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March 13, 2007

Kenneth Minogue argues that the real threat to freedom today comes from the attempt to turn us all into instruments of social justice, not from - as Adam Curtis postulates - unbridled capitalism: The Trap - Adam Curtis

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

The Trap: What happened to our dreams of freedom?
Directed by Adam Curtis
BBC Two, 11th March 2007

Kenneth Minogue - Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics - argues that Adam Curtis, in his new series The Trap, is wrong about where the threat to our freedoms is coming from. It is not from unbridled capitalism, but rather from the attempt to turn us all into instruments of some sort of "social justice" or "social responsibility".

Adam Curtis is a broad brush man, and his brush strokes in The Trap were so broad as to leave both reality and rationality lost to sight. He's good at caricature, very bad at explaining what people (and especially theorists) are actually up to. His thesis in The Trap replays the basic doctrine of modern radicalism: we think we are free, but actually we are in chains. Indeed, we are all the more enslaved because of the illusions we have about our freedom.

The fact is, our minds are being tampered with by crazies like the paranoid genius J. F. Nash, who demonstrated that even in a world in which everyone is in hot pursuit of self-interest, a stable order is possible. Curtis puts a lot down to game theory (which actually dates back to the 1940s) and thinks that its main use was to help the US military respond to the Soviet threat. You would not gather from his account of it that one of its main tools - the Prisoner's Dilemma - is mostly used to demonstrate the superiority of cooperative rather than selfish strategies. But there is no doubt that he is right in thinking that game theory led to extensive scepticism about the ideas that governments and bureaucracies pursue the common good, or indeed, that there was such a thing that could be pursued. But such scepticism is hardly new.

Montaigne and Hobbes were on to it centuries ago. The whole point of a modern society is that it is an association in which people can live together who do not agree on basic goods. The rule of law is not based on consensus, nor does it require governments to pursue any common good beyond such things as justice and security. Problems do soon emerge, however, when they start trying to manage our lives and impose supposedly ideal social patterns on us. Perhaps the most elementary muddle in the Curtis programme was the confusion between self-interest on the one hand (which can be sensibly rationalised) and selfishness - a moral fault - on the other. The result was his picture of modern Anglophone societies being turned into a collection of crazed egomaniacs because they had been subject to the theories of economists and psychiatrists.

One of the oddities of the programme was the choice of music - Bernard Herrman's score for Vertigo, for example, turned up, as if the sweetness of the music could counterpoint the madness of much of the material Curtis was describing. The most amusing parts of The Trap were those that followed the one or two notions Curtis had picked up about game theory, as they crossed the Atlantic, where they apparently influenced R. D. Laing and his view that schizophrenia was essential a family ailment. Later, these ideas influenced American psychiatrists.

Like most people, I'm prepared to believe almost anything about psychiatrists, and Curtis had trawled some remarkable, and indeed rather terrifying episodes of expert nonsense and institutional rigidity, most notably the set of experimental subjects who were sent off to a variety of clinics to say that they kept hearing a voice saying "thud" but otherwise to behave entirely normally. It took some of them a couple of months before they were let out again.

The real point of the film came as Curtis incorporated Margaret Thatcher into what was coming to seem itself a paranoid treatment of a string of rather disturbed theorists. For some reason mysterious to Curtis, but it might have had something to do with the self-interest of bureaucracies, Britain in the 1970s was falling apart. Curtis didn't go into that, and given his basic thesis, one can see why. Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 to set the country straight, and she took the advice of economists (or should it be "mad economists"?) about how to reform institutions. The foreigner Hayek was mentioned. The health service was to be reformed by bringing in market ideas of competition.

Her cast of mind at this point got mixed up, for no very clear reason, with the escalation theories of Robert McNamara in the American response to Vietnam. Curtis thought that the problem in both cases was to have substituted selfish rationality for the service and dedication of those involved: patriotism in the American case of Vietnam, and responsible social responsibility in the NHS. The fatal mistake, apparently, was that game theory had destroyed the idea of the common good.

And at this stage, the point of the whole exercise was looming into view. In the modern world, Curtis was saying, there are only two basic ways to organise society. One is socialism which looks to the common good, while the other is capitalism, which is based on the game theory postulate of human selfishness. Thatcher's mistake, and perhaps that of everyone who has so far followed her, was to opt for a social order based on selfishness. You and I have been fatally encouraged to follow our own selfish choices, and that is why we are subject to fads about mental illness. It is also why institutions throughout the country are failing.

The Trap is a significant programme, because it tells us how some people are already thinking, and it needs to be challenged. There is no doubt indeed that Britain today is a less free place than it was a decade or so ago. One of the main signs is the propensity of governments to pass laws and set up "educational" programmes about diet, smoking, sex and much else. The government has unleashed our selfishness, and is now trying to deal with the consequences, without knowing (as Curtis does) what led to those results. As this system starts to crumble, recriminations will begin about the issue of causality. Was the rising incompetence of British society the result of elephantiasis in the public service bureaucracy, serving a government forever trying to manage the details of our lives? Alternatively, was it the selfishness of people who had been trained by experts to indulge their selfish passions without a thought for others? In other words, is the problem welfarist socialism, or what is often called "unbridled" capitalism?

The Curtis view is that the NHS is falling apart because doctors have been distanced from their adherence to the good of the whole community and been incentivised to think only in terms of their own self-interest (which is to say selfishness). The solution must therefore be to persuade people to think more in terms of the common good. We must return to the tradition of public service attacked by Margaret Thatcher from 1979 onward.

The reality is that the doctor, as he or she treats a patient, is thinking neither of selfish interest, nor indeed of the common good of society as a whole. Doctors are thinking partly of the patient, and partly of their own responsibility as professionals, which is a profoundly moral responsibility. Their minds are largely uncluttered by nonsense about "making a difference", "giving something back to society" and other clichés of debased social philanthropy. A modern society such as Britain works because we all spend most of our time thinking of how to get on with our own jobs as effectively as possible, and in terms of the duty to ourselves we all have for the integrity of our work and the duties involved in it.

No doubt people are sometimes selfish and no doubt sometimes they act for what they imagine to be the common good. But it is this central area of vocation that is the moral centre of British, American etc. life. The real threat to freedom today is the attempt to turn us all into instruments of some sort of "social justice" or "social responsibility", whose character will be decided by an overbearing government.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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