The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007, Adam Curtis)

“Human beings will always betray you. You can only trust the numbers.”

Well-chosen images (sometimes picked for more comic effect than illustration) keep the thing entertaining while it lectures us. Good use of stock footage and music (incl. Yo La Tengo’s “return to hot chicken” and “nowhere near”).



Post-Depression-and-WWII expansion of American gov’t in order to “control the economy and protect society from the dangerous self-interest at the heart of capitalism.”

Friedrich Von Hayek predicts tyranical outcome from gov’t planning and control of society, says everyone pursuing their own individual self-interest should lead to social order.

Intro of game theory and cold war strategy.

John Nash enhances Hayek’s theory, shows that “rational pursuit of self-interest” leads to a happy equilibrium, but after Nash was locked away to treat his schizophrenia, his coworkers tried to adapt his theories. Nash one of the few theorists and politicians who comes off looking kinda good at the end, saying that he was wrong and that his theories were mis-used.

RD Laing investigates schizophrenia, discovers a treatment (getting affected people the hell away from their horrible families) and a related scary fact, that sane people can be sent to an asylum and believed to be mad. Develops system to quantify personality disorders and remove subjectivity from diagnosis.

James Buchanan argues that politicians’ working for what they call “the public interest” is deceptive, greatly influences Margaret Thatcher. Sets up number-based productivity targets for health-care employees to “free” them based on Nash’s simplified vision of purely selfish individuals.


John Major sets out to harness the individualism of public servants through liberating paradigm of the free market via performance targets.

Greenspan and Clinton’s economic advisor tell Clinton that his programs won’t work, needs to move to market-driven society and government.

“Freedom was redefined to mean nothing more than the ability of individuals to get whatever they wanted.”

When he talks about misinterpretations leading to this market-driven society, John Carpenter’s sinister “Halloween” theme kicks in… nice.

An anthropologist actually named Napoleon did a bizarre observational experiment which “proved” that game theory can be applied to the genetic level, that humans, like other animals, are self-interested machines.

“With the rise of this machine model of human beings a new idea of how to change society began to emerge, not through politics any longer but by adjusting how well the individual machines function” and into “a new form of order and control” in the form of imagined new mental disorders and treatments such as prozac. And the drugs turned them into simpler beings, closer to the machine model.

Meanwhile, performance targets weren’t working, corporate crime was huge, and class division was greatly increasing.


Overview of how these simplified machine models of human behavior and other stupid theories led to increasingly bad policy decisions in England and the US, into an intro to Isaiah Berlin. I thought I kept notes during this one, even remember spelling out “Isaiah Berlin” but I can’t find them. So here’s wikipedia:

“Berlin is best known for his essay Two Concepts of Liberty, delivered in 1958 … at Oxford. He defined negative liberty as the absence of constraints on, or interference with, agents’ possible action. Greater “negative freedom” meant fewer restrictions on possible action. Berlin associated positive liberty with the idea of self-mastery, or the capacity to determine oneself, to be in control of one’s destiny. While Berlin granted that both concepts of liberty represent valid human ideals, as a matter of history the positive concept of liberty has proven particularly susceptible to political abuse.”

Tony Blair tried at least, sending Berlin a letter asking for advice, but Berlin was on his death bed and never responded. Bunch of sadness ensues, and the movie’s ray of hope for humanity’s future only appears in the final sentences. I will have to watch this part again.

Overall a helluva terrific movie. I want to see it again and I want everyone everywhere to see it also. Katy even almost watched it with me.

Addendum JAN 2011:
Watched again with Katy and I was thrilled that she loved it also. We talked about how damned clever, well-researched and respectful of its audience it seems to be, and how all other documentaries seem lessened in its wake.