Why we live in an increasingly locked-down world
Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Unfortunately, no one cares what ol’ Ben said. Our ape-brains brains are hardwired for loss aversion, and specifically for short-term loss aversion. As a result we’re easily terrified into surrendering large liberties in exchange for the illusory promise of slightly less insecurity right now.
The result is that over the last twenty years we’ve lost more and more individual freedom in the vain quest for greater security. Yet the things we fear are largely phantoms. The mass media and a world of 24/7 infotainment supported by advertising revenue means that we’re constantly bombarded by sensation du jour:
Everything is going to kill us and those we love! The world is a terrifying unsafe place and we need someone strong to protect us! We need laws and rules and heavily-armed police otherwise we’ll all be stabbed, shot, or exploded in our beds, on the streets, or in our schools and office buildings!
We all imagine that we’re living in a uniquely dangerous time because we never receive any context from the sensationalist media and we appear to have the memory span of fruit flies.
Those terrified of Islamic extremists have forgotten, or never knew about, the Red Brigade or Baader Meinhof or any of the dozen other violent extremist groups that regularly shot, kidnapped, tortured, and bombed European citizens across the 1960s and 1970s. Even the British, who ought to know better, seem to forget that the IRA was a far greater threat to British life than any sad little radicalized Islamist from Brixton.
Cynical politicians have exploited our inability to assess risk. More and more authoritarianism has crept over the world. We live in smaller and smaller mental containers with less and less privacy and we think it’s making us safer. We’re even foolish enough to purchase Orwell Boxes with our own money and install these electronic snoopers in our own homes merely in order to save ourselves the exhausting effort of taking a few steps and pressing a few buttons. Who cares who may be listening in? We’re too busy updating our InstaChat accounts even to think about the implications.
Britain is covered in CCTV cameras, like a gloomier version of Singapore. Government agencies around the world routinely snoop on citizens by using their mobile phones as free tracking and listening devices. And everywhere we turn, it’s becoming more and more difficult to travel around the world. We’re restricting who can go where, and for how long. Often the economic impact of these restrictions is huge while the “safety” benefits are effectively zero.
Why should we live in a world of increasingly impermeable borders? What are we really afraid of?
We’re afraid of the unknown, which is an impossible challenge to ameliorate. We’re afraid of the future, which is a self-defeating posture. We’re afraid of foreigners, which is a hardwired primitive reflex that harms us immensely in our modern inter-connected world.
We rely on global supply chains, the free flow of goods and services, and we benefit from cross-pollination in many areas of life from cuisine to process engineering. Nearly everything we’ve come to depend on relies on open borders and free movement of people and items. We’re choking off this freedom because the media scares us and dull-eyed politicians use this fear to gain votes.
The tsunami of mindless populism that has swept the world over the last few years has been an unmitigated disaster, resulting in enormous self-harm and the imposition of terrible costs on those least able to bear them. We’re so afraid of immigrants who are desperate to escape from the threat of slaughter and rape that we’d rather drown them in the ocean or lock them in concentration camps than let them contribute to our societies.
Which is, frankly, insane and highly immoral. We in the wealthy and increasingly indolent West are eager to sacrifice the starving and terrified so that we can remain fat and open-mouthed on our sofas while we cram McSlop down our throats and gape at infantile entertainment.
We should be ashamed of ourselves.
But we’re not.
Instead we’re voting for blustering morons and incompetents because they are willing to pander to our ignorance and folly. These demagogues implement policies designed to pander to the powerful at the expense of everyone else, and we are generally too ignorant and ill-informed to understand we are voting for self-harm on a monumental scale.
In short, our fearfulness is destroying the very fabric of our societies. We’re suspicious, afraid, eager to be told what to do and have ever-more rules imposed on us.
These rules are, for the most part, pointless and stupid.
When we fly we’re restricted to containers of 100ml or less. Why? Why would an aerosol spray of 125cl be dangerous when the same aerosol in a 100ml cannister is deemed acceptable? Why do Schengen Area countries impose a 90-day per 180 day rule? Would 91 days increase risk of terrorism or illegal immigration? Who decided 90 days made any sense whatsoever?
All of these rules, hundreds of them, are arbitrary. They’re designed to make it look like “someone is doing something about the problem” but in reality they are merely bureaucratic impositions that harm us and in no way help any of us.
The Roman Empire collapsed because it became too complex and too corrupt to function. It’s evident that the USA has reached the same point and apparently many European countries seem eager to follow suit. The abject stupidity of Brexit may foreshadow a further disintegration of the European Union as hard-right “strongmen” like Orban seek ever-greater control over their nations and thus move further and further away from civilized norms.
We can’t solve these problems because they are inherent to representative democracy. All we can do is watch, powerlessly, as our societies crumble slowly around us. We’ll adjust to each loss of privacy and autonomy just as the proverbial frog adjusts to the slowly rising temperature of the water in which it sits. We won’t notice the fact that we’re on a one-way path to a new Dark Ages. In fact, by the time we get there it will seem entirely normal to those still living.
All we can hope for is that many years from now, after all we value has been torn apart, a small but influential number of those who are standing in the ruins will look for more adequate approaches to governance — approaches that consciously take into account our hardwired cognitive limitations — and create structures to mitigate our inherent mental incapacity and propensity for folly.
But between today and this slender hope for the a distant future, darkness looms and none of us alive today will see a brighter tomorrow.