Note: Although this post is my longest so far, 1500 words is not nearly enough to form a full argument on a topic as big as free will. I’m also not a philosopher so this post is very much outside my area of expertise. I don’t expect the words here to convince anybody, but they are what I believe and I hope they give some idea of the philosophy that drives much of my thinking on economics and politics.
I used to believe in free will. In fact, I hardly considered the idea that there was any other possibility. Success, I thought, was built entirely on making good choices, failure on making poor ones. And perhaps it was because I had been relatively successful that I was so averse to believing those choices came from anything other than my own free will. I chose to work hard, chose to stay out of trouble, chose to be respectful to others. Those choices led to good grades, good relationships, and a good life. Most importantly, those choices were mine.
Nobody can say I’ve never changed my mind.
“I don’t believe in free will.” I don’t remember how the conversation got to that point, but I do remember my feeling of disbelief when I heard a friend say those words at dinner one night in the Umass dining hall. My initial thought was to throw my fork at him, to flip over my plate of food, to do something so unpredictable that he would be forced to admit that the only explanation was that I did it of my own free will. Of course, I didn’t do any of those things. I did spend the next hour arguing with him and several hours after that furiously googling to find evidence that free will was real. What I found instead was that Einstein believed “everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control” and that neuroscience has offered evidence that free will is nothing but an illusion. The debate over free will vs determinism is complex and has not been settled, but in reading the various arguments, I consistently found myself drawn more to those that opposed free will. It was time to admit I was wrong.
Think about anything you’ve ever done, any choice you’ve ever made. Now try to think about the reason that you made the decision in the way that you did. I can’t think of any action I’ve ever taken that wasn’t fully shaped by my past experiences. For me, free will means that if I could repeat the exact same situation twice, I would make a different choice each time. But why would that be? The choices I make are the ones I believe to be optimal (broadly defined) at any given point in time and what I believe to be optimal can only come from what I have learned in the past. I was lucky enough to be born into a stable family in the richest country in the world. If I were an orphan growing up in inner-city Boston, would I be where I am today? Unlikely. If I were born in Kenya? Not a chance. The opposite thought experiment is also revealing. If somebody else lived through my life in exactly the same way I have until this point, wouldn’t they just be me? Why would they make any choice differently from the ones I make?
Take away all the people you’ve met in your life. Take away all of the books you’ve ever read, all the movies you’ve ever seen, all the websites you’ve ever visited. Take away your genetics. You didn’t have control over any of those things, so they can’t be the result of your free will. But without them, what is left? Are you anything more than everything you have ever experienced? I’m not so sure.
Imagine that you could see your future, not only the one that actually occurs, but every possible future based on every possible action you could ever take. In this case, it should be clear that there is only one set of choices that make sense, the ones that lead to the best life (again defining best in the broadest possible way – I am not saying that people have to be “rational” in the usual economic sense of the word). Adding uncertainty complicates the problem, but it doesn’t change the basic principle. Every decision has to have a reason for being made, regardless of whether that reason is based on a complicated calculation, a simple heuristic, or pure instinct. If I knew everything about you, from your memories to your genetics, from your predictions of the future to your emotional state, I claim that I would have enough information to predict exactly what you would do next because I would be able to observe exactly the thought process that led you to make the decision.
Although determinism seems like a scary idea – your path is already set before you make your choice – the alternative is actually worse. There is only one way out I can see, one hope for “free will,” and that’s pure randomness. Again consider the situation where you live the same life in the exact same way up to a decision point. There are only two options. Either you make the same decision each time, which is then by definition a decision that could be predicted given full information, or you make a different decision given the same circumstances, which means there must be randomness involved. It can’t be randomness like flipping a coin – knowing the speed at which your thumb moves, the air resistance, the weight of the coin, and every other factor means the result is fully determined before the coin lands. Quantum mechanics appears to offer the possibility of true randomness, where only the probabilities of an event can ever be predicted, and some have used this phenomenon as an argument against determinism. But decisions being driven by pure randomness does not really support free will either, at least not in the way most people would think about it. In this version of the story, your path may not be fully determined, but now it’s completely random. Either way, your choices have nothing to do with you.
Now you might be a bit confused. The previous argument is starting to sound something like “you didn’t build that,” a rallying cry for democrats like Obama and Elizabeth Warren to justify taxing the rich. And there is some logic to that connection. If you aren’t the source of your own actions, why should you be responsible for their consequences? Sure, most rich people worked pretty hard to make their money, but even that hard work only came because they had good influences pushing them in the right direction. Other individuals and institutions (yes, even the government) deserve much of the credit for their success and it therefore seems natural to redistribute some of the rewards. So how do I reconcile determinism with libertarianism? Why is my blog dedicated to Hayek rather than Karl Marx?
It’s all about incentives.
If people’s choices are entirely determined by outside forces, then the institutions and laws that define the environment in which they live become especially important. Without free will, taxing the rich is no longer a question of fairness, but without the reward, why should an entrepreneur take the risks required to start a new business? Why should a manager put in the work required to make that business run well? Why should a worker do any more than the bare minimum to avoid getting fired? Conceding that all people had help in achieving success is not an argument against allowing them to keep all of the benefits of that success, because those benefits are themselves one of the most important factors in pushing them to make good decisions.
In other words, I’m not a libertarian because it’s right. I’m a libertarian because it works. Free will doesn’t exist, but acting as if it does ensures that incentives push people to act in ways most would consider desirable.
So why should we care? If we are better off pretending free will exists even if it doesn’t, why bother with this discussion at all? I think it has to do with perspective. Next time somebody does something you disagree with, remember that they come from a very different place than you do. They didn’t have your parents, your teachers, or your friends and therefore they could never have developed the same set of values you have. It doesn’t excuse immoral actions, but it does shift the blame. Rather than hating people that do bad things, rather than strive for vengeance, or for harsh punishments, the goal should always be to change the environment that caused those actions in the first place.
But more importantly, rejecting free will can give you a better perspective on your own life. Every person’s life will be filled with success and failure, and it’s easy to take these results personally, to admire your own achievements and blame yourself for your flaws. These feelings are important – they drive you to become a better person. But I’ve found that recognizing the influence others have had on your life can remind you to never get too high or low. When you succeed, stay humble. And when you fail, remember that it’s not your fault.