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Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand at Work

In an oppressive workplace, everyone has good reason to think speaking out is someone else's job.

Harvey Weinstein speaking at the Zurich Film Festival, September 29, 2013. Zff2012 / WIkimedia

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.