Last night BBC2 showed the first part of The Trap: Whatever happened to our dreams of freedom?, a three part series by Adam Curtis that argues that post-war initiatives that aimed to set mankind free have in fact created new means of entrapment. Curtis was the producer of The Power of Nightmares, an excellent three-part documentary that showed how the neo-conservatives and Al Qaeda both exploited fear of enemies abroad and moral decline at home to dominate the political agenda and promote their own conservative beliefs.
In the first part, subtitled F*** you, buddy!, Curtis discussed how various different branches of scientific thought converged around the paranoia born of the Cold War. My main criticism of the first episode was that it failed to do more than set the scene. It may be that this will lead to fascinating insights in the next two programmes (he has already promised to show how it all led to the culture of “spin”) but the fact remains that the programme did not stand alone, and left too much of the analysis for later episodes.
It began with F. A. Hayek’s warning (available in full or in summary) that governmental efforts to manage the economy would lead not to the tempering of the excesses of capitalism but down a road that led ultimately to enslavement by the state. In fact this was barely touched upon before Curtis had moved on, but before he did so he presented a vary negative view of Hayek’s position, suggesting that his belief in a self-correcting system, in which individuals pursuing self-interest would promote a common good, relied upon the assumption that mankind was essentially selfish and callous.
I will dwell upon that for a moment both because I feel it misrepresented Hayek’s views on liberty, and because it calls into question Curtis’s assessment of other strands of thinking during the programme, about which I have less knowledge and so cannot exercise judgement.. Hayek was quoted as saying that there was no room for altruism in his theory. However, as those who have read Hayek should recognise, his theory does not in fact deny the altruism within people, nor does is suggest that altruism is not a good and worthy thing. Hayek’s concern was that government, with its unique power to coerce individuals, should not attempt to correct the self-regulating mechanism – even for altruistic ends – because ultimately those ends were the ends of fallible (and sometimes selfish) individuals. Instead it should create a sound and predictable legal framework that protected the liberty of individuals, who would then be free to pursue their own interests (even altruistic ones) that would as a by-product benefit mankind. This belief goes back at least as far as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”.
The programme’s quickly moved on the main point, which was that there were those who thought that mankind could be liberated by rationalising him as an isolated, self-interested and ultimately callous creature (a rather sinister version of the individual at the heart of the Enlightenment). I will attempt to summarise this, though as I only have a limited knowledge of the subject matter I may make some errors – which may be due to my misunderstanding the programme or to its misrepresentation of the facts.
The story begins with the Game Theory logic of the Rand Corporation – promoted by the not-so-beautiful mind of John Nash – which suggested that individuals could never trust one another and so would always prosper if they adopted the most cynical assumptions about one another. Meanwhile, psychiatrist R. D. Laing had proved that much psychiatry was based not on science but a socially-constructed concept of the “normal”, and the role of psychiatry was to force those that were different back into the societal mould. Laing became the father of the anti-psychiatry movement and inspired the Rosenhan Experiment, which suggested that psychiatrists had no idea who was sane and who was not. The result was that psychiatrists were forced to admit that they had no idea what was wrong with the mind, and so the field shifted its attention from focussing on causes (schizophrenia, manic-depression) to symptoms defined by observable phenomena (ADHD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).
Meanwhile, back in economics, Public Choice Theory (outlined in, for example, The Vote Motive) had fatally undermined concepts such as the “public interest” and “public service”, demonstrating that politicians, civil servants and those working for the state were just as self-interested as those in any other walk of life. As Northcote Parkinson and Yes, Minister captured so humorously, everyone in public service was primarily trying to protect and promote their own interests; the “public interest” was just a cover for what was at best individuals’ concept of what was right and wrong, and at worst selfish rent-seeking.
The result of these three revolutions was a belief that the mess that many nations found themselves in by the 1960s and 1970s was caused by the naïve belief that the public good could be promoted by wise men in ivory towers rationalising the process with the disinterested altruism of platonic guardians. Not surprisingly, there were those who wanted to sweep aside this belief, and the entrenched interest groups that it protected. These included a number of right-wing think tanks. Their proposed solution was to exploit the self-interest of public servants to promote more effective outcomes: for example, by giving incentives to them to achieve results.
Sadly, this proved rather less successful in practice that in theory. Robert McNamara’s attempts to run the Vietnam War as a mathematical exercise, calculating exactly how much explosive tonnage needed to be dropped to achieve the cowed submission of the Communists, resulted in failure and resignation; in attempting to achieve body counts that met their targets, self-interested soldiers would kill anything that looked like a Viet Cong fighter, which in a guerrilla war meant just about anyone. Margaret Thatcher’s NHS reforms began the process – so beloved of Gordon Brown – of setting central targets for local hospitals and financially rewarding or penalising them accordingly. It has been an ill-starred venture.
And that is where the programme left off. There was no broad analysis or discussion; no sense of conclusion; and no clear vision of where the rest of the series would take us. We were left dangling in the wind, waiting for Mr. Curtis to explain it all on BBC2 next Sunday at 9pm and the Sunday following.
I have my reservations. Firstly, as I outlined regarding the approach to Hayek, Mr. Curtis’s analysis is not always correct – he is stronger on his psychiatric home-ground than on other topics. Secondly, I fear that his intention is to question much of what has happened in the past thirty years. While there have undoubtedly been colossal failures and terrible errors, there have also been successes and benefits: it is a sign of how much time has elapsed that some are now able to look fondly upon the 1960s and 1970s as though they were some sort of golden age, rather than a wasteland of inflation and unemployment, bubbling revolution and counter-revolution, and abject poverty. If it is Mr. Curtis’s intention to suggest that the positive elements of the revolution of the past thirty years – the deregulation and liberalisation that has led to wealth and freedom beyond the imagination of those living through the Winter of Discontent – have been accompanied by a creeping centralisation and rising state power, then he is correct (and in good journalistic company). But if, as I suspect, he intends to suggest that we would all be better off returning to the age of collectivism and public duty, of trusting citizens and paternalistic administrators, then he is simply swapping a flawed concept of freedom for no freedom at all.
I have separately reviewed part 2 and part 3. Curtis's conclusion and my analysis of it are discussed in a final post.