Not completely sure what to make of Adam Curtis’ The Trap last night, though I must say I’m grateful to The BBC for linking to my previous piece about the programme, even though they quoted me quoting their press release — a bit naughty of them, I thought. Nevertheless, it’s generated some very interesting comments there, to which I hope to respond shortly.
I found it fascinating, but I had difficulty following the argument, I think because of what seemed to be a bit of a detour via R D Laing. The initial section about how game theory sees us all as isolated and self-interested, watching each other like paranoid hawks, derives from Cold War strategic planning — where the Pentagon and the Soviet High Command were, one suspects, not unreasonable in thus regarding each other — was very interesting, but I could have done with more detail on how this got itself applied, if it got itself consciously applied, to other aspects of life.
The R D Laing material was all very interesting, but left me unclear about whether the ‘games’ he saw families playing were modeled on the Rand Corporation’s games theory, or analogous to it, or he’d just picked up the general ideas and terminology and used them for his own purposes, or what. Similarly, I thought there was a very unclear transition from R D Laing — as a result of the Rosenhan Experiment, in which experimenters, inspired by Laing, gained admission to mental hospitals and that had difficulty leaving, since they couldn’t persuade staff that they’d only been faking their symptoms in the first place, American psychiatrists adopted supposedly more objective, observational, diagnostic tests — to performance targets in the NHS (everything similarly observed, apparently objectively).
Both Tim Worstall and Chris Dillow, who know far more about this sort of thing than do I, are pretty critical of the programme’s use of Hayek and other social theorists as the villains of the piece; they seem to reckon Curtis badly oversimplified here, and I’m inclined to take their word for it. My suspicion is that, as so often happens, politicians latched onto bits of Hayek to provide some sort of justification for what they wanted to do anyway, but who am I to say? I’ve not read a great deal of Hayek, but I have to say, at least of Mrs Thatcher’s attempts to apply his work to British politics, I found my misgivings best summed up when I came to read Michael Oakeshott:
This conversion of habits of behaviour, adaptable and never quite fixed or finished, into comparatively rigid systems of abstract ideas, is not, of course, new; so far as England is concerned it was begun in the seventeenth century, in the dawn of rationalist politics. But, while formerly it was tacitly resisted and retarded by, for example, the informality of English politics (which enabled us to escape, for a long time, putting too high a value on political action and placing too high a hope in political achievement–to escape, in politics at least, the illusion of the evanescence of imperfection), that resistance has now itself been converted into an ideology. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom –not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine, A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.
That is, I was always suspicious of the idea that a market solution must be the best one — to my mind, there’s not usually a best solution is politics and I’m more than happy with minor improvements (provided they actually work, that is) on what we’ve got. This ideology that a market solution is best, so where it’s not particularly practicable to have a real market solution (e.g. in the NHS) we must try to create a virtual market that imposes on the organisation the disciplines we think real markets impose in actual circumstances, seems — both to me and to Adam Curtis, though possibly for rather different reasons — to have been responsible for many problems.
I could also have done with some more on James M Buchanan and public choice economics; he appeared in the programme as another interpreter of politics and the civil service as a debunker of the idea of altruism and public service who showed that politicians and civil servants were, in fact, still more self-interested actors. That’s always seemed to me a bit of an oversimplification; I think people go into politics because of a combination of a genuine desire to make the country a better place, as they see it, at least, and self-interest, and I think that he got — or, rather, the programme makers had him getting — the civil service rather badly wrong, too. They cited Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister as sit-coms based on Buchanan’s critique of the civil service; I always thought that the comedy missed the point of many of Sir Humphrey’s stratagems. When my late father was a mandarin in Whitehall, he and his colleagues certainly must have seemed very frustrating figures to ministers, but that was primarily because they saw their role as trying to protect both ministers and, more importantly, the public from the consequences of those same ministers’ hare-brained schemes.
The problem, apparently, was that what may have looked very sensible and attractive when you were in opposition, or even when you were in government and were put in charge of a ministry the work of which you didn’t really know much about and which you probably wouldn’t be running in two or three years’ time, didn’t always look quite so sensible to the people who actually kept the show on the road. This was partly because they were trained to bring a scrupulous and somewhat cynical view to the disjuncture between what policies were supposed to achieve and what was likely to happen when they were implemented.
Update: Fabian Tassano, who doesn’t much care for what he’s heard of the programme’s thesis and will apparently be writing on it when he’s watched it, directs our attention, via a comment in Samizdata (who certainly didn’t like it– no surprise there, then) to a link for the video (real player), should anyone wish to see the programme again or have missed it first time round.
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