RM Issue #030519
The Iron Cage is our Matrix
National Post, Friday, May 16, 2003
I think I've discovered what the matrix of The Matrix is. The film -- the sequel, The Matrix Reloaded opened yesterday -- is to the 28-49 demo, what Mr. Potter is to pre-teens and hobbits, and Mor-r-rdor-r-r is to adolescents everywhere. As anyone even glancingly familiar with the story-telling art knows, in popular film, symbol is everything. And with the Matrix trilogy (the third is set for November) we have, etched in celluloid, the dominant unconscious paranoias of those not yet slid bloated and flatulent into their dinner-party years.
The 30-something Washowski Brothers, Matrix creators, are publicity-shy comic book fans. They see a future world in which humans believe they live as if it's 1999, but instead are grown in endless fields, fed the liquefied remains of the dead, serving as batteries for the machines who actually run Earth. But a handful of renegade humans have broken out of the Matrix and comb the sewers of the destroyed cities looking for The One, the human capable of defeating the machines' reign. Near the Earth's core huddles the city of Zion, the last vestige of what used to be 20th century life. Says one character, "When the machines are dead, Zion is where the party is going to be."
Because reality is not real, the heroes have developed skills like bending time and space, and can use these skills to defeat Agent Smith, the instrument of the machines, a construct which can turn up in any software and mow down any opposition. One of Agent Smith's skills is to pour the material of the Matrix, a liquid metallic mirror, over people and turn them into a machine. 'It's so cold," says one, as he is inexorably covered.
Compelling stuff, handsomely executed. Enlightening too. For if you were an 18- or 25-year-old, faced with making your way in life, the Matrix is just what you might think you were up against. Despite the hope, post 1989, that the Berlin Wall falling meant the triumph of freedom over statist government, since that time, wholesale and renewed regulation; a proliferating web of government departments; NGOs; and watchdogs oversee any private sector effort. Government, somewhat constrained from raising taxes, from what now represents in our country an average of 45% of GDP (67.5% in PEI), regulates instead, costing each family another $12,000 a year. This despite the fact that case study after historical example proves countries thrive best when government eats up only 20%-30% of GDP, with simple, cost-effective, stripped-down regulatory structures. Ireland, the miracle of the late 20th century, cut taxes from 50.7% of GDP to 31.6%, stripped its regulatory structure and is growing like stink. Japan, once a feared competitor, upped its tax bite from 29.4% in '85 to 37.6%, a 27.9% rise. It founders.
"I'm going to show you the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth," says Morpheus, the magnetic freedom fighter of the Matrix. Sociologist Max Weber saw bureaucracy as the most dangerous and persistent threat to economic and individual liberty and called it the Iron Cage. With its tendency to expand and proliferate (because that expansion gave regulators status), it spreads, well, just like that liquefied mirror substance. "It's so cold!"
"Unfortunately, no one can tell you what the Matrix is. You have to experience it for yourself." The average small business owner, with 10-14 employees spends 31.8 hours a month complying with government-required paperwork. Large companies need entire buildings to house said paperwork and can afford the lawyering the Matrix requires. Small business owners, the cornerstone of Canadian life, are often afraid to travel to Ottawa to complain because they fear retaliation from the all-powerful bureaucrat at home.
"Human beings are a plague upon the planet, and we are the cure," says Agent Smith. Bureaucracy assumes the worst of people all the time, and avoids any risk. The bureaucratization of society was driven by a simple belief, that bureaucracy was the most rational and efficient way of organizing. The lure is that individual and group behaviour can be regulated so that it is task- oriented, and therefore will have a clearly defined, and measurable outcome.
"Most [humans] are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it," advises Morpheus. The explosion of advocacy outfits, NGOs, trade associations and so on point to a deep underlying shift from a creative wealth-creating culture to a sclerotic transfer society. In Canada, official culture eats up more than half the landscape, often promoting, paying and demanding space for, work that is not watched, or books that are sent back in record numbers to their publishers. Official culture is designed to advocate up the parasite economy as a social good, because its dominant funders, therefore its most important audience, are bureaucrats. In other industries, social energies fritter away in compliance, circumvention, lobbying for and against regulations to curb your competitor and not you. Sooner or later, every active creative individual will need a personal lawyer to help him with the overwhelming complexity of highly specific, technical and targeted regulation. "Most people are not ready to be unplugged."
And then there's Neo, who is The One. By the time Neo has accepted his sacred task, he knows what he has to do: "I'm going to show these people a world without rules, controls, borders, without boundaries, where anything is possible." We should not be surprised by a steady flow of reports showing lower long-run rates of economic growth, slower productivity growth and less prosperity up here in the Great Chilly North. There's no Neo on the horizon. Is there?