“The Trap” is a three part documentary series by award-winning producer Adam Curtis which explores whether the economic model that human behavior is motivated by rational self interest has created a culture of suspicion which actually threatens individual liberties and reduces the quality of our lives.
The series chronicles how the introduction of game theory has led political leaders to adopt a simplistic model of human behavior which views social interaction as series of self interested transactions designed to maximize individual outcomes. This paradigm shift has transitioned governments away from their traditional role in promoting the public interest into institutions which act to appease the wants of citizens. At the same time, citizens have begun to identify themselves as simplistic beings whose freedom is associated with the fulfillment of desires. As a result, both politicians and the masses have embraced an egocentric concept of freedom which has caused us to accept an economical model of supply and demand politics which seeks to maintain relevance by meeting short term desires rather than improving our overall social condition.
Curtis proposes a more substantive and fulfilling form of freedom which allows us not only to fill immediate wants and desires, but to transform the overall quality of our living standards. This hope of improving the society we live in, he suggests, has been abandoned by policymakers in favor of a safer, less satisfying form of democracy which robs our lives of their intrinsic value.
Episode 1: F**k You Buddy
Part one examines how Game Theory and the idea that human behavior is driven by rational self interest has molded the political, economic and social behavior of Western Democracies.
Episode one explores John Nash’s hypothesis that human behavior is motivated by rational, self interested decisions to maximize potential outcomes. Using self interest as his first premise, Nash proposes that individual behavior is motivated by rational choices, rather than any sense of duty towards others. Therefore, in any social transaction an individual maximizes their potential benefits by acting in their own self interest. Curtis chronicles how this concept has influenced politicians, economists, anthropologists and even geneticists to embrace a market based supply and demand approach which has transformed the goal of government from seeking the public good to fulfilling public demand.
Episode 2: The Lonely Robot
Part two chronicles how a transition to an economic model of government administration has produced a controlling, dispassionate system of bureaucratic management driven by statistical analysis and desired outcomes. Curtis shows how the call for increased government efficiency and delivery of services, measured by numerical calculations, has resulted in increased institutional rigidity, inefficiency and corruption as administrators have resorted to manipulating statistics to meet performance targets rather than enacting the desired reforms.
Episode 3: We Will Force You To Be Free
Part three focuses on how the introduction of Isaiah Berlin’s concept of positive and negative liberties has influenced the Western concept of social progress. Berlin argues that the negative consequences of social revolutions can be avoided by enforcing negative, rather than positive liberties. Berlin reasons that the exercise of positive liberty always brings oppression because it requires the government to coerce an unwilling populace into embracing the desired social change. Therefore, Berlin suggests that it is safer for democracies to limit the government’s ability to cause harm through the exercise of negative liberty, allowing individuals greater autonomy over their own lives. However, Berlin warns, the idea of negative liberty can never become so absolute and inflexible, that democracy evolves into the very tyranny it seeks to avoid.
Curtis chronicles how Western leaders have ignored Berlin’s warning through an extreme vision of negative liberty which seeks to end global tyranny and maintain the peace through the use of state sponsored violence. At the same time, Western democracies have attempted to maintain domestic tranquility by suppressing passionate dissent and retreating to the safety of rational objectivism. As a result, Curtis argues, we are trapped within a false paradigm which stifles democracy and robs our lives of meaning.
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