Free Will: Getting the Economics Right

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921; Philosophical Investigations, 1953] famously argued for the analytical necessity of “getting the grammar right.” By his lights, the inadequacy of language for representing ethical, aesthetic, and metaphysical concepts unavoidably creates philosophical pseudo-problems; genuine problems were said to be scientific rather than philosophical. Philosophy’s task, therefore, is to expose meaningless nonsense. Problems that cannot be resolved linguistically were deemed to be intrinsically insoluble, and so should be abandoned.

Consider now that getting the economics right can be as consequential for analytical philosophy as parsing language; note for example how the logic of public choice economics clarifies deep problems in political philosophy. Public choice represents a testable behavioral science that incorporates both the self-interest of individuals who create philosophical problems and the pragmatic “cash value” that those problems entail.

Cracking the longstanding puzzle of “free will” demonstrates economics’ value as a complement to philosophy.

Writing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, philosopher Timothy O’Connor describes free will as “a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” Philosopher John Searle [Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power, 2007, 11; 37] explains the hitch: “The problem of free will, in short, is how can such a thing exist? How can there exist genuinely free actions in a world where all events, at least at the macro level, apparently have causally sufficient antecedent conditions? ... we are nowhere remotely near to having a solution. ... The persistence of the traditional free will problem in philosophy seems to me something of a scandal. After all these centuries of writing about free will, it does not seem to me that we have made very much progress.”

Free will is the polar opposite of determinism. Philosophers who cleave to either system are labeled “incompatibilists,” as are “libertarians” who argue that emergent, conscious, and semi-autonomous mental processes resembling Freud’s ego and id place “us” rather than our physical brains in charge. By comparison, philosophers who believe that free will and determinism are reconcilable are labeled “compatibilists”; Daniel Dennett [Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (2015), pp. 21; 184] argues that “[w]e can have free will and science too ... as a natural product of our biological endowment, extended and enhanced by our initiation into society.” Neuroscientists disagree: Michael Gazzaniga [Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (2011, 129)] concludes that free will is “an idea that arose before we knew all this stuff about how the brain works, and now we should get rid of it.” Apologists [Dan Barker, Free Will Explained: How Science and Philosophy Converge to Create a Beautiful Illusion (2018)] in turn characterize free will as a “beautiful illusion”; a social rather than a scientific truth that yields moral and spiritual benefits.

The grammar of this debate bleeds across academic disciplines, affecting economics along the way. Compatibilistic microtheory claims that individuals are free to choose, and also that their choices are determined by relative prices [see Gary Becker and George Stigler, “De Gustibus non est Disputandum.” American Economic Review 67: 76–90 (1977)]. The logic of public choice economics reconciles these philosophical, scientific, and methodological claims by focusing upon the self-interest of the individuals who introduced, expanded, and wielded the free will concept as a privately profitable artifice for achieving mischievous social outcomes.

The free will concept has a long and checkered history: Plato introduced it in his Republic dialog as a preventable source of evil; Augustine and Aquinas offered it as partial proof of God’s existence and significance; Cross and Crown invoked it for centuries to justify feudal, authoritarian, and totalitarian social structures. Plato and the early Church fathers are presumed to have been well-intentioned men of intellectual integrity. However, they also were entrepreneurial actors whose passions and self interests committed them to the rightness of their private causes; none was as indifferent to competing alternatives as he professed to be. Plato touted the disinterested virtue of philosopher-kings, yet his political ambitions in Athens and Syracuse belied his commitment to this ideal form. Augustine and Aquinas argued in God’s name for the necessity of comprehensive Church authority over the lives of ordinary individuals, yet Lord Acton correctly noted the corrupting effect that absolute power had upon the papacy. In short, the “beautiful illusion” of free will historically served private interests more efficiently than it furthered either the common good or the pursuit of truth.

The free will concept was introduced and furthered as an expedient justification for political action. It cannot be analyzed meaningfully without first getting the economics right. Philosophy’s failure to resolve the problem merely by getting the grammar right is unsurprising by this light.

[This post draws from the author’s “Free Will: Hail and Farewell” in Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 27 (2019), 98-124.]

James A. Montanye is a retired consulting economist in Falls Church, VA.
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