Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand At Work: The Harvey Weinstein Story

Of all the sentences I’ve read on the Harvey Weinstein story, this one, from the New York Times, was the most poignant:

More established actresses were fearful of speaking out because they had work; less established ones were scared because they did not.

In virtually every oppressive workplace regime—and other types of oppressive regimes—you see the same phenomenon. Outsiders, from the comfort and ease of their position, wonder why no one inside the regime speak ups and walks out; insiders know it’s not so easy. Everyone inside the regime—even its victims, especially its victims—has a very good reason to keep silent. Everyone has a very good reason to think that it’s the job of someone else to speak out.

Those at the bottom of the regime, these less established actresses who need the most, look up and wonder why those above them, those more established actresses who need less, don’t speak out against an injustice: The more established have power, why don’t they use it, what are they afraid of?

Those higher up the ladder, those more established actresses, look down on those at the very bottom and wonder why they don’t speak out against that injustice: They’ve got nothing to lose, what are they afraid of?

Neither is wrong; they’re both accurately reflecting and acting upon their objective situations and interests. This is one of the reasons why collective action against injustice and oppression is so difficult. It’s Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand at work (in both senses), without the happy ending: everyone pursues their individual interests as individuals; the result is a social catastrophe.


  1. Rich Puchalsky October 12, 2017 at 11:17 am | #

    Solidarity is probably the critical puzzle for the left: there has always been a sense that the left could win if it could just figure it out. After all, the left however defined is numerically stronger than the elites who they generally take to be the stronghold of the right.

    For most of the history of the left, Marx provided a pseudo-scientific answer in terms of class analysis and the class power of the proletariat. If the proles could come together in solidarity around their class interest, they could win. This answer was both false — as can be seen now when fewer and fewer of the people of the left are actually proles rather than lumpenproles, and labor power is ever-increasingly in surplus and easily replaceable — and blocks any other answer.

    • Chris Morlock October 14, 2017 at 10:17 am | #

      I wish we could return to Marxist class warfare and not use identity politics to promote revolutionary ideas, don’t you? ID politics got us Trump and there is no end in sight. Relying on who is the victim and oppressor in ID politics makes everyone’s head hurt.

      Apparently Weinstein is a monster because he was a man, not because he was rich and powerful first and foremost. We can’t even take that at face value anymore for some reason. What made him more evil, that he was a man that forced himself on women sexually or the fact that he was so rich and powerful? A poor man would never have been allowed to do that in the first place.

  2. Emorej a Hong Kong October 12, 2017 at 11:35 am | #

    A related point of free market doctrine, that “prices send messages”, also applies to this and other social and political pathologies: the high price of becoming a whistle-blower sends a clear message to avoid whistle-blowing.

    Analogously, the high dollar values of donations and other political spending send clear messages to politicians not to offend big spenders.

    In each of these contexts, and in many others, the money message is so clear that there is no need for an articulated conspiracy, or even a nudge or wink relating to a particular quid-pro-quo.

  3. wisedupearly October 12, 2017 at 5:27 pm | #

    It is clear that there is a Nash equilibrium for this situation. All parties benefit by the earliest repudiation and termination of the harassment. What made it impossible for the parties to make that determination?
    This case illustrates the fatal weakness of the Adam Smith theory. Weinstein already had so much money that the costs of hush-payments and financial risks involved with discovery were not restraining factors. According to Adam Smith, Weinstein should have recognized that his long term earning potential would be destroyed by his behavior which would trigger self-correction. Unfortunately, his existing wealth destroyed the importance of the feedback that Smith placed so much faith on.

  4. Lorenzo from Oz October 12, 2017 at 7:35 pm | #

    Collective action is difficult. Of course, one gets much worse abuse in much less market-oriented societies (Mao and the Kim dynasty spring to mind) so it is hard to see that the market is the issue here.

  5. Jim October 12, 2017 at 9:04 pm | #

    Sexual exploitation by certain types of powerful people is a very old practice across virtually all cultures. What you are commenting on is the modern American sexual commodification variety. There are many other varieties and they all pretty much follow culturally varied patterns analogous to the Weinstein variety you’ve described. That’s one reason why I find the whole Democrat nasty vs. Republican nasty so beside the point. (BTW, I realize this has nothing to do with your argument.)

    Also, let’s ease off a little on poor old Adam Smith. He had a distinctively moral, in some respects liberal view and a skeptical view of government’s relationship with the rich, as in this quote: “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”

  6. mark October 13, 2017 at 5:10 am | #

    The BBC interviewed Emma Thompson yesterday on this issue, but the clip they have on their website has not included the link she made to the Jimmy Saville abuses, which was a pretty good examination of Who Runs This Place turpitude in the UK.

    I also read the excerpt on Trump you have released, including:

    ‘Having emphasized the military nature of China’s threat, Trump makes no mention of a military response, save for a glancing reference to cyberwarfare. The antidote to the rising power of China is not a swaggering warrior speaking softly and carrying a big stick (Trump, characteristically, wonders “why we don’t speak more loudly”). It is a leader who knows “how to out-negotiate the Chinese.” And what is the final victory Trump envisions? A company in Georgia that will provide, one day, 150 jobs to Americans making chopsticks — which they will “ship . . . to China! How great is that?”’

    I thought of this from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Milton:

    “To this Milton was required to write a sufficient answer, which he performed (1651) in such a manner that Hobbes declared himself unable to decide whose language was best, or whose arguments were worst. In my opinion, Milton’s periods are smoother, neater, and more pointed; but he delights himself with teasing his adversary as much as with confuting him. He makes a foolish allusion of Salmasius, whose doctrine he considers as servile and unmanly, to the stream of Salmacis, which whoever entered left half his virility behind him. Salmasius was a Frenchman, and was unhappily married to a scold. “Tu es Gallus,” says Milton, “et, ut aiunt, nimium gallinaceus.” But his supreme pleasure is to tax his adversary, so renowned for criticism, with vitious Latin. He opens his book with telling that he has used Persona, which, according to Milton, signifies only a Mask, in a sense not known to the Romans, by applying it as we apply Person. But as Nemesis is always on the watch, it is memorable that he has enforced the charge of a solecism by an expression in itself grossly solecistical, when, for one of those supposed blunders, he says, as Ker, and I think some one before him, has remarked, “propino te grammatistis tuis vapulandum.” From vapulo, which has a passive sense, vapulandus can never be derived. No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations and of kings sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them.”

    • David Smith October 13, 2017 at 10:58 am | #

      That works out to :You are French, but not, as they say, too French?

      • David Smith October 14, 2017 at 2:37 pm | #

        I was informed it was a pun. It works out to “You are French but as they say, not too cocklike”, Gall being the root of French and rooster.

  7. Edward October 15, 2017 at 5:44 pm | #

    Economic hit man Jim Perkins is another example of someone who did not speak out for a long time. Years ago I saw a T.V. interview where a journalist asked an executive in his company whether an unprecedented media megamerger that was being sold as creating “synergy” presented problems for the public interest. This man’s boss replied with a thinly veiled threat asking “wasn’t it a privilege to work for this company. The journalist did not pursue the question.

  8. b. January 31, 2018 at 6:03 pm | #

    “It’s Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand at work (in both senses), without the happy ending: everyone pursues their individual interests as individuals; the result is a social catastrophe.”

    This sounds like a general principle – it could be applied to climate change, the military-industrial complex and the business of empire etc.

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