We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The Trap’s trap

Another episode of “The Trap’ has been shown… I gave it a pass given the low quality of scholarship and the high level of ‘argument by personal attack’ in the first one. It seems this low brow method was used against other targets in the latest episode, this time with the author of Public Choice Theory as one of the targets.

First a basic primer for the recent commenter to my earlier article. The personal life of a creative person has nothing to do with whether their creation is right or wrong. That decision is made in the marketplace of ideas and in the appropriate research journals. Anyone who thinks otherwise has something brown leaking out their ears.

If we judged ideas by the personal life of the creator, we would toss Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings in the bin. The man was a nutter who cut off his ear. Obviously his paintings must be garbage. Or maybe the whole basis of cybernetics is wrong! After all, Turing was gay! All those right wing conspiracy types must obviously think anything he created must be wrong! And Einstein? That wild haired fruitcake? Marx? A drunken womanizer!

Argument by ad hominem will get no one anywhere with anyone at Samizdata.

It also helps to have some knowledge of the subjects on which you expostulate, or to at least state your areas of ignorance out front. The idea that public workers do not work to make life better for their families just like anyone else is absurd: and that is what saying ‘Public Choice Theory is wrong’ means. Suggesting that markets will always ‘collapse to a point’ is absurd and counter-factual. It is not OFCOM that makes BBC ‘better’. It is competition with the high production values of programs from elsewhere that are indeed (more) free market than the UK in this respect. The rhetorical concept which is thus indirectly espoused by our commenter that “REGULATION is INDIVIDUALISM” is just plain silly.

I invite you all to read the comment on that previous article and disassemble the commenter’s argument into its weak component parts as I have not the time to do so at the moment.

17 comments to The Trap’s trap

  • Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole

    ok maybe not quite what Jonathan Richman meant, but Pablo Picasso was an asshole, but did it matter to his art? Not a whit

    So remember

    Remember the story of Pablo Picasso
    He could walk down your street
    And girls could not resist his stare
    Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole
    Alright this is it

  • Robert

    Marx? A drunken womanizer!

    Which shows that as far as ad hominem attacks go, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. 🙂

  • Let’s start here:

    “If one is raised to value the social good then working for that social good will produce its rewards; if people generally value that sort of behaviour then the individual can achieve prestige etc. in that way. “

    We shall need to refer him to his rebuttal of Game Theory. His axioms are internally consistent and lead to his conclusion but, oops, the axioms don’t hold.

    The assumption he has to make about his wonderful society is that some external agent, presumably the state, can mould the “self-interest” of individuals on a grand scale; that we can be moulded to ignore our individuality in order to place a higher value on something else. That is just crap, leaving aside the fact that an externally generated “self-interest” is entirely self-contradictory.

    Secondly, it ignores – wait for it – game theory. If we imagine that such a system could be engendered, it is not failsafe. If someone managed to slip through the nice-fluffy-social-good-reprogramming net and emerge with an actual genuine sense of self-interest, as opposed to his ersatz version, they would be set up to exploit the system royally. With everyone else selflessly pursuing their own “self-interest” to help others, our net-slipper can sit back and wait for everyone else to give him a free ride.

    As soon as it becomes known that this is possible, the system collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.

    OK, so socialism doesn’t work.

    “Where “free market” supporters went awry was in thinking that people who espouse things they (the free marketeers) can’t imagine must be lying.”

    If the stuff being espoused cannot be imagined, we assume that the espouser is just mad or perhaps just too stupid to be able explain his system with sufficient clarity to allow his thesis to be subjected to critical scrutiny.

    There’s no suggestion of “lying” anywhere.

    Actually, that might be a bit harsh. I suspect by “cannot imagine”, he means “cannot describe to the free marketeers satisfaction how such a system could arise and then subsequently survive without the usual revolution or subsequent mass starvations that usually accompany utopian visions”.

    Which is self answering.

    “The TV license is a classic social construct: we all pay to receive something which the market could not produce on its own.”

    Self-evidently rubbish. The market manages to produce lots of this even with the state barging in and having its usual corrosive crowding-out effect.

    “they will simply collapse the market down to a singularity – a monopoly – at which point the consumer, both as an individual and a society, is screwed. “

    Consumers being screwed by monopolies is a trivial truth, but in the case of TV companies actually wide of the mark: Consumers don’t pay – advertisers do.

    “All truely free markets always collapse in this way and always will.”

    Oh for heaven’s sake, just how stupid can you be? Truly free markets have low barriers to entry. Low barriers to entry deny the survival of monopolies – as soon as one arises and starts to leverage, there is room for an entrant to undercut, thereby collapsing the monopoly.

    Monopolies can ONLY survive through rent-seeking, that is through the intervention of the state, usually via regulation.

    He has got it precisely wrong.

    Oh what’s the use? The bloke is an unreconstructed statist moron.

  • Robert

    Consumers don’t pay – advertisers do.

    Surely the cost of advertising is ultimately passed on to the consumer? Perhaps I’m missing something here.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    To be honest, the BBC programme of Curtis’ is such intellectual tripe that I could hardly summon myself to fisk it or challenge it. I am beginning to wonder at the level of intelligence of whole swathes of the chattering classes these days.

    It is a canard that the classical liberal position depends on the idea of “economic man” calculating every action according to some iron rule of economics. Not so. All that it requires is the notion that individuals are, by the main, the best judges of their own interests, be they material or otherwise. Further, it holds that open markets provide us with the process through which to discover what those interests are. The pursuit of happiness does not necessarily mean that everyone works in order to be rich as Croesus – it means that they strive the maximum amount of happiness.

    It is so incredibly simple at root: which is probably why ordinary folk get the argument but the pretentious twats who infest our universities, parts of the media, etc, do not.

    I guess the only good aspect about all this is that Curtis and his type have at least heard enough about game theory, Hayek etc to want to “refute it”. All he has done is make a prize ass out of himself.

    Forget this idiotic programme, Dale. I’d rather read your superb stuff on space flight.

  • Henry

    I think the programme itself is a case in point for the success of the economic and social policies argued for so eloquently on Samizdata.

    Surely the point is that we are so lucky to only have to worry about the existential angst and meaninglessness of life in 2007 because we are so very wealthy. Were we scratching a living on some collective farm then we would not have the luxury. Aren’t we lucky to worry about the carbon footprint of a weekend in Paris rather than the cost in financial terms?

    The only thing I would say is that the programme shows simply how some people choose to celebrate this wealth and great standard of living. Some choose to indulge in navel gazing, others fly to New York to do some shopping.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Game theory isn’t supposed to describe people, it is instead a way of describing the problems people face. It can then make suggestions about how different strategies for solving them would work, and which ones solve it best. While game theory is indifferent to whether people actually follow the optimal strategies, it is quite often the case that they do. And even in those cases where the liberal approach regards human behaviour as irrational, emotional, or counterproductive, game theory often reveals that it is in fact perfectly rational and in the long run more successful, albeit, not always for the person exhibiting the behaviour. This includes stuff like generosity, love, friendship, sympathy and public-spirited cooperation, as well as selfishness, hate, vendettas, callousness, and ruthless competition. That both sorts of behaviour can be rational, depending on the circumstances, and that game theory can often accurately predict the criteria people use to pick between them is an unwelcome fact to those ideologically attached to the idea that only one set of those is “good”, that this is something magical beyond the unfeeling and soulless touch of logic and maths, or that mother nature could have wired in the correct responses already so that their attempted tinkering is both superfluous and often actually counterproductive. Their beliefs about human nature and humanity’s problems are simply wrong, but they don’t like game theory telling them so. It is a sort of argument from adverse consequences.

  • I agree with the writer that the Trap is heavy propoganda aimed against many libertarian ideals.

    But is it completely worthless? I would say no.

    I believe that the trap does a good job showing the rise of game theory (and more specifically prisoner’s dillema) as the operational world view for many especially academics. Furthermore, it references the rise of self diagnosis and how you get stats like ‘50% of Americans have mental disorders.’

    Where prisoner’s dillema went wrong is that it tried to apply modeling of large amoral structures (the united states and the the soviet union) to people, who -to put it in the words of an economist- derive utility from being friendly, from being trustworthy. The world is such that the ‘games’ are played constantly so that players with their ability to communicate learn (eventually) that it is better to not defer.

    I think the trap is right only insofar as it shows how the prominance of prisoner’s dillema (and to a lesser degree game theory) limits our conceptions of human beings and becomes a self fufilling prophecy.

  • Lindsay

    Marx? A drunken womanizer!

    Which shows that as far as ad hominem attacks go, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. 🙂

    What it shows, Robert, is that no one is all bad! Happy Monday.

  • Pa Annoyed

    The United States and Soviet Union were not amoral. Both expended a good deal of effort on building up friendships, and earning trust. They were simply not friends with and did not trust each other.
    (Also, normal people are sometimes not friends with or trusting of certain other people, who nevertheless find ways to live together.)

    And unfortunately, being trustworthy is not always a good strategy – game theory predicts that cooperative strategies like trust are associated with reciprocity: I’ll do something for you if you’ll do the same for me. When strategies that don’t reciprocate are used, all the other strategies shift to hostile, punitive, and uncooperative. The cold war was cooperative and confrontational pretty much exactly where you would expect it to be. So are people.

    So I’d say that mischaracterises both the strategies of the cold war, and the extent to which that thinking applies to real people. I don’t know whether it is Curtis’s position that politicians have made that error, or whether he makes it himself.

    People have always behaved the way game theory predicts; but previously it was condemned as sin, selfishness, an irrational aberration. Utility theory, by recognising this behaviour as natural, puts a damper on his desires for the coercive reformation/redemption of mankind. By promoting the myth of a golden age before game theory, when noble public servants worked solely for the public good, he resurrects the idea of a culture of voluntarily making sacrifices for the collective.

    The reason for the public service ethic was more like patriotism, a form of in-group loyalty, and easily (if indirectly) explained by game theory. The erosion of the public service ethic has far more to do with the erosion of national and professional pride, even the acceptability of expressing such patriotic pride, than with Maggie paying too much attention to Hayek. It was a consequence of multiculturalism, greater social equality and the breakdown of the class system. Precisely the opposite conclusion, I suspect, to the one Curtis would want.

  • nick g.

    And it’s not even original!
    Regulation is Individualism- where have we heard something like that before? Wasn’t it put as ‘Slavery is Freedom’? George Orwell said it first, and did it better!

  • tonathenethenathlon

    My God, last Sunday’s episode was a hymn to the joys of political violence. I had though Curtis was just foolishly wrong but he is clearly perniciously deranged.

  • guy herbert


    All that it requires is the notion that individuals are, by the main, the best judges of their own interests, be they material or otherwise.

    Not sure that it requires that much. We don’t ask anything in particular of the accuracy of the judgment of individuals as to their own interests, which would suggest some extrinsic criteria. What concerns us is that it is for them to judge.

    Autonomy of will, not calculating rationality, is at the heart of economic liberalism. De gustibus non est disputandem shall be the whole of the law. Which is why social authoritarians are seldom genuinely economic liberals, even though they often try to pretend to be.

  • guy herbert

    … And, for that matter, why economic authoritarians are seldom really social liberals. They are almost always looking to penalise people who don’t live as they deem they should, but see economics as primary and so are most inclined to look there for carrots and sticks.

  • Richard Carey

    You can tell what Curtis wants you to think from the soundtrack – dark, sinister music if a free-market economist is speaking, light and pastoral for a communist revolutionary blowing someone’s brains out.

    As with the other two episodes, there’s plenty of interesting information, if you can stand the bias.

  • abc

    I don’t believe that Adam Curtis was launching some kind of all-out attack on the thinkers featured in the series. It appeared to me that he was criticising reductionism. In the final program he referred to the theories outlined as “simplistic”.

  • Dale Amon

    The problem is, it was his reductio ad absurdum of the ideas he did not like which was simplistic. I did not myself bother past the first program, but I ask, did he ever go into the work of Axelrod or of Dawkins? Doubtful because their work shows that a group of ‘actors’ will evolve into a society which contains a majority of cooperators and a smaller number of defectors. Just as we see today: large numbers of mostly decent folk and a small number of parasites that prey on them.

    If you want to say there are many simplifications even then, I would agree. You cannot advance knowledge if you get so lost in detail that you never see the pattern. I might add that most scientists are capable of laughing at themselves about when this is really taken too far. One of my favorite physicist jokes is:

    Q: How do you model a herd of elephants?
    A: First you assume a set of perfect grey spheres…