The Myth of Individual Freedom

Another great series of Adam Curtis documentaries about the myth of individual freedom

Trapped: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom

Adam Curtis

BBC (2007)

Film Review

Part 1 Fuck You Buddy

Trapped is an exploration of the major thinkers behind the ideologies of extreme individualism and consumerism championed by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s.

“Part 1 Fuck You Buddy” traces the major influence Game Theory and so-called Public Choice Theory played in the pro-freedom ideologies that propelled both leaders to power. It begins begins by introducing Rand Corporation and their use of Game Theory to fashion America’s cold war strategy. Game Theory is used in poker to predict all possible best moves for each player. Because it allows you to predict mathematically how your opponent will respond, Rand scientists used it to calculate how far the Soviets could be pushed without resorting to nuclear war.

Rand mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind) figured very prominently in this work. A number of cold war strategies are attributed to Nash, including the Nash Equilibrium, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Fuck You Buddy and the Sucker Payoff.

John Nash Proves that Altruism Destroys Social Harmony

Like radical individualist Ayn Rand and conservative economist Friedrich von Hayek, Nash argued that altruism was irrational and destructive to social harmony. In fact, he proved mathematically that the only rational choice in any encounter is to act selfishly and betray the other person. He and his fellow Rand scientists also proved nuclear disarmament was impossible – their equations showed the Russians would cheat.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?*

Ironically every time Nash tested the secretaries at Rand, women always behaved “irrationally” and trusted each other. In 1959, Nash was committed for paranoid schizophrenia.** Yet none of the technocrats at Rand never thought to question the validity of his so-called “proofs.”

Enter R.D. Laing

Over the next decade, Nash’s ideas spread beyond Rand and the Pentagon to the broader public, thanks mainly to the work of radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Laing’s contribution was to apply Game Theory to family life. Based on questionnaires he administered to hundreds of families, he produced mathematical equations showing that all so-called normal families continuously use complex strategies to selfishly manipulate one another.

Laing, who dismissed psychiatry as a fake science, became the hero of America’s counter culture anti-psychiatry movement. His ideas also led to the widespread mistrust of authority (i.e. anyone over 30) and institutions that characterized the sixties.

James Buchanan and Public Choice Theory

Conservative economist James Buchanan took Laing’s ideas one step further with Public Choice Theory. Buchanan maintained that politicians and bureaucrats who claimed to be working for the public interest were really self-deluding hypocrites acting in their own self-interest. He also argued that the only way to trust public officials was to reward them for behaving appropriately with mathematical targets, incentives and rewards.

Thatcher would became prime minister in 1979 by promising to free the British public from power mad, unsympathetic bureaucrats.

The Chinese Menu System of Psychiatric Diagnosis

Laing would also have a profound influence on both psychiatric and medical practice. In 1979, the growing influence of the anti-psychiatry movement would lead to a new psychiatric diagnostic system. Unlike physical illnesses, which are diagnosed based on history and physical findings, mental illness would now be diagnosed based on symptom checklists resembling Chinese menus. The adoption of this checklist approach also made it possible for people to “diagnose” themselves and to demand drugs and other treatment interventions to make them “normal.”


*The failure of the Fuck You Buddy model to work with women should have rung all kinds of alarm bells. Not that all women are necessarily more inclined to interpersonal trust and cooperation. However at the very minimum, someone should have taken a hard look at the geeky, Aspergerish types who relied entirely on cold mathematical models to explain social behavior.
**Based on everything I’ve read by and about Nash, I’m highly skeptical he suffered from schizophrenia. It seems much more likely he suffered from Asperger’s disorder complicated by bipolar disorder (which often presents with hallucinations and paranoid delusions). Prior to the 1970s, bipolar disorder was commonly misdiagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. Asperger’s wasn’t formally recognized until 1981.

Free link to Part 1: The Trap 1 Fuck You Buddy [BBC]

9 thoughts on “The Myth of Individual Freedom

  1. The problem is they all had it – and all our bullshit individualist materialist ideology is based on their theories. Nearly everyone at Rand and MIT has it – I know because my daughter studied at MIT for 6 years to get her PhD.

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  2. Wow! The more I peer back at my life through these kinds of lenses, the more I wonder: “Where was I?” “Who was living in my body?” “Why did I now see this?” and more importantly: “What am I not seeing NOW?” Thanks again for shining a light on this trail of social manipulation.

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    • I never understood how they did it either. However I was very much aware when I reached my early 20s that my life was going to be very different from my parents. None of my peers had any interest at all in forming close friendships. They were all about consuming and acquiring the latest fashions and status symbols. This was the main reason I went to live in England for 18 months in 1973.

      Life was very different there in the 1970s and most of the people I met were interested in forming close friendships and participating in civic life.

      Sadly the UK has been totally overwhelmed by American individualist and pro-consumption messaging at this point. New Zealand isn’t quite so bad, in large part because they have no middle class. Most of the academics and professionals we train go overseas because salaries are so low here (and because they have massive student loans to pay off.

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  3. Hmm, interesting stuff. This caught my attention, “he proved mathematically that the only rational choice in any encounter is to act selfishly and betray the other person.” Probably true, “rational” being the key word there. People still tend to falsely equate rational with moral, which is a bit scary as we go into the age of technology. Being rational is not all it’s cracked up to be.

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    • I think Americans are pretty much aware that they’re not free, especially as many of them come up against our new militarized police state – for doing nothing more than walking down the street or sitting on a bench.

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  4. Pingback: Human Beings as Machines | The Most Revolutionary Act

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