Saturday, April 04, 2009

Freedom, Where Art Thee?

Adam Curtis is a British filmmaker known for being provocative and controversial. In The Power of Nightmares, Curtis argues that there really is no global terrorist network, and that organizations such as Al Qaida were simply made up in order to empower politicians.

Many viewers can -- and probably should -- find significant cause to disagree with that proposal.

But aside from being provocative, Curtis is also theoretically brilliant.

In The Trap, Curtis examines the impact game theory has had on societal institutions, and the way that government is managed. The overall affect, he reveals, has been anything but positive.

Individual freedom lies at the very soul of libertarianism -- one of the core elements of conservatism.

To the end of favouring individual freedom, many libertarians have used John Nash's game theory to prove that mutual suspicion, distrust and self-interest creates a natural equilibrium which generates an organic, non-coercive public order.

Yet Nash's game theory was not everything it was cracked up to be. Nash himself -- as portrayed in the film A Beautiful Mind -- was actually a paranoid schizophrenic, who believed he was surrounded by communist spies, and was a red-fighting secret agent.

This didn't stop theorists from embracing game theory and transforming it into a tool to forward Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek's favoured agenda.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher harnessed the emerging theory of free choice economics in order to curb the power of the civil service. The civil service, it was bemused, acted primarily in its own interests. It was surmised that by privatizing public services Thatcher could force these insititutions to be more responsive to public demand and need by way of the profit motive.

American psychologist David Rosenhan -- who wanted to challenge the allegedly elitist nature of psychiatrists -- used these principles to go after American psychiatry. In an experiment in which he planted fake patients in various American psychiatric hospitals Rosenhan exposed the inability of psychiatrists to distinguish the genuinely mentally ill from his plants, who had been admitted on the basis of a single symptom.

In order to recover its credibility after the debacle, a mathematical system was designed that would take human judgement entirely out of the process of diagnosing potential mental illness and replace it with static yes/no evaluations based on combinations of specific symptoms.

In many cases, the diagnoses were completely computerized to the extent that patients could diagnose themselves without the aid of a psychiatrist. While this empowered these particular patients to the extent that they could dictate treatments to their doctors, it also set a precedent for the removal of human judgement.

The removal of human judgement from important issues -- whether this was through the computerization of institutions or through relentless bureaucratization -- has inevitably led to broad reductions in individual human freedom.

The argument was that taking away the options of civil servants to serve their own interests would free British people from the whilms of that civil service. Instead, civil servants and their patrons alike wound up even more tightly bound by convention -- enslaved by bureaucratic or electronic edict.

These constraints bind citizens almost anywhere in the world in any place where they interact with nearly any institution -- at school, at the library, at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Game theory can tell us many interesting things about many interesting facets of social life. But it isn't sufficient to try and build an entire society around it. To build a successful society -- let alone a successful conservative movement -- citizens have to be willing to move beyond mutual suspicion, distrust and self-interest to find a basis for mutual trust and mutual interest. These are things that are generally held within the confines of a successful social contract.

Social contracts exist in various forms -- between individuals, amongst large groups of individuals, and at an institutional level.

The institutional social contract is important to the functioning of government. When that social contract falls lax enough that public servants can refuse to perform their duties with little worry of repercussions a government is obligated to reinforce the boundaries of that social contract.

But to dismantle that social contract and replace it with an entirely artificial social construct only leads to a disempowerment.

If libertarianism is treated as the pursuit of individual freedoms, this is a result that must be considered at odds with it. This kind of disempowerment is a natural result of the pursuit of negative freedoms and the expense of positive freedoms -- whether that expense is intentional or not.

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