NBC's The Blacklist: Why Reddington Is Better than the State

“Never trust a criminal… until you have to,” is the official motto of The Blacklist, the American crime-thriller television series that premiered on NBC on September 23, 2013. But the real lesson of The Blacklist is “never trust the government… even if you have to.” Not many shows are both anti-state in their narrative and enjoyable at the same time. The Blacklist, however, deserves to be watched. If there is one show that takes the government for what it is, i.e. a “bandit gang” as Rothbard called it, it would be The Blacklist.

The Blacklist is the story of an international criminal, Red Reddington, who decides, for some mysterious reasons, to work with the FBI. In exchange for valuable information, the FBI lets him conduct his business freely. Hence, the question is does Reddington works for the government, or is it the other way around. Reddington says it explicitly in Season 1, Episode 2: “The FBI works for me now.”

It is true that, after three seasons, we still don’t know much about Reddington. As he says in Season 1 Episode 1, “Everything about me is a lie.” 

Reddington as a Free Trader

Contrary to most politicians, bureaucrats and most self-proclaimed “pragmatic libertarians”, Reddington does not try to please people while pretending to be somebody he is not. It is therefore not surprising to discover that Reddington is a staunch proponent of free markets. Because he is an entrepreneur responding to consumer sovereignty, he is scorned by many in the FBI. In the first episode, for example, Agent Donald Ressler says about Reddington: “He has no country, he has no political agenda. Reddington only allegiance is to the highest bidder.” In other words, Reddington his not trying to force is will upon other people. He is not a nationalist; he does not seek power. 

At this point, one might object that Reddington is using “violent means” to earn his living, that he is not a producer and an entrepreneur but a thief. We must here dismiss a possible misunderstanding. The main feature of the mafia is not aggression but rather the business of private protection. This is what is shown in Diego Gambetta’s excellent book, The Sicilian Mafia. Similarly, Red Reddington is an entrepreneur answering efficiently to the most urgent needs of the consumers, whatever they are. For him, violence is just a means to protect other people from aggression by the state or other gangs. In Season 3 Episode 19, when somebody asks Reddington if he has killed anyone before, his honest answer is, “Yes, many. But no one who did not deserve it.” Contrary to the state which kills innocent people in wars and with drones, Reddington, as a military veteran, is aware of this, and has tried to avoid the state’s military conflicts. 

One of Reddington’s tasks is also to help people disappear so that they can escape governmental mass surveillance. Therefore, for all those reasons, Reddington understands the virtues of the free-market. The beginning of Season 1 Episode 9 demonstrates Reddington’s economic liberalism in a discussion with the FBI agent Ressler:

Donald: “We celebrate what?

Reddington: “Free trade, Donald! Free trade.”

Similarly, in Episode 21 of season three, Reddington, discussing someone who contracted with a violent agency in bed with the federal government, says:

He contracted them to help them tame a savage competitor, Kerogent Holdings, which has been flooding the market with cheap oil and driving down prices, to which I would normally give a hardy free-market thumbs up. But the oil in question is purchased to radical jihadists, the proceeds being used to finance all sorts of nastiness.

Free-market thumbs up and free trade summarize perfectly Reddington’s personal convictions.

Reddington resists government regulatory and fiscal arbitrariness. In Season 1 Episode 17, Reddington saves the day when a criminal has stolen a prototype of a government computer program which could cut through the most secure network just by pushing a button. Reddington wisely remarks:

So the federal government has armed a cyber terrorist with a digital equivalent of a nuclear warhead. Another fabulous example of your tax dollars at work. Yet another reason why I don’t pay taxes.

And in Season 3 Episode 13, noticing government waste, Reddington says:

Your law enforcement agencies love their gadgets. The FBI admitted to spend what? A billion dollars on facial recognition software? Which means it’s at least 3 billion. Honestly, if I paid taxes, I would be outraged.

The Worst Get on Top vs. Selection of the Best

F.A. Hayek famously demonstrated in The Road to Serfdom that there exists a tendency, in a statist system, for the worst to get on top. The Blacklist exemplifies this tendency perfectly.

Reddington has a realistic theory of power. For him, a governmental institution either has no binding power and is just useless, or else it has coercive power and is nothing less than a public mafia where the worst get on top. This is why in Season 2 Episode 15, Reddington correctly states: “I have always been leery of the United Nations. The very concept is comically dichotomous. Nations putting their self-interest aside in the hopes of building a global community? Holding hands and Kumbaya? Honestly, it’s like kindergarten.”

In The Blacklist, the American government is captured by a ruthless and secret conspiracy composed of criminal and high ranking public officials. This can happen only because the honest civil servants are constantly pressured to do immoral deeds. As Connolly, the Attorney General in the show, says: “I never had any principles — that’s why I am on a rocket to the top.” Another instance of selection of the worst happens in Season 1 when an FBI agent wants to discover a dark truth. Her chief just answers “You should just take care of your career.” Comply and climb the ladder, do not and you will occupy an irrelevant job for the rest of your life, such are often the alternatives when it comes to the government.

But the dehumanization by the state machine goes a lot further. The government always tries to contrast the “good” with the “bad” guys so that bureaucrats feel no remorse when they violate their victims’ rights. During Episode 11 of Season 1, for instance, the government investigates the attack of a blacksite to smoke out a mole. A discussion between the investigator and a FBI Agent goes as follows:

Investigator: “According to the report from your therapist, you feel guilty about what happened during the raid”

Agent: “Of course I do, I shot a man. I thought what I said in therapy was confidential.”

Investigator: “You shot a terrorist, why would you feel guilty about that?”

Agent: “Because he is human!”

Later, the investigators — or, in other words, bureaucrats who are trained in missing the point — think the FBI agent in question is the mole. It is thanks only to the expertise and protection of Reddington, who conducted is own investigation, that the FBI Agent is cleared of suspicion. What is striking in The Blacklist is that even good people are forced to be bad if they want to save their skin, or even if they want to do something good.

Unlike the state, Red Reddington is highly efficient in his business operations. He even has better intelligence than the omnipotent surveillance state. As a good libertarian mafioso, he criticizes government waste and the inefficiency of the government intelligence services:

Do you have any idea how much the US government spent on signal intelligence in the past year? […] Your country has become a nation of eavesdroppers. Frequency domain triangulation, satellites, crypto…whatever! You forgot that what matters most is human intelligence. Alliances, relationships, seductions.

Not only does Reddington have much more style than do dull bureaucrats, not only does he speak impeccable French — to which I can testify — and has a good knowledge of French wines, but he also beats the government in everything he does. Season 2, Episode 2, Reddington even escapes with great panache from a restaurant surrounded by the police and the FBI.

By following his own interest, Reddington serves the public good by eliminating the corrupt public criminals who infect the government machine. Some might argue that Reddington became rich thanks to the Don Corleone theory of trade — i.e. by making offers one cannot refuse. This is not, however, how Reddington is proceeding. He does not make threats except in order to protect his property. Reddington is rich because he is the best at what he does. The state, on the other hand, is the institution which uses the Don Corleone theory of trade systematically to insure its supremacy. The state doctrine is simple “everything belongs to you what is not yet mine.” Oppositely, Reddington’s doctrine is “Let’s make a deal.” 

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