A PENNY (OR MORE) FOR YOUR THOUGHTS

If Doug Bandow’s farewell column on the muddled intersection of money and punditry has a faintly self-serving, “all the kids are doing it” odor to it, I think it nevertheless raises an important point—one I’m inclined to take a little further, actually. If accepting a direct payment to write an op-ed on a particular topic without disclosing the payment is pretty obviously improper, there is, as Bandow observes, a big gray area involving indirect support by way of institutions, or more tenuous links where a writer has previously done unrelated work for some party with an interest in a topic she later writes about.

I don’t worry a great deal about these things. I do occasionally worry, in my own case, about the self-reinforcing nature of Beltway opinion work. Put it this way: I work at a wonderfully non-dogmatic libertarian periodical, where I’ve never felt any pressure to toe a particular line or hush up one of my various heresies from a “pure” libertarian position. I’m quite sure my friends who’re also political comrades wouldn’t launch some kind of Amish-style shunning if my own views moved to the left (say), and the many liberals in my social circle would probably pat me on the back and congratulate me on having seen the light. I expect I’d be perfectly happy writing apolitical stuff or going back to graduate school. Still, there’s a pretty clear sense in which it would be both socially and professionally awkward if, over a few months of rumination, I decided that A Theory of Justice were pretty much dead-on after all. And I’m 26; doubtless that’s far more the case for someone who’s been, in effect, a professional ideologue (which is more or less what I am) for several decades.

Now, the market value of my opinion is low enough that nobody’s ever bothered to try buying it—but if they did, I expect it would be an easy enough lure to resist precisely because it would be so obvious and clear-cut, the devil approaching with horns protruding and eyes glowing red. It’s the background pressure of an ideological community that I find more worrying, because the way it operates is far more subtle. At the end of the day, you can’t really be sure you wouldn’t have changed your mind on this or that issue in a different context, because there’s no big flashy crisis point—instead you’re looking for the dog that didn’t bark, the internal dialogue you didn’t bother having because (as you and all your friends know) such-and-such counterargument isn’t worth taking all that seriously anyway.

That kind of pressure, I hasten to add, is pretty clearly not “improper” in the sense of running counter to canons of journalistic ethics. It’s probably an inevitable upshot of having a commmunity or a social network. But from the point of view of personal, more than professional, integrity, it’s the kind of “contamination” I find most troubling.

—posted by Julian

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