Adam Curtis makes documentaries for the British Broadcasting Corporation that are remarkable for revealing hidden connections and bringing out the unexpected consequences of ideas. His weakness is that he sometimes connects dots that, in my opinion, are not connected in actuality. His strengths and weaknesses are apparent in his three-part series, “The Trap.”
The first two parts of the series show the working out of the ideas of three brilliant economists.
Friedrich A. Hayek believed that governmental power is dangerous and counterproductive. It is better, he thought, to allow the economy to be regulated by an automatic system, the free market.
John Nash of the RAND Corporation saw human beings as selfish and suspicious, but, for that very reason, predictable. He worked out the implications of “prisoner’s dilemma” situations, in which rational people are unable to cooperate for their mutual benefit because they cannot trust each other.
The USA and USSR could not give up atomic weapons because neither could trust the other not to cheat. Instead the road to peace supposedly was for each to be armed to the teeth and ready at retaliate as soon as they were attacked. Because each could predict the other’s behavior, the situation supposedly was stable.
James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, was the creator of “public choice” theory. He asserted that politicians and administrators are selfish beings who worked to their own advantage and not the public whom they supposedly served. Idealistic politicians and officials are the most dangerous, in this view, because they could not be controlled.
Curtis documented how these ideas played out under Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successors. Many governmental functions were sub-contracted to private companies. Since government employees, according to public choice theory, could not be trusted to exercise their own judgment, they were given incentives to meet measurable targets.
The idea was that this is liberating because people are not subjected to the arbitrary personal judgments of people over them, but to objective and neutral measurements.
This kind of thinking is also playing out today in U.S. corporate and government administration. The result is a micro-management that diminishes individual freedom. And it doesn’t work. The incentive is to figure out ways of meeting the target which is a different thing from doing your job well.
Curtis asserted that psychological studies show that the only people who behave according to the Nash-Buchanan theory are economists and psychopaths. That is an exaggeration.
There is a measure of truth in what Nash, Buchanan and also Hayek say. The problem is that human beings are diverse and complex, neither altruists nor selfish calculating machines, and no one-dimensional theory can sum them up.
The problem with the first two parts of “The Trap” is that it includes irrelevant material—how the pioneer psychiatrist R.D. Laing applied game theory to family relationships, the inadequacies of genetic determinism in explaining human behavior, the problem with psychological diagnoses based on checklists of external human behavior and the failures of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to enact progressive policies.
Adam Curtis had material for one superb one-hour documentary. Instead he padded it out to make two one-hour interesting but uneven episodes. As to the third part of the series, I think it is a mess, but I embed it so you can judge for yourself.
The starting point for the third episode of “The Trap” is the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin and his ideas of negative and positive liberty.
Negative liberty consists of restraints on government, such as the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, to prevent interference with your basic rights. Positive liberty consists steps the government can take, such as public education or old age pensions, to give you more opportunities than you would have had as an individual. Berlin’s idea was that negative liberty was more fundamental than positive liberty, although not an absolute.
Curtis interpreted the past century of history as a conflict between proponents of positive and negative liberty. His examples of positive liberty were the Bolsheviks, revolutionary violence of all kinds and militant Islam. His examples of negative liberty were the Reagan and second Bush administration and the U.S. attempt to impose democracy on Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001.
This is not completely wrong. What’s wrong with it is that Curtis reduced complex conflicts that involve both interests and ideas to a one-dimensional and highly over-simplified conflict of ideas.
I’ve previously posted embedded videos of Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. My experience is that they tend to be taken down from the Internet after a time, so if you’re interested, watch them while you can.