Take No Prisoners

The War on Bullshit Reviews: The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom is a three-part BBC TV documentary turned feature film that is currently touring the festival circuit (and available on youtube). Yesterday I caught this three-hour montage by Adam Curtis at the Vancouver International Film Festival. I have mixed feelings about this film. It’s production and editing were nothing short of atrocious, but it was highly intellectually stimulating. If you’re into intellectual stimulation (and if you’re reading my blog, I suspect you are), I do recommend it. Put bluntly, when politicians yammer on about spreading freedom, this film stands up and yells “Bullshit!”

The film presents a complex argument about the nature and desirability of freedom. The skeleton of this argument might be presented as follows:

    1. Negative liberty is safer than positive liberty
    2. Negative liberty can be efficiently implemented as free-market capitalism
    3. Because free market capitalism assumes that humans are purely rational and self-interested, it systematically discourages benevolence, altruism, caring, love, etc. (basically everything good about us)
    4. This has created a trap: in trying to create a free world, our leaders have caused people to become more like emotionless automatons, and has thus left the world without meaning (or true freedom)

The film then suggests that premise 1 is incorrect, and that positive liberty can be achieved without the dangers generally associated with it. Let us look into each of these pieces more closely.

1. Two Types of Liberty

The Trap distinguishes two types of freedom: positive liberty and negative liberty. Positive liberty is characterized by the opportunity to realize one’s potential. Negative liberty is characterized by freedom from coercion and restriction. The film explores how influential people argued that positive liberty was dangerous because the state would force its populous into living the way they supposedly should want to live, rather than the way they actually want to live. In contrast, negative liberty was thought safer because it lacked coercion – everyone was free to do as they please (sort of).

2. Liberty through Capitalism

Government regulations on capitalism limit negative liberty by definition: negative liberty is the absence of restrictions. The film reviews some examples of implementations of negative liberty through economic means, i.e. free-market capitalism, from the 1930s to today. Not surprisingly, these efforts failed miserably. The free market, it explains, assumes that people act rationally, but they don’t. To be more specific, the free market is based on an oversimplified mathematical model of a human being as an autonomous, rational, omnipotent, information processing agent with unlimited processing power, that always acts in its own best interests. When tested empirically, the film points out, the only people who actually act this way are economists and psychopaths. Let me add here that the free market also assumes that everyone can bid (money, goods, services, etc.) for things that they want, which is obviously untrue, because some people are children or invalids, and some haven’t been born yet. Moreover, it assumes that everyone starts out equal, which is also obvious untrue since some people are born into rich families, others poor. As I’ve pointed out before, people might want to consider the outright stupidity of the free market model before they vote for free-market enthusiasts like US presidential candidate Ron Paul … but I digress.

3. The Free Market Robs us of our Humanity

This is perhaps the most controversial part of the argument. Curtis gives examples of how civil servants and politicians were found to (sometimes) act in their own best interests rather than the public’s. To counter this, the U.K. government tried setting numerical performance targets for public servants. This made them so insecure in their jobs that they began acting only in their own best interests, and found all manner of tactics to reach their performance targets whether or not these tactics were in the public interest (or ethical, for that matter). In other words, they simulated the free market in the public service and it made people more self-serving and less concerned with the public good.

This example does not show that free market principles always make people less altruistic and more individualistic, but it does evidence the possibility that the free market can negatively affect human behavior. Combining this with the substantial evidence that incentives often work and you have a frightening proposition.

4. No Meaning

Here, Curtis argues that positive liberty is the freedom to do something, i.e. realize your potential, while negative liberty just means nobody is restricting you. In this view, a lack of formal restriction is not true freedom. Just because there is no law against, say, starting your own business, doesn’t mean you can do it. You might need venture capital, technological resources, human resources, a certain talent at selling, and so on. Positive liberty implies that the things you need are available. Negative liberty means only that they are legal. What’s worse, negative liberty, it is argued, is implemented as free market capitalism, which is turning people into the emotionless drones posited by game theory. This creates a world with no meaning, and no freedom.

The Suggestion: Positive Liberty is Possible

The film ends with the suggestion that the way out of this trap is to embrace some new form of positive liberty, but falls short of describing what this might be. Democratic, capitalist societies, in my view, provide neither positive nor negative liberty. Communism attempts to provide positive liberty but fails because leaders become corrupt. Anarchy is provides negative liberty by definition, but not positive liberty. That leaves some form of socialism, or an entirely new societal structure.

What do you think? Is Positive Liberty the only true freedom? If so, how can it be implemented without falling into totalitarianism? If not, what is?