Spencer Ackerman’s adjudication of the dispute between Captain America and Iron Man is some of the most relevant punditry you’ll read today. And, incidentally, I agree with Spencer entirely: Iron Man was unequivocally right in the argument over superhero registration. I’m not even sure what the case for the other side is, and the libertarians I’ve asked haven’t been able to come up with one. If the state has any legitimate function at all, it’s to train and regulate people who could accidentally kill everyone in a hundred-mile radius.
The dispute involves events in the Marvel universe which took place well after I stopped reading their comics but Spencer Ackerman”s post does give a summary:
In the ‘Civil War’ storyline, Iron Man responded to a superhero-wrought tragedy by coming out for a Superhuman Registration Act, which would allow the government to register and regulate heroes and give them training. Cap and a band of likeminded heroes fought this — literally — and Cap died. But what Iron Man was really saying was no different than the uncontroversial principle that the state needs a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. When Cap launched his “the government will pick the supervillains” monologue, I was surprised that someone — like She-Hulk, who’s a lawyer — didn’t reply, “Wait, no. We have laws criminalizing certain behavior. We’ll have to follow those laws. That’s why the cops and the firefighters and the military and the intelligence communities don’t just go around legally killing members of the out-of-power party. Why would we be any different?”
Not having read the comics I am not in the best position to judge this, but Ackerman and Klein have not convinced me that Iron Man is right. My first problem from reading this and more of the discussion is that it appears we are dealing with far more than just a situation analogous to regulating weapons with the potential of killing everyone in a hundred-mile radius. It sounds like they are discussing mandatory government training of superheroes and making them work for the state. I cannot support this any more than I supported conscription during the Viet Nam war or would have supported slavery in pre-Civil War America. Holding superheroes responsible for their actions and preventing them from exercising uncontrolled violence is one thing. Making them slaves of the state is another.
I also wonder where we draw the line. If we really had mutations or bizarre accidents involving radioactive spiders which really did turn people into superheroes I am envisioning two extremes, with others being somewhere in between. On the one extreme are those with relatively minimal super powers which allow them to do things which most humans cannot do but which doesn’t really give them the power to kill everyone for miles around. Here we are criminalizing people who fail to register as superheroes and submit to government training who represent no meaningful danger. We can no more justify different treatment of these individuals than we could justify special regulation of individuals who happen to be stronger, faster, or smarter than most other Americans. Do we force Bill Gates to register for his intellect and force him to serve the state? (Maybe this is a bad example–this might have spared the world all the problems of Windows.)
The other extreme would be those who are so superior to the average human that they really could kill everyone for miles around. In this case I would think that such beings would laugh at humans who said “our government has a monopoly on the use of force and you must serve us.” I just do not believe that many of them would acknowledge the right of government to control what they could do naturally. The result would most likely be to convert super beings who might be kind enough to leave us alone into super villains.