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Imagine a world where your past is known, and your future is chosen for you. You are a cog in a machine, consigned to play your part in someone else’s game. In the HBO show Westworld, show runners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan challenge viewers to consider that possible future. Westworld is a cautionary tale that illustrates a common idiom: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

In modern America, it is easy to feel that that phrase applies.

In broad strokes, Westworld’s third season shows viewers a society where a computer has vast access to personal data. The computer builds profiles on each person, determines their most likely life path, and defines their future for the betterment of society. While there are many “haves,” the show explores the life of “have nots” in a world where they are pushed toward what a computer has determined to be an inevitable end.

The ends in Westworld are ugly: Suicide, heartbreak, disease, imprisonment. If the computer deems you to be an “outlier” to the centrally controlled system, you don’t get help or opportunity. In fact, the system will push you to the end it deems appropriate.

A society that allows the powerful few to determine the future of the outliers was abhorrent to America’s founding fathers. They fought and won a war over it and they left us many words of warning:

“I agree to this Constitution … and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” 

– Franklin

“The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create … a real despotism.”

– Washington

“If Congress can employ money indefinitely, for the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every state, county, and parish, and pay them out of the public treasury, they may take into their own hands the education of children, the establishing in like manner schools throughout the union, they may assume the provision of the poor…. Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.”

– Madison

The dangers of a “despotic state” are on full display in Westworld: A tyrant who wants to recast the world in his own image, a bureaucracy surrounding him to make it a reality, the imprisonment and degradation of outliers in the system, and the ever-present threat of retribution for anyone who would stand in the way of this imagined better world.

Truth is at least as strange as fiction; As we see the growing threats to American freedoms, the parallels between this television show and our lives are too obvious to ignore. Like Nolan and Joy’s fictional world our country has seen the rise of tyrants. Not just a single name but a growing list of leaders in the executivelegislative, and judicial branches who have expanded under the color of the law their own authority while eroding the rights of the people. Elected officials are enriching themselves while hanging the rest of us out to dry.

Bureaucrats have birthed state run facial recognition, cell phone tracking, and limits on free speech. Even “shall not be infringed” has been warped to the convenience of those in power. Can you name one thing you can do that is not illegal, taxed, licensed, or subject to fees?

America houses 22% of the worlds prisoners and bears the shame of having the highest incarceration in the world. There are so many federal crimes on the books that congress declared that the task of providing an accounting of all federal crimes was impossible because they “lack the manpower and resources to accomplish the task.”

A computer like the one described in Westworld, able to predict and control human behavior, is not beyond belief. Edward Snowden warned us of the NSA’s flagrant disregard for our right to privacy in 2013. The government called him a criminal. They convinced many Americans to believe that claim. In 2020 he is still a fugitive from the United States government. Unlike the real world Westworld casts truth teller, in their story a woman named Dolores, as a hero, a liberator, and a role model.

In America we created a republic based in freedom but were warned from the first day of its creation that it would only be ours if we could keep it. The American track record of custodianship is shameful. Time and again citizens have allowed the power of the people to be repackaged and consolidated into a few powerful hands.

In the real world, defining the human experience should not be a task reserved for a small elite or centralized power. Those are one and the same. People deserve to fight for a better future regardless of what role would be convenient for the powerful few. America was not built as a caste system. But we are also not guaranteed success. We are given opportunity, and a chance to build a better life than the generation before.

That Americans start from unequal beginnings is often the result of government interference. Centralized power cannot solve this problem. Government’s ability to give special favors and treatment, to pit citizens against each other is the disease, not the cure.

Do we only get a “bubble of agency?” Do we only get to experience free will in the few moments between what has been and what has been preordained? No – all people deserve more.

Those who claim to know what is best for you are not just leaders, they are oligarchs and tyrants. Biden and Trump both claim to know what is best for you. But it’s hard to see my block from the White House. It wouldn’t matter so much who was in Washington if power rested in our communities.

Crafting a world in one person’s perfect image is problematic. That world will always be imperfect in someone else’s eyes. Despots, tyrants, and crowns have no place in a free world.

A world filled with free people is not chaos. It is a world full of people whose goals and lives are full of opportunity instead of artificial limits. Even at its worst, freedom is still better than slavery. As Joy and Nolan put it in Westworld: “I would rather live in chaos, than be controlled by you.”

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Categories: Opinion