Obviously, this lends itself to moral arguments concerning the nature of superheroes as selfless arbiters of justice and champions of the human spirit. After all, how can ordinary humans come to respect a hero if that hero profits financially from his or her potential misfortune?
But let's think about Spider-Man and the residents of New York City for a minute. Spider-Man is essentially a public good offered to those living in New York (and occasionally those in Boston, as depicted above). To be sure, let's recall that a pure public good is generally regarded as a good that is non-rival in consumption, meaning that one person consuming the good does not in any way affect another's opportunity to consume it, and non-excludable, meaning that there is no way that anyone can be denied access to this good. A typical good that is considered a pure public good is national defense.
To be technical, Spider-Man is not really a pure public good, but rather an impure public good. He satisfies the aforementioned conditions to an extent, but not fully. Indeed, Spider-Man is non-excludable to NYS residents. He is an equal opportunity savior and does not discriminate against any citizen. All he requires is that they be in need of his assistance. However, unlike national defense, he is not really non-rival. He is only one, super-powered man. If the Green Goblin is throwing a citizen off of a high-rise building on one side of town and Doctor Octopus is blowing up a science facility on the other side of town, Spidey generally can't be at both.
And this is where the problem is. As it stands, the social costs imposed by Spider-Man's existence are paid for by the public. These social costs mostly take the form of negative externalities caused by his battles with evil. By this I mean the costs of repairs for all the damaged buildings, villain escalation, and others. It is extremely likely that the government responds to these externalities by imposing higher taxes on the public, particularly if they are subsidizing the costs of construction and repair.
This also means that there could be a moral hazard problem. Living in an area in which you know there exists such a public good might entice you to alter your behavior. In the case of Spider-Man and New York City, residents might elect either to live in more dangerous neighborhoods or engage in more risky behavior, knowing that they have a protector who has a high probability of saving them in any unfortunate circumstances.
You might claim that this is far-fetched. Why would anybody choose to throw themselves in harm's way? Well, it turns out this happens pretty often in comics. A perfect example is Lois Lane. Since the arrival of Superman, Lois has gone on more risky assignments for The Daily Planet, has kept more dangerous company, and has generally had near-death experiences at the hands of known thugs or villains to a significantly larger extent. Many citizens, like Jimmy Olsen, have even joked that she is nearly invulnerable, since it seems as though Superman had become her personal bodyguard. In the film Superman II, she even jumped off of Niagara Falls (and out of the Daily Planet in the Richard Donner version) with full certainty that Superman would save her.
This behavior could be particularly taxing on a hero like Spider-Man and could have catastrophic consequences on New York City. We already know that Spider-Man has trouble balancing his duty as a superhero with his personal life and part-time job. Even when he took up the job of crime fighter full-time in Mark Waid's recent "24/7" storyline, he was still incapable of being at every crime.
This would only be exacerbated if more and more people continued to engage in needlessly risky behavior. And this means that Spider-Man might one day have to start picking and choosing, neglecting certain crimes in order to stop the more high-priority ones. Or his attention towards the little ones might cause him to miss the big ones. One day, Spider-Man will be off saving some guy who thought he could jump from one roof to another on the Upper West side, while Mysterio captures Mary Jane and throws her off the Brooklyn Bridge.
The answer to these problems is privatization. Suppose that Spider-Man decides to charge for his services. This way if a Lois-like reporter was a frequent consumer of Spidey heroics, she would have to pay more for them. This could create a market for Spider-Man such that individuals would utilize an equilibrium quantity of him based on what they would be willing and able to pay for him. It would effectively reduce any potential moral hazard problems, as individuals would be willing to take less risks, knowing they would have to pay for those risks later.
Not to mention, Spidey would be able to make some cash on the side, which he might even use towards more effective means of fighting crime (though likely he'll just buy some air conditioning for his apartment).
Is privatization a good idea? Probably not. Once again, there might be some pretty disastrous effects for morale if superheroes only saved people for a fee. In addition, it would mean that villains would be successful more often. Further still, it is likely that the low-income populations will not be able to afford superhero services and would hence be excluded from the market. I generally think this is a bad thing, especially for something that could mean the difference between life and death.
Maybe Spidey can find ways to get around this. Maybe he can charge only people above a certain income. Or maybe he can charge by the nature of the situation. If somebody jumps off a roof, maybe he should pay. But if Green Goblin attacks, it's on the house. Obviously, however, this raises issues of equity.
Superhero privatization is a pretty ridiculous concept. But it's fun to consider. What do you think?