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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Free Market Killed the Blacklist and Freed Hollywood’s Communists

Trumbo, Milton Friedman, and the blacklist


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.

This post first appeared at Econlog.


  • David Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund) and blogs at econlib.org.