Contains “Iron Fist” spoilers.
Following Netflix’s captivating TV shows Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, and set within the same Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Fist disappoints with a mediocre story, which has led to widespread negative critic reviews. Like most Marvel fans, I probably enjoyed the show more than critics but still felt underwhelmed with its story.
Iron Fist neglects how businesses have incentives to innovate.
In particular, the show reflected a poor understanding of economics, business and the law of unintended consequences.
In Iron Fist, after a plane crash fifteen years earlier, Danny Rand returns to New York City as Iron Fist and seeks to crush his arch-enemy, the evil organization the Hand. In Daredevil, the Hand reveals itself to be depraved, enslaving people and willing to wage war with a ninja army. In contrast, despite cult-like behaviors, kidnappings and murders, Iron Fist’s central indictment of the Hand is that the black-market organization seeks to mass produce and sell heroin. The Hand has infiltrated Danny’s company, Rand Enterprises, to use its resources to promote illegal heroin trafficking.
With no characters questioning the desirability of heroin’s illegality, Iron Fist presents a drug cartel as its supervillain. By doing so, it neglects how businesses selling products, including drug cartels selling heroin, have incentives to innovate and create better societies because their profitability depends on consumers choosing to purchase their products.
Overall, if Iron Fist had not intervened, the Hand, as if guided by an invisible hand, would have produced widespread socially beneficial results through its heroin business in a way that, in the long-term, would have undermined the sustainability of its criminal enterprises.
Innovation in the Heroin Market
To earn a lot of money selling to heroin users, the Hand produces a new, innovative form of heroin. Unlike existing heroin, the Hand’s heroin prevents people from building a tolerance towards it, making each use feel just like a heroin user’s original use. Moreover, people use the Hand’s heroin like a temporary tattoo, requiring them to stamp it on their arm without the need for a syringe. The Hand believes its heroin can take over the heroin market because the innovative experience and method for using it make it uniquely desirable to drug users.
Every character in the show presents this innovative heroin as socially harmful. Yet, as presented, the Hand’s heroin seems less harmful than existing, normal heroin and solves serious social problems.
Currently, intravenous drug users contract diseases like HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and similar diseases at particularly high rates because they share syringes, facilitating the spread of these diseases. For some numbers describing the harm from dirty needles:
An estimated 50 to 60 percent of New York City’s 200,000 to 250,000 needle-drug addicts have already been infected, and AIDS was their leading cause of death by 1985. Today, as an official at the Federal Centers for Disease Control told me, “Dirty needles are the way the virus is spreading.”
Infected addicts, in turn, transmit the virus to their sexual partners, a process already responsible for the overwhelming majority of non-Haitian heterosexually transmitted AIDS cases . . . Dr. André Nahmias of Emory University said that nearly all of the AIDS-infected infants born in the United States, estimated at between 2,000 and 4,000 a year, are the offspring of i.v. drug users.
The criminalization of drugs has made it difficult to access clean syringes, making the drugs more dangerous.
Thus, in Iron Fist’s setting of New York City, over half of existing intravenous drug users have been infected with diseases, largely from dirty syringes. After their infections, they spread the diseases to their sexual partners and, sometimes, newly-born infants.
Particularly in the United States, governmental criminalization of drugs has often also made it difficult to access clean syringes, making the drugs more dangerous and easier to spread. As in many other ways, the drug war makes drug use more dangerous and compounds drug problems by making the use of dirty needles much more widespread than if drugs were legal.
With the government making heroin use more dangerous and the frequency of conveniently sharing needles regardless of the accessibility of clean needles, the Hand’s innovative heroin solves a major social problem—the spread of diseases among intravenous drug users. Through the Hand’s product, heroin users could easily protect themselves from now commonly spread diseases by using heroin like a clean tattoo, ending the danger of dirty needles. By providing a higher quality, safer product, the Hand’s innovative heroin would save many lives and reduce a lot of misery.
Additionally, the Hand creates a second, unambiguously wonderful innovation in the heroin market: a cure for heroin addiction. Though heroin addiction may be caused by social factors in addition to biological ones, the Hand produced a drug people can use to end their heroin addictions.
For some reason, Iron Fist depicts a cure for heroin addiction as cruel, manipulative, and evil. After the Hand loses its grip on Rand Enterprises and Harold Meachum seeks to copy the Hand’s business model, Harold in a villainous depiction remarks: “Either way heroin’s a big money-maker, Ward. Oh, not to mention that cure your, uh, buddy Bakuto has. Now we’ll get rich both ends.” Thus, in Iron Fist, evil people make money by both selling a demanded product and a cure for its side effects.
Without explanation, no character in Iron Fist marvels at the amazing medical discovery. Heroin primarily ruins people’s lives when the addiction eventually destroys them. By innovating a solution to heroin addiction, the Hand transforms heroin into an expensive pleasure without the harmful side effects, solving many of the other harms of heroin.
The Hand’s Heroin Market
Imagine this hypothetical alternative reality: Danny dies in his plane crash and never returns to New York City as Iron Fist, no other superheroes or government organizations intervene to stop the Hand’s heroin trade, and the Hand’s plot succeeds. How would the world have looked?
In this alternative reality, the Hand starts mass producing its heroin. With its better quality and easier use, heroin addicts choose to purchase the Hand’s innovative product instead of their existing heroin. Immediately, the rate at which diseases like AIDS spread among heroin addicts falls substantially because, without needing syringes, heroin addicts stop endangering themselves with potentially dirty syringes.
The Hand’s heroin solves major social problems and will likely not cause other problems.
With respect to addiction rates and other harms, Iron Fist does not provide clarity on the likely effects. The only character who provides insight into the withdrawal symptoms, Ward Meachum, also suffers from a severe prescription drug addiction and other psychological problems, making his state following his use and withdrawal of heroin unhelpful in measuring the effect of the heroin alone. Addiction rates may actually fall following the introduction of the Hand’s heroin because, without building a tolerance, heroin addicts would not need to continually have more and more heroin to achieve the same high. As ambiguous, the evidence of the Hand’s heroin spreading to existing non-addicts is limited to a handful of unseen anecdotes, making