it on three levels. B-ROLL -- The Incredible Hulk Show clips of General Thunderbolt Ross leading a full military assault against Ed Norton's Hulk in the middle of a public park/college campus. SEAN First, we need to ask whether or not the government (and perhaps specifically the United Nations) has a track record of making decisions that reduce global chaos and improve peaceful relations between people. Basically, if the goal is to reduce civilian casualties or improve public safety, do we have any reason to believe that government is better at this task than private individuals? B-ROLL -- The Avengers Nick Fury talks to the shadowy World Security Council. SEAN Second, we should think about what happens when we give government these kinds of powers in the real world. B-ROLL -- Line-up shot from the Airport fight sequence. SEAN And third, we must consider the human costs on both sides. CLIP -- Captain America: Civil War SEAN Starting with the first question, Steve lays out the core challenge. TONY STARK When I realized what my weapons were capable of in the wrong hands, I shut it down and stopped manufacturing them. STEVE ROGERS Tony. You chose to do that. If we sign these, 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? We may not be perfect, but the safest hands are still our own. Continue the clip as B-ROLL, until we need to see some IMAGES related to Public Choice. SEAN This is a beautiful example of a theoretical framework in political economy called Public Choice. The idea - in the words of its founder, James Buchanan - is to think about "politics without romance." This means looking at the actual effects of a policy, instead of idealistically assuming we'll end up with the kind of perfect outcomes that only exist in people's imagination. B-ROLL -- Captain America: Civil War We see more shots of the debate between the Avengers about the Sokovia Accords. SEAN In this scene, Captain America acknowledges that he is fallible and that his own decisions may not always be perfect, but he's also being realistic about how superhuman powers might be misused if they were subject to political control. By contrast, Iron Man is mostly focused on the idea that political control will improve trust and accountability, but this assumes that the politicians in charge will make better decisions and have better intentions than Captain America, which is... uh... unlikely. But if that were true, it also assumes that politicians won't ever be corrupt, or have biases and make decisions that benefit their personal-interests, and that they'll somehow have better knowledge of complex local situations than the heroes have themselves. I'm pretty sure no such politician has ever existed. B-ROLL -- IMAGE of FEE article about "Unicorn Governance", followed by various images and video clips of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the PATRIOT Act, George W. Bush, Obama, NSA stuff, etc. SEAN That's why Duke University economist Michael Munger calls this type of thinking "Unicorn Governance". Unfortunately, once you are aware of this problem, you see it all the time. For example, in response to terrorist attacks in the US, there was widespread public support for going to war with Afghanistan, imposing new laws like the PATRIOT Act, and creating the Transportation Security Administration. We did all these things with the idea that empowering government to go after terrorists would us all safer. B-ROLL -- IMAGE showing the byline and headline from this article: SEAN But what people didn't think about was the way these new powers would be used to erode civil liberties in the US, or to destabilize other countries around the world. B-ROLL -- News footage of Stop-and-Frisk in NYC. SEAN The fact that nobody really meant to create a society where the government has the power to spy on everyone's phone calls, texts, and emails; or where people who look vaguely Middle Eastern get arrested under Stop-and-Frisk doesn't matter that much. That's the world we got. More depressing B-ROLL of state power in reaction to 9/11. SEAN The point is, it's just not enough to judge a policy by its intentions, or based on what you hope will be the results. B-ROLL -- Captain America: Civil War SEAN But I think this is exactly what Tony is doing by supporting the Sokovia Accords. Stark is assuming that the UN will make wise, just, and well-informed decisions and that the government-controlled version of The Avengers will still be used for noble purposes. But... Government's track record on using their power to help innocent people isn't all that good, even when the politicians in charge claim they have all the right intentions. B-ROLL -- IMAGES and news footage of the UN related to the list of failures. SEAN Worse still, in Captain America: Civil War, it would specifically be the United Nations that oversees the Avengers based on the new rules. But to the extent that the UN has any power at all, its actual record is horrendous. In the mid-1990s, their Oil-for-Food Program turned out to be plagued with severe corruption and abuse, including millions of dollars being diverted from aid programs directly into the pockets of Iraqi government officials, towards kickbacks for connected companies, and to payoffs and bribes at the UN - including $150,000 to the head of the Oil-for-Food program, Benon Sevan. Worse, the Volcker Commission's investigation of the program found that a lot of the food provided to Iraqi citizens wasn't even fit for human consumption to begin with. Then in the late 1990s, the UN supported forced sterilization in Peru via the UN Population Fund and continued to do so through 2002 even after the truth about the program was widely known. And most horrific of all, just last year we learned that more than 100 United Nations "peacekeepers" ran a child prostitution ring in Haiti for over a decade and not one person has been sent to prison -- and this news came after many well-publicized cases of sexual abuse by UN operatives from around the world since at least 1996. Yet, for some reason, this is the organization that should be in charge of where and when to send superheroes in a crisis? CLIP -- Captain America: Civil War COL. RHODES This is the United Nations we're talking about, it's not the World Security Council, it's not SHIELD, it's not Hydra- STEVE ROGERS No, but it's run by people with agendas, and agendas change.... B-ROLL -- Continue footage from the film. SEAN Another thing about Public Choice is that just as we look at economic actors and ask how various incentives and motivations might affect their choices, we should do the same with political actors starting with the recognition that they're no more or less self-interested, moral, or infallible than anyone else. When we do that, we see a big difference between the institutional incentives for private citizens and public officials. Politicians rarely face any meaningful consequences for poor decision-making, and they have very little personal stake in the costs of their actions. They're immune to prosecution for any damage they cause and taxpayers pay all the bills, so the incentives that accompany political power tend to reward much worse behavior than is ever acceptable for anyone else. So what's the worst-case scenario for The Avengers? Well... It's hard to say for sure, but it's not good. B-ROLL -- Footage of Iraq, Egypt, or Syria, etc. SEAN Politicians might lie to our heroes and tell them to go topple the government of another country for national-security reasons that don't exist. B-ROLL -- Captain America: Civil War Black Widow takes down some henchmen on the boat at the beginning of the film. SEAN Or they could force them to carry out espionage and spy missions or even assassinations. B-ROLL -- Avengers: Infinity War An electrified Thor explodes out of the Bifrost Bridge into the Wakanda battle, smashing his new hammer down and leveling dozens of enemies. SEAN They could use the Avengers as weapons of war in all sorts of ways and the superheroes would immediately come face to face with the choice of doing as they're told, or becoming fugitives from the law... B-ROLL -- Captain America: Civil War Captain America throws a motorcycle at a helicopter in his escape from the Triskellion. SEAN ...which, of course, is exactly what Captain America has to do in the movie. This kind of government control robs individuals of their right to choose for themselves how they use their abilities and under what conditions. And it creates conditions where poor decisions and abuses of power are amplified, causing more harm on a bigger scale. It's always worth asking yourself what would happen if your worst enemies gained control of the power structure you're trying to create. CLIP -- The Avengers NICK FURY I recognize the council has made a decision, but given that it's a stupid-ass decision, I've elected to ignore it. WORLD SECURITY COUNCIL Director, you're closer than any of our subs. You scramble that jet- NICK FURY That is the island of Manhattan, Councilman. Until I'm certain my team can't hold it, I will not order a nuclear strike against a civilian population! B-ROLL -- The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Nick Fury shoots down the nuclear-enabled fighter with a rocket launcher. Follow with footage of the Avengers saving as many people as possible, but also of buildings falling down. SEAN Of course it's important to make sure private citizens don't recklessly endanger innocent people while trying to help avert some disaster, but it should be for the individuals themselves to decide which risks they take and how they use their abilities. Especially when they're trying to be good Samaritans. If they go too far or make mistakes, then we hold them accountable as individuals. This means stopping the superheroes that turn into villains, and using due process through the courts to assess their crimes and mete out appropriate punishments. CLIP -- Captain America: Civil War TONY STARK We need to be put in check! And whatever form that takes, I'm game. If we can't accept limitations, we're boundaryless, we're no better than the bad guys. SEAN Stark's right about that. But empowering government to conscript people and control their actions in the name of national security is a recipe for disaster that we've seen play out far too many times in the real world already, no matter how well-intended these policies might be. I hope what you take away from all this is bigger than any discussion of fictional cinematic universes. What really matters is how you think about these issues, because it's not just about national security. Health care, education, economic regulations... Anything government controls carries the same kinds of risks. B-ROLL -- Iron Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man III Montage of Tony Stark creating his own enemies in Iron Monger, Ultron, and Extremis from various movies. SEAN Everyone believes their ideas are going to make the world a better place, but most people advocating greater concentration of power don't bother to consider what happens when that power is controlled by people who aren't as good or knowledgeable as the angels they imagine will always be in charge. In spite of constantly being the smartest man in the room, Tony Stark seems to make this mistake again and again. So be like Captain America. CLIP -- Avengers: Age of Ultron STEVE ROGERS Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time. SEAN Think through the unintended consequences of the laws you think we should have and remember that everything works better on paper than in real life. And leave the fantasy of perfection to your imagination, where it belongs. FADE TO BLACK OUT OF FRAME END CARD SEAN Hey everybody. Thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. What do you think? Do you agree with me and Captain America, or do you side with Iron Man? Leave a comment and let me know. Then check out for all the other content we're producing at the Foundation for Economic Education, and don't forget to like and subscribe to all our social networks on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time!

Out of Frame


About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

Iron Man vs. Captain America: Who's Right?

September 6, 2018

In Captain America: Civil War, the main conflict is not just a fist fight between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.

It's a battle of ideas.

Should the members of the Avengers superhero team remain free to decide when and how to use their powers in defense of others, or should they be registered and controlled by government?

To find out who's right, we first have to think about how government decision-making actually takes place. And the best way to think about that question is to apply economic analysis to politics using a framework called "Public Choice."

Written, Produced, and Edited by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayrom

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