The Illusion Of Free Choice

There is a lot of discussion in economics and society over the idea of choice. This is the notion that we can choose the life we want to live. Libertarians in particular claim that people’s situations are a result of their choices. However this is an illusion. We are not individuals in a vacuum choosing from a menu. Rather almost all our decisions are based upon our circumstances. We do not have free will in the sense of being able to freely choose our life.

I am currently a university student, but this is not solely from choice. I come from a middle class background where attending university is practically mandatory. It is assumed that everyone will continue onto university just as everyone continues onto secondary school after primary. I gave no thought to whether or not I would attend university, it was merely a question of which one. If I had been born into a working class family I would be far less likely to go to university. Not because I would freely choose not to go but because my circumstances would be different. Not many working class families can afford to send their children to university, especially not if it involves moving out. Likewise there is different culture. Many working class people feel that university is not the place for them, they don’t belong there. While I am confident at university that is down more to my circumstances than my personality.

I am a pacifist, but only because my circumstances allow. If I was attacked I would have to resort to violence. I have never been wronged or provoked enough to resort to violence. So the fact I’m not a violent person has more to do with the fact I life in a peaceful environment than any choice I made. My objection to war is a luxury my circumstances allow me. If I was around during the Second World War, I probably would have ended up in the army. If I had been born in Germany I would probably have been in the German army. So while I choose to be a pacifist, this is merely because of the times I live in. Had I been born in almost any other era in human history, I would probably be killing people.

I consider myself quite honest and have never stolen anything. But is this because of my integrity or because I come from a privileged background that made stealing unnecessary? I was always well-fed and well-clothed, and while I didn’t get everything I wanted, I was never deprived. I would never steal even a loaf of bread, but what if I was starving? If I was desperately sick would I steal to pay for the medicine? Is integrity a luxury only some can afford?Does the starving man who steals to feed his family have any choice? People all over the world are constantly being forced to do things they have no choice in, is that the exception or the norm? If you must study to get a job can you say you chose to? Where is the choice in doing a job you hate to support yourself? What if the job is illegal?

It is often commented on the fact that poor people spend disproportionately more money on alcohol and cigarettes. Many use this as proof that they “chose” to be poor and waste their money. However, it is well known among psychologists that poor people suffer from far higher levels of stress. Working class people suffer stress not only from poor paying jobs but also from a lack of control over their work and lives (level of control is a crucial determinate of stress). If I was that stressed I would need a drink and a smoke too.

What about those with addictions? How much choice do they have? If someone is forced beyond their will to drink, can it be said they have made a choice? But alcoholism and drug addiction is only the most extreme example of addiction. You can become addicted to almost anything, in fact its common among students to be addicted to the internet. In a way we are all addicted to something in varying degrees. Left to my own devices I would drink three cups of tea a day. Is that choice or a minor addiction? Where does advertising and peer pressure fit in? Could it be argued that they attempt to tamper with our exercise choice? If we are deeply influenced by our surrounding culture can we ever claim to have made a free choice?

(I realise that I am straying into the area of  philosophical debates on free will, an area I am familiar with so I’ll stop now)

Let me be clear, I don’t want to completely remove individual responsibility or claim we have no control over our actions. Rather I want to put individual responsibility in its place. It is only part of the picture and depending on the case, only a small part. When I see a prisoner or the homeless, I don’t jump to blame them for their “choices”. I know that their circumstances are completely different to mine. Had I been in their place, I would probably end in the same position. Their choices were severely limited by their circumstance and it is only an illusion to claim they chose this life. When I see them, I don’t judge but rather think, “There but for the luck of life go I.”

12 thoughts on “The Illusion Of Free Choice”

  1. Government is subject to all of the same forces and phenomena described in this article as the rest of society is. Why? Because government consists only of more humans, fundamentally similar to everyone else. To think that the government is the solution to problems inherent in the human condition is to ascribe it with supernatural powers.

    1. This post doesn’t necessarily deal with the role of the government. However I will say that the government is not comprised of people “fundamentally similar to everyone else”. In fact the whole point of the government is that is provides services other people cannot. A police officer has better knowledge of the law than the average person and is also better at apprehending criminals. That’s the whole point.

      Likewise the reason we go to hospitals is beacause the people there are better than us at diagnosing and curing medical problems. This is not ascribing them with supernatural powers but rather acknowledging the fact that they can specialise.

      I could never look at food and determine whether it is healthy or not or if it contains a hidden disease. However, the government can hire a specialist who is trained in food safety. Again this is not supernatural powers but rather training and specialisation.

      But all of this is a separate point to the point of this post.

      1. Well, you did say that libertarians are particularly prone to this illusion. I inferred that you consider the uncovering of this illusion to weaken the arguments against government intervention.

        I do feel justified in the accusation I made, since your latest comment here again ascribes supernatural powers to government. You describe police, medical workers and inspectors as having specialist skills, when there is no reason to believe that needed specialist skills would not arise without government intervention. It might not occur in precisely the form which you would prefer that it would occurred, but the division of labour would continue to advance nevertheless.

        Indeed, the division of labour – the specialisation of different people into different areas of expertise – is something which is only made possible by exchange. Without the ability to exchange, we would each have to fend for ourselves. The freedom to trade with each other means that we can instead devote ourselves to take care of others, secure in the knowledge that they will take care of our needs in return.

        I do fully agree with you that this is not directly relevant to most of the points made in your article (another very nice article, by the way). But your opening paragraph did suggest that your arguments would weaken the case for libertarianism, and that’s where I think you’re wrong. Your arguments would make an excellent case against Objectivism, but that is a separate matter 🙂

        1. Again and again we keep coming back to the idea that I believe the government has superpowers. How is hiring a scientist to examine the safety of food, claiming superpowers? This could be done by the private sector but there are problems of standardisation and perverse incentives. For example, I have a friend who works in an accounting firm and she told me that her company is hired with the implicit agreement that it provides the accounts the company wants. If it doesn’t it won’t be rehired. There is no market for damaging news about your company so no private business will hire inspectors unless it will benefit their balance sheet.

          1. I understand what you are saying, and I know that we’ve been over this ground before so I won’t belabour it. At this point, I would merely point out that if society as a whole doesn’t want to hire as many food inspectors as you think it should, then it would seem fair to me to assume that most people do not value food safety so much as you think they should. Resources are scarce and not all of them can be allocated to food safety, of course. In this case, the type of supernatural power which you are ascribing to the government (or perhaps even to yourself) is the knowledge, in the absence of any relevant price signals, of how much of society’s resources should be devoted to ensuring food safety. But it is impossible to have such knowledge. As I said regarding the question of free will, it is impossible for the government to escape the human condition. It has no easy answers to the questions which society faces.

            1. Of course it is impossible to estimate the benefit of food inspectors, especially as their work is mainly preventative. This is why the free market and the price signal cannot incorporate this and therefore the government has to take over the function. Not because they know more than consumers (which they may or may not) but because consumers cannot calculate the risk themselves. As everyone agrees that not getting poisoned is a good thing consumers are willing to let the government enforce safety regulations so that whatever choice consumers make they won’t die, which gives them one less thing to worry about. If they don’t want food inspectors then they can vote for the libertarian party.

              In a nutshell, uncertainty causes the market to break down and therefore anything that removes uncertainty (usually the government) will benefit everyone.

              1. That sounds reasonable to have inspections for safety, and I’d agree that the government should be responsible for prosecuting a restaurant that negligently serves tainted meat (as that would be construed as an instance of fraud), for example.

                In practice, though, what I find is that established businesses often favor government controls like food safety as these controls serve as a hurdle to upstart competitors and firms can protect themselves from tort claims by meeting some standard that the people of a shared bureaucratic culture were instrumental in establishing.

                I think there is a reasonable compromise though. We could have firms that were completely unlicensed by the government operate so long as they made it plainly obvious that their products were not approved by the government. They may have some private certification instead, but they couldn’t make any claims to being approved by the government. They would still be subject to laws against fraud though.

  2. You speak the truth!

    Some people say, “There but for the grace of God go I”, others (such as Phil Ochs) say, “There but for fortune go you or I”. I’m not satisfied with either of these formulas. When I see someone in difficult circumstances I generally assume that they are suffering from a confluence of factors — most of which are beyond their control. But I don’t blame the problem on the insufficiencies of God’s grace, nor am I willing to throw my hands up into the air and blame ‘pure chance’.

    I say, “There but for the fact that I didn’t love and support this person the way I was loved and supported go I.”

    I do believe in free will inasmuch as I believe that human behavior is controlled by human will — but I don’t believe that YOUR behavior is 100% controlled by YOUR will. I would assign you less of the blame for your bad behavior and less of the credit for your good behavior than most people would. On the other hand, though, I assign you MORE of the blame for other people’s bad behavior and MORE of the credit for other people’s good behavior than you’re accustomed to receiving.

    You’re responsible for the exercise of your own free will; but it isn’t possible to judge how well you’ve exercised your free will by simply examining your behavior. The effects of your free will are — more often than not — made evident by the behavior of those you are able to influence, or those who depend on you in one way or another.

    And we are far, far more dependent upon each other than most of us dare to admit.


  3. The moment before you will something, there was something that made you will it. Our actions are 100% tethered to the circumstances we face.

  4. I assume instead you’re referring by choice to the subjective qualia that we experience as our individual choice (which in turn are an illusion, as per neuroscience).

    You’re right that most people follow the major modes of the statistics of their environment. People being social will tend to row in the same direction. However there’s really nothing to stop someone from arbitrarily picking an alternate algorithm from most people, and following that, so long as it doesn’t cause them to end up dead or imprisoned. Statistics will place subtle incentives such as advertising, peer pressure, etc, but there is not hard barrier that will stop one, it’s just a soft statistical activation energy barrier.

    Thus, a better interpretation of someone in a bad situation is, “if I had similar background to them I would likely have come to their outcome, unless I had adhered to some principle or made a strenuous effort to avoid said outcome.”

    A good example is most people by default will become employees and won’t become particularly wealthy. Those who put a great deal of effort into business and entrepreneurship for the purpose of becoming wealthy, will likely become so. That doesn’t argue that wealth is even particularly useful (the science of happiness would argue otherwise), it’s just an example that most people will follow the default river direction unless they make some strong decision to row against that direction.

    My view is that most people since the 1950s have had most of their material needs taken care of, so there’s not really anything else left to do except one’s own enjoyment. However instead of pursuing their own enjoyment, most peoples’ wills instead became subordinated by advertising because businesses still felt the need to make more and more profits, despite it not being necessary. So escaping the “default path”, is a very valuable philosophical exercise, because it reveals much of this world’s motivators or incentives, to be only complicated and artificial mental controls for the purposes of otherwise avoiding social boredom. A rational person I suppose would take a different path which would involve passive happiness such as enjoyment of nature. Or career happiness that could involve identifying positive sum games and working on them at critical points of improvement. Perhaps either is better than randomly milling around, but ultimately the value judgment is subjective.

    A statistical argument that people do not exercise their free choice is in my opinion a pretty poor proxy for the (apparent?) underlying motivation of increasing government scope. My main counterargument is that arguing about politics does not statistically impact your life for the positive. In fact, most energy spent on politics is wasted, since it is a zero or negative sum game, and most voting is irrational in the framework of game theory because the number of votes should fall until an individual has likelihood to sway an election (or voting incentives are provided). If you take into account all the negative emotions people generate from politics then it becomes even more irrational to even discuss it.

  5. Libertarians in particular claim that people’s situations are a result of their choices.

    Do they? The libertarians I am familiar with believe that we are far less free than is conventionally thought.

    If you meant metaphysical libertarianism (as opposed political libertarianism), I don’t know that metaphysical libertarians (as metaphysical libertarians) have a clear view one way or the other.

    1. The ones I’ve met claim that people are poor because of their choices, through choosing not to stay in school or not working hard. Or those without health insurance simply choose not to buy some. Likewise rich people are rich because they choose to work hard etc. The political libertarians I’ve met place a heavy emphasis on choice.

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