17 Jul 2012

The Trap

This film (in three parts) by Adam Curtis from 2007 explores our ideas about the individual and freedom. In part one he explores the role that game theory has played in forming these ideas, particularly the game theory developed by John Nash which sees the human individual as completely alone and totally self-interested. Nash, the subject of a biography and film adaptation called A Beautiful Mind, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. These theories became the underpinning of USA's Cold War 'balance of terror' nuclear strategy. 

Meanwhile R D Laing was popularising the notion that we cannot trust authorities to act in our interest. The "system" is trying to control our thoughts and suppress our freedom. His main attack was directed against psychiatry which had begun to use behavioural traits to assign diagnosis based on statistical methods. But in studying madness he came to believe that the family played a role as a theatre of power relations in which each member was selfishly trying to manipulate the others. He then generalised this to the idea that authority was being used to control and suppresses individuals, and he became a minor celebrity promoting these views. [Though given the zeitgeist he could well be seen as a product of his time].

At the same time a branch of economics, Neo-classical Economics, based on the thought of Friedrich August Hayek's 'Choice Theory' also viewed the individual as totally self interested, and began to be prominent. The idea of the 'public good' or a sense of 'public duty' began to be discredited. This process was dramatised in the comedy Yes Minister.

Western leaders began to be influenced by these ideas, particularly Margaret Thatcher in the UK [and Ronald Reagan in the USA]. The elements mentioned began to coincide particularly in the 1980s. 

Alain Enthoven had been a prominent proponent of game theory in economics. One of his objective was to replace values and emotions with self interest and rationality. For instance to measure the effectiveness of soldiers in Vietnam he introduced the concept of the body count, which is now seen as contributing to civilian deaths. In 1984 he was brought in by Thatcher to reform the NHS away from traditional values and caring, towards targets and measurable outcomes. He saw this as "challenging the power of organised medicine". In this view doctors do not care for their patients but only compete for personal power and prestige. He has taken the frankly aberrant views of John Nash, mixed with with the counter culture distrust of authority, and turned them into unquestioned truths about human nature. It's a vision of humanity in which altruism plays no part. Ironically the subsequent Labour government pursued similar policies based on similar assumptions.

Adam Curtis is one of the leading critical voices of our age. This film is very worthwhile watching. 

So in the minds of our politicians all of us are isolated, calculating, self obsessed, and completely lacking in empathy and altruism. There is no such thing as the public good or the public interest. Our happiness can best be achieved by encouraging selfish behaviour and allowing it free reign by eliminating the interference of government. This is partly because civil servants only serve their own self-interests.

This idea is flawed at it's roots. But it's roots go even deeper. I've explored this to some extent in my Renegade Economist blog Darwin Distorted or How the West was Won.


  1. Adam Curtis seems to be attempting to show that many of the largest influences on our society come from people who are not emotionally intelligent. Ayan Rand, Nash, Laing etc... all appear to be intellectually advanced but emotionally and empathically lacking. To me he tries to show that the image we are presented with of what the human experience is like has massive consequences. The image of 'rational self interest' is, as you say, hugely prevalent and incredibly destructive. I think that THIS vision of what it means to be human is what needs challenging. I wonder if this is where Buddhism and politics start to merge. A vision of the human as potentially compassionate and aware and creative, which leads to policy and a social movement which try to embody this.

  2. So not emotionally intelligent! Add Dawkins to that list!

    As Buddhists we certainly strive to cultivate a view of people as interdependent. But there is also a strong strain of individualism: live as a island unto yourself! I think we have mixed success when viewed globally.

    I think the core values of our movement: attention, empathy, honesty, altruism and contentment are what's needed. But we have to convince these sociopaths that in judging the rest of the world to be like themselves they have made a grave error of judgement, that has lead to disaster!

    Re interconnectedness have you seen the TED talk Meet Your Microbes? There's a good Scientific American article on it recently as well (which I bought if you want to borrow it).


Keep is seemly & on-topic. Thanks.