David R. Henderson  

Milton Friedman on Trumbo

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On a flight from Newark to L.A. on Thursday, I saw the movie Trumbo. I liked it a lot. I know that they left out things that would have made Trumbo a much less sympathetic character. The only real discussion of the meaning of Communism, which he supported, is his "explanation" to his daughter that if she is willing to share her lunch with someone who doesn't have any, then she is a Communist. If the willingness to share makes one a Communist, then I'm a Communist. So, I suspect, are many of you. So in handling the issue of Communism that way, the director manages to avoid ever confronting Trumbo's support for the murderous regime of Joseph Stalin.

So why did I like the movie so much? Because it's about a man's attempt to make a living while others are conspiring to prevent him from doing so. Milton Friedman addressed this issue in his 1962 book, with the assistance of Rose D. Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom. He wrote:

In the circumstances envisaged in the socialist society, the man who wants to print the paper to promote capitalism has to persuade a government mill to sell him the paper, a government printing press to print it, a government post office to distribute it among the people, a government agency to rent him a hall in which to talk and so on. Maybe there is some way in which one could make arrangements under a socialist society to preserve freedom and to make this possible. I certainly cannot say that it is utterly impossible. What is clear is that there are very real difficulties in preserving dissent and that, so far as I know, none of the people who have been in favor of socialism and also in favor of freedom have really faced up to this issue or made even a respectable start at developing the institutional arrangements that would permit freedom under socialism. By contrast, it is clear how a free market capitalist society fosters freedom.

A striking example, which may be found in the January 26, 1959, issue of Time, has to do with the "Black List Fade-Out." Says the Time story, "The Oscar awarding ritual is Hollywood's biggest pitch for dignity but two years ago dignity suffered. When one Robert Rich was announced as top writer for The Brave One, he never stepped forward. Robert Rich was a pseudonym masking one of about 150 actors blacklisted by the industry since 1947 as suspected Communists or fellow travelers. The case was particularly embarrassing to the Motion Picture Academy because it had barred any Communist or 5th Amendment pleader from Oscar competition.

"Last week both the Communist rule and the mystery of Rich's identity were suddenly revealed. Rich turned out to be Dalton (Johnny Got His Gun) Trumbo, one of the original Hollywood Ten writers who refused to testify at the 1947 hearing on Communism in the movie industry. Said producer Frank King who had stoutly insisted that Robert Rich was a young guy in Spain with a beard, 'We have an obligation to our stockholders to buy the best script we can. Trumbo brought us The Brave One and we bought it . . .' In effect it was the formal end of the Hollywood black list. For barred writers, the informal end came long ago. At least fifteen per cent of current Hollywood films are reportedly written by black list members. Said producer King, 'There are more ghosts in Hollywood than in Forest Lawn. Every company in town has used the work of black listed people; we're just the first to confirm what everybody knows'."

One may believe, as I do, that Communism would destroy all of our freedoms, and one may be opposed to it as firmly and as strongly as possible and yet at the same time also believe that in a free society it is intolerable for a man to be prevented from earning his living because he believes in or is trying to promote Communism. His freedom includes his freedom to promote Communism. The Hollywood black-list is a thoroughly unfree act that destroys freedom. It didn't work, however, precisely because the market made it costly for people to preserve the black list. The commercial emphasis, the fact that people who are running enterprises have an incentive to make as much money as they can, protected the freedom of the individuals who were black listed by providing them with an alternative form of employment, and by giving people an incentive to employ them.

I have one disagreement with Milton: The Hollywood black-list, while obnoxious, was not a thoroughly unfree act that destroyed freedom. The producers who refused to hire Trumbo were exercising their freedom too. If the movie was correct that some producers breached their contracts with writers, that's a problem: contracts should be adhered to. And if the reason the producers feared dealing with Communist writers was that Parnell Thomas and his ilk would legally pursue them, then that's intolerable in a free society also. But if they were simply making a decision in the face of public pressure, they should have been free to do so.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Philo writes:

"[I]f they were simply making a decision in the face of public pressure, they should have been free to do so," provided the decision did not violate their duty to the shareholders to maximize profit. In practice, the studios' recourse to pseudonyms was the predictable compromise solution.

Matt writes:

I always interpreted Milton here as saying that the blacklist was an unfree act because it was a collusive use of monopsony power: studios effectively got together and agreed not to hire anyone on the blacklist.

Of course, in Milton's view private collusion of this form is far less dangerous than governmental coercion, because the individual profit motive leads firms to subvert their own agreement. This is a great example of that general point - but it also doesn't negate the notion that successful collusion can be an "unfree act".

Daniel Klein writes:

Thanks for this nice post.

I see that Trumbo wrote the script for Roman Holiday. I love that movie, and it doesn't seem lefty at all, quite otherwise, in fact.

For a different perspective, I suggest reading the memoir of another member of the Hollywood Ten, Edward Dmytryk, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten.

While self-serving, it gives a truer picture of what Trumbo et al. were really up to in the 1947 HUAC hearing; following the orders of the CPUSA to disrupt the hearings. Had they merely invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination they'd have been fine, and not have served any time in prison. They chose not to.

Ironically, Dmytryk, who really wasn't an ideological Communist (he'd joined 'The Party' because he thought it would be a good career move, given the power of the Communists in Hollywood in the 1940s) was more a victim of his Communist friends than of HUAC or the studios. It was Ronald Reagan who helped him dispose of his Communist past and get back into the business of making movies. Dmytryk forgets to mention that in his book.

It was the free market that ended up rehabilitating Dmytryk. He went on to make several successful films in the fifties and sixties, including The Caine Mutiny, Broken Lance and Raintree Country. Thanks to Ronald Reagan.

David R. Henderson writes:

Milton and I always disagreed about whether collision is an unfree act.
@Daniel Klein,
@Patrick R. Sullivan,
I appreciate the historical perspective you bring to your comments. Thank you. Great story about Reagan.

David Boaz writes:

You know, people shouldn't be legally punished for their ideas. And we should be cautious even about social or economic punishment for people with whom we disagree. But members of the Communist Party in the 30s, 40s, and 50s were official members of a conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government, take power, and destroy civilization, guided by orders from Moscow. That seems a different situation from supporting Bernie Sanders or opposing gay marriage, both bad ideas that might result in some social or economic distress. (Today we can be confident that the CP was never going to seize power in the U.S. But after the experiences in Germany and Russia, and the apparently real threats to western European countries, it seemed very different at the time.)

Glad you enjoyed the Reagan anecdote, David. Here's a little more detail;

Communist operatives feared that Mr. Dmytryk’s apprehension would turn him into a whistleblower, so they pre-emptively started a campaign of character assassination and harassment against him. Because Reagan had helped block communist attempts to seize control of Hollywood unions five years earlier, Mr. Dmytryk knew that he would be sensitive to his plight.
In the winter of 1951, a small group led by Reagan, who was then president of the Screen Actors Guild, began meeting late at night in an office on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills. Its unique mission was to save the broke, unemployed director.

Mr. Dmytryk’s story was a searing indictment of the party. He described being part of a conspiracy to break up the American Federation of Labor in Hollywood and to replacing it with unions controlled by communists. He revealed that the party bullied filmmakers into molding the editorial content of pictures in keeping with the party line.
He also said that the party had twisted his legal battle into a First Amendment issue so as to demonize congressional investigations. “It was like everything else the communists do,” he told the Saturday Evening Post. “They would go into a lynching case, but instead of trying to help the Negroes, what they are really after is to use the incident to stir up still more trouble. The Negroes don’t matter — they’re just a means to an end.”
Reagan was emphatic that Mr. Dmytryk go public. When Mr. Dmytryk agreed, Reagan built a coalition of liberals and conservatives to champion him. The team purchased a full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter. “The Communist Party is now trying to destroy Edward Dmytryk,” it read. “We will be surprised if there are not other attacks by the Party on other former communists who have the guts to stand up and be counted and to tell the truth.”
Reagan argued to friends and colleagues that Mr. Dmytryk ought to be embraced for breaking with the Stalinists. The Reagan team even vouched for Mr. Dmytryk when he applied for life insurance.
Pajser writes:

The fascist and military dictatorships and modern China are examples of the capitalist societies without freedom of speech and publishing. Eastern European Leninist countries, few months after introduction of democracy but before privatization were socialist countries with this freedom. It appears that only will of the rulers is what matters.

Jim Rose writes:

This marvellous story, which are forgotten from reading the book, as great application of modern day concerns about sexism in Hollywood and racism too.

There is a marvellous line in the film are go about why or how they going to explain a film crew in around so soon after the hostage crisis and while the hostages are still being held captive.

Their explanation would be, if there is a buck in it, Hollywood would film in in Leningrad with Pol Pot directing.

JK Brown writes:

Historically, in common law, collusion or a conspiracy of combination was considered a violation of rights:

But old English conspiracy law was of the most immense sociological value, in that it did recognize the tremendous power of combination. It said, although you don't have to trade with Smith alone, yet a combination of a great many individuals for the purpose of ruining Smith, by all simultaneously refusing to trade with him, is such a tremendous injury to Smith that the law will take cognizance of it and hold that kind of a combination to be unlawful.

--Popular Law-making: A Study of the Origin, History, and Present Tendencies of Law-making by Statute, Frederic Jesup Stimson (1910)

I suppose ironically, it was the move to overcome the common law ban on conspiracy was to permit trade unions, which have a popular association with communism.

Floccina writes:

Does this say anything about a science teacher who happens to believe in evolution in some rural part of Texas or who believes in creation in Boston MA but is otherwise a great science teacher?

Jay writes:

@ Floccina

Why does it matter what they believe rather than what is actually taught to the students or is that what you meant?

DWAnderson writes:

To me, the key to the Friedman quotation is the last two sentences:

It didn't work, however, precisely because the market made it costly for people to preserve the black list. The commercial emphasis, the fact that people who are running enterprises have an incentive to make as much money as they can, protected the freedom of the individuals who were black listed by providing them with an alternative form of employment, and by giving people an incentive to employ them.

This is an example of Friedman's insight that you want to design institutions so that you are not dependent on the goodness of the people involved. Rather you want to design institutions so that even bad people have the incentive to act in ways that are socially productive.

Futarchy anyone? :)

don whitmire writes:

My thoughts watching Trumbo were that property rights and rights of associations made it constitutional for the private sector to black list. JK Brown mentioned English Common Law defines the Blacklist as illegal. I would disagree. The Blacklist was not for gain or mere malicious action. It was to check an antagonistic pro active ideology operating outside of the reach of law. The House of Un-American Activities should only prosecute public servants that took the oath. If proven to communists they are subversives and subject to prosecution? Also in a free thinking society people will have opinions that could be called politically subversive even if they themselves are apolitical. A communist has the right to vote. He can only vote on legislation initiated by legislators. The legislation and the legislators are subject to the SCOTUS and peer review. The danger of communism is indoctrination of others when the free market capitalism denies the inequities that communists point out.

"This form of government is not for everyone, but for a moral people." and "...a republic if you can keep it."

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