The Joker, The Movie

Todd Phillips

I love a good comic book movie. This one was different; it was sad and had no action packed super hero battles. It showed the story of the permanent victim, one Arthur Fleck, who is at the mercy of his boss, his peers, his society, and most importantly the rich as embodied by Thomas Wayne, father of Batman.

While the main societal conflict in the movie is the boring, timeless revolt of the proletariat against the capitalist class, the classic Marxist dichotomy of class conflict in society repeated over and over despite being obliterated many times over by many skilled arguments and countless amounts of evidence, the scene at the end where the Joker appears before the world on the Murray Franklin show was for me the most interesting part of the movie.

While on TV, he states that people democratically choose what is funny or not. By choosing to laugh and supporting comics that make them laugh, they ultimately determine what the definition of funny is. Similarly, people democratically support actions and behavior based on what the majority “decides” what is ethical. Rioting, killing, destroying property is all justified if only the majority supports it and has decided that it is legitimate.

Subjective Value

I’ve written about this before, but in the first case the Joker is describing subjective value. This is the theory of economics that is at the core of Austrian Economics; it was first discovered by Carl Menger and later refined by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. It states that valuations of scarce economic goods are necessarily subjective and ordinal. Value is ranked by each individual compared to other things they compare it to. You can say that you prefer coffee to tea, but you can’t say that you prefer coffee 3.7645 times more than tea. Value judgements are ranked ordinally and not cardinally.

This is what happens with comedy: in a room full of people, some people will find a joke funny. Others will not. A comic that tends to make jokes that more people dislike than like tends not to be in the business of comedy very long; as an entrepreneur tasked with the service of providing people with laughs, they are required to profit to stay in business. The venues they play at must take in more money than the cost of that production, or they will join the comic in going broke.

Fletcher in this case is the classic despondent artist; he doesn’t understand why his art is not bought. Why do other artists sell their work but I don’t? No one understands my work and how brilliant it is! If they did, they would surely buy it and love it as much as I do.

Mises wrote in the Anti-Capitalistic Mentality:

“The judgment about the merits of a work of art is entirely subjective. Some people praise what others disdain. There’s no yardstick to measure the aesthetic worth of a poem or of a building. Those who are delighted by the Cathedral of Chartres and the Meninas of Velasquez may think that those who remain unaffected by these marvels are boors. Many students are bored to death when the school forces them to read Hamlet. Only people who are endowed with a spark of the artistic mentality are fit to appreciate and to enjoy the work of an artist.

There has never been an era in which the many were prepared to do justice to contemporary art. Reverence to the great authors and artists has always been limited to small groups. What characterizes capitalism is not the bad taste of the crowds, but the fact that these crowds, made prosperous by capitalism, became “consumers” of literature-of course, of trashy literature. The book market is flooded by a downpour of trivial fiction for the semi-barbarians. But this does not prevent great authors from creating imperishable works.”

He says also that those who lament this state of affairs tend to turn to socialism, as they think they will get money for their work regardless of the customer’s preference and tend to write about it in their plays and movies as their jealousy of their peers consumes them. I got the impression that Fletcher here was not much different, as he encouraged and incited the proletariat to rise up against the capitalist.

Subjective Ethics?

Here we get to the second part of his statement, where the majority chooses what is ethical. Here we find the works of Rothbard and his Ethics of Liberty to be indispensable. Property rights, i.e. human rights, are inalienable and specifically defined. They do not allow physical violence among any members of society if that violence is not agreed upon and sanctioned by all parties. In other words, a business who encourages riots is free to allow the rioters to burn down his business and property, so long as he can be sure that no harm will come to any other person’s property in the area.

Fletcher would be perfectly valid under property rights if he allowed the jester thugs he incited to ransack his home and his mother’s apartment (so long as she also agreed), but it’s another thing entirely to run through the city destroying other people’s property. They may also not have signs saying “Kill the Rich”, as that is a threat of physical violence and is also a violation of ethics.

Killing Thomas Wayne, despite his flaws and his status as a Mayor/politician, is nonetheless a violation of property rights. It is not ethical or just to force someone to surrender their life because they are rich, do not give charity to those in need, run businesses, own more property than others, etc. Ethics is not subjective and is not subject to the whims and fancies of the masses; it classifies specific human actions as either right or wrong.

It is entirely true that some of the things done to the Joker, such as the young hooligans beating him up in the beginning of the film or the drunk men on the subway harassing/beating him and the young lady on the train, are violations of property rights. He is entirely justified in defending himself and pursuing justice against those specific people. But he chose to bring a gun to a children’s hospital and be fired from work, and he may not force other people to answer his letters or give him money.


The Joker as a character has, in the DC universe, generally stood for anarchy and chaos. He laughs at societal breakdown and the disharmony and economic chaos that emerges from that. He loves to bring about conflict and harm in society. Ethics has never been his strong suit, and he certainly doesn’t espouse property rights. If anything, he stands for the exact opposite of them.

Yet, perhaps we should consider that there is the possibility of anarchy and order. A ethical framework based on the bedrock of property rights does not necessarily imply the need for a government. In fact, most of what the government does including taxation is itself a violation of property rights. If property rights are truly respected, understood, and built into the framework of society systemically wherein no one may steal, kill, rape, enslave, tax, or harm other people and their property physically without facing a fully formed social backlash and consequences, what need is there for a government?

Perhaps we should give it a shot.

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