The scope of free will

I was debating the issue of anarchy and was directed to this article (pdf) by Prof. Moshe Kroy which highlights some fundamental differences between Rand’s philosophy and Rothbard’s including the scope of free will.

According to Rand’s theory of human freedom, man’s only fundamental freedom, the sole domain in which he is capable of being a “first cause”, the only realm where he can exercise absolutely unpre-determined choice, is his own consciousness. Man’s basic choice is between identifying the facts of reality through an act of consciousness, and evading the knowledge of these facts. This freedom does not extend to man’s decisions and actions: Your decisions and actions are the necessary product of your values and premises, Rand claims.

Rothbard’s theory of man, however, assumes another dimension of freedom in man: the freedom to make decisions, to originate action. For Rothbard values, and their hierarchy, are not the product of perception alone, though, clearly, his writing implies that awareness of the facts is highly relevant to your choice of values.

In Rand’s words (also look at the related concept of focus)

That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.

In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.

Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.”
(Emphasis mine)

I am not quoting Rothbard because I have not read his works. Aristotle The Geek has directed me to this article by Rothbard but the focus of that article is more on refuting determinism than the scope of free will.

How does one decide which theory is correct? The existence of a choice to focus or not (ranging from no focus to full focus) is immediately available to introspection. When I am solving a difficult problem, I am consciously choosing to be fully focused. When I try to go to sleep, I consciously suspend my focus. But does free will extend beyond that? Am I free to choose the object of my focus or the subject of my thoughts? Am I free to choose the outcome of my thoughts? I don’t think so.

Firstly, there are occasions when I get distracted. This is an indication – though not a proof – that I lack control over the object of my focus. There are occasions when I want to stop thinking about something but cannot. This is an indication – again not a proof – that I lack control over the subject of my thoughts. There exist such things as mental habits and character. These concepts would surely be meaningless if I were free to choose the outcome of my thoughts.

Secondly (and less importantly), one can apply Occam’s razor. The freedom of choice to focus is necessary to explain human behavior. It is also sufficient. Why assume a greater freedom without evidence – especially when free will sits uncomfortably with known physical theories? And until we discover physical theories that can explain free will, I don’t think this issue can be proved either way.

On these grounds, I agree with Rand’s position.

How is this relevant to anarchy? I will deal with that in a separate post.

Democracy and anarchism

Aristotle The Geek has written a partial response to the debate on my previous post. He writes

What is an “unfree” market? Let me ask the question the other way round – what is a “free” market? It is a market in which the State does not interfere (the only “interference” would be of the enforcement of contracts kind). Political/ economic freedom is always defined in terms of the State, not in terms of non-State actors. The latter don’t lay any claim to morality when they engage in fraud, theft, murder, confinement etc. It is the State which does that. So, an “unfree” market would be one with State interference.

At this point I would ask “What is the State?” Ayn Rand defines government (which I will use interchangeably with State) as
A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area. (emphasis in original)

I will modify it to make one aspect of it more explicit
A government is an institution whose exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area is generally accepted.

Compare that to a modern democracy. Modern democracies are characterized by the lack of acceptance of any fundamental rule for social conduct. Any rule or law (no matter how fundamental) passed by a legislature may be repealed, completely modified or contradicted in its next session. Read this very illuminating article about how Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in a famous case has served to create a legal orthodoxy that believes that the American constitution does not contain any fundamental principle. In a modern democracy, there is no inviolate fundamental principle that the state or its members are bound by. This means that the modern state lacks an identity. The state is a collective and the identity of a collective is determined by the identity of its constituents. But the modern democratic state is highly disparate. The only thing that is generally accepted is that there are no fixed rules.

The state in a modern democracy is an ever-changing group of men who enforce certain ever-changing rules of social conduct in a given geographical area.

This is about as close to anarchism as I think (and hope) we will ever get. Anarcho-capitalists such as Rothbard (based on some quotes by ATG) write of competing (while also cooperating with each other) private defence agencies. If these competing-yet-cooperating private agencies bind themselves by fundamental principles and refuse to allow other private agencies that do not accept those principles, then they together form an entity which is remarkably similar to a state. If they do not bind themselves by any fundamental principles but still cooperate among themselves, then they are remarkably similar to a modern democracy – a disparate set of power wielders that manages to avoid open warfare.

The only difference between anarchism and modern democracy is the issue of the size of government. But the size of the government is an inessential characteristic. What is essential is the principles that make up its identity. Modern democracies are constantly increasing the size of government and at the same time destroying its identity. But no entity can last long without an identity, especially large ones. A large government devoid of any fundamental identity is just waiting for some autocratic group to seize it (something that seems to be beginning in the U.S.). Anarchists want to do away with government altogether. But that is something that can never happen. Anarchy must degenerate into smaller states (waiting to be conquered by a more powerful state intent on conquest) or into a democracy for the reasons in the paragraph above.

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