Market Morals: Nietzsche on the Media, Adam Smith and the Blacklist

On self-censorship in the media:

Making use of petty dishonesty.—The power of the press resides in the fact that the individual who works for it feels very little sense of duty or obligation. Usually he expresses his opinion, but sometimes, in the service of his party or the policy of his country or in the service of himself, he does not express it. Such little lapses into dishonesty, or perhaps merely a dishonest reticence, are not hard for the individual to bear, but their consequences are extraordinary because these little lapses on the part of many are perpetrated simultaneously. Each of them says to himself: ‘In exchange for such slight services I shall have a better time of it; if I refuse such little acts of discretion I shall make myself impossible’. Because it seems almost a matter of indifference morally whether  one writes one more line or fails to write it, perhaps moreover without one’s name being attached to it, anyone possessing money and influence can transform any opinion into public opinion. (Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, § 447)

On the invisible hand in the blacklist:

According to the prevailing folklore, our lives, our liberty, our pursuit of happiness are creatures of our diversity. This was a political elaboration on Adam Smith’s economic proposition that the pursuit of individual self- results in the public good. Or, as James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, a society “broken into so many part, interests and classes of citizens” was the best guarantee of civil and political rights.

This theory of countervailing powers had a pleasant symmetry. And yet, after HUAC arrived in Hollywood, it didn’t seem to work. Each element of the community indeed sought its own goals, worked for its own ends, fought for its own interests, yet the result was not a series of benign cancellations of evil….The clash of private interests resulted not in the public interest’s being served but in the blacklist.

The blacklist experience suggests that the old assumption that the public interest is composed of the sum of private interests just doesn’t work. We learn from our study of Hollywood’s guilds, trade associations, agents, lawyers, religious and civic organizations, and the industry itself that the utilitarian ethic, and the liberal individualism it presupposes, wasn’t good enough.When each organization operated in its own interest, the sum of private interests turned out not to equal the public interest. A flaw in the calculus of pluralism. Adam Smith doesn’t work in the marketplace of moral issues. (Victor Navasky, Naming Names, pp. 146, 423-424)


  1. Aaron April 2, 2013 at 9:38 pm | #

    Hi Corey,

    So, do you see that as a reactionary view on Nietzsche’s part? Certainly it’s only a long quote that has to be read in the context of all of his other writings. A reactionary Nietzsche would (to me) be saying “See? This is all the masses are capable of. That’s why the elite can manipulate them so easily.” An enlightened Nietzsche would use this to say “The whole system, from the press to the opinion makers is dishonest. To be honest means one is completely outside of the system”. This is where I struggle with Nietzsche, as well as your opinions of him. I think there’s some indication in his writings to allow for something along the lines of the “enlightened” readings, whereas with someone like Antonin Scalia, I just don’t see him to coming to any sort of enlightened view – he’ll never have a Kaufmann arguing he was misunderstood. Your second post about the blacklist seems to be inline with the enlightened Nietzsche, but your take on him is that he is the father of the reactionaries.

    (I do hope this comes across as respectful questioning and not internet trolling. Your work’s given me a lot to think about, and I do appreciate it).

    • Corey Robin April 4, 2013 at 10:18 pm | #

      Hi Aaron. Sorry for the slow response. Just been slammed with teaching. A few thoughts. First, with any thinker as manifold as Nietzsche, it’s impossible to put everything he says under one file tab. He’s got many different aspects and tendencies (as does Scalia, believe it or not!) So while I have an argument I’m pursuing about him, there’s plenty of things he says that has very little to do with my argument or that cuts against my argument. Second, in this quote, I’d say he’s both decrying the situation and what it portends AND saying that the masses are easily duped. Those two statements are not mutually exclusive. Third, this comes from Human, All Too Human, which for many is Nietzsche’s most sympathetic text, the one where he is closest to a position of the Enlightenment (he dedicated it to Voltaire). It’s a fairly unique book in that respect. fourth, I try not to divide up these assessments between enlightened or not enlightened. As I try to say about all the conservatives I write about (with the exception of Rand), they were or are quite brilliant in their own way, and part of their brilliance comes from their ability to engage with the broader currents of the culture. Anyway, hope this helps. Corey

  2. matt April 2, 2013 at 10:24 pm | #

    Sounds like you were watching the Rachel Maddow show this evening…..

  3. GTChristie April 6, 2013 at 5:24 pm | #

    Reading Nietzsche can be like reading the Bible — one can put several glosses on some passages, and different interpreters can read the same statement and totally disagree on what it means. Nietzsche is usually most clear when he’s completely derisive (on Plato: “Queer saint!”) and really bearing down.

    But this passage bothers me, not because it can be interpreted more than one way (I don’t think there’s much doubt about what he says — he thinks there’s a lot of mischief possible from the journalist scrivener) but rather, he has no specific target in mind — it’s a statement devoid of examples. It’s all a big “what if” — potential moral failings from imaginary quarters, expressed in his sparkling prose style but signifying nothing in particular. So I think this quote is drivel. Entertaining, yes. But something a college freshman might smoke in the dorm, and then nod off.

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