Garett Jones  

The Hagel Nomination: Can Free Will Change The Equilibrium?

IGM on High-Skilled Immigratio... Me at Students for Liberty 201...
The Wall Street Journal's Mary Kissel tweets

Blocking Hagel sets a bad precedent & lets Obama label the GOP obstructionist. And what happens when the Rs take back the White House?
[More on the Hagel non-filibuster here]

Do precedents matter? Does my behavior today shape the future actions of others?  

Sure, there are plenty of situations where a decision today causes, shapes the future: If I eat the last coconut on the deserted island I'm done eating coconuts.  But does my random act of kindness generate future acts of kindness?  Does today's cruelty cause future cruelty?  

Kissel's idea, widely believed, is a story of multiple equilibria where one can get to a better long- term equilibrium if only we would, today, use our free will for good rather than evil.  

I suspect that the more likely reason that cruelty predicts cruelty and kindness kindness is because the outcomes--cruel or kind--are driven by deeper causes.  Deeper causes that, in the case of politics, we can sum up under the heading "The Internet". The political splintering caused by the rise of social media means that politicians face a new set of forces shaping their behavior, forces likely to be with us for a long time.  Those forces pushes politicians to new equilibrium behavior, with less (if any) room for individual acts of kindness to shape the future.  

Think of it this way: In a normal competitive market, if a supplier one week decides to be "nice" and cut her price, we all know that has no long-term effect on the market.  Her week of kindness means she sells a lot, but after her one-person jubilee the market goes back to the normal supply and demand equilibrium.  Her kindness gets remembered on a blog or two but is forgotten by the invisible hand.  

Do you think the actions of elite politicians are driven by forces as strong, as deterministic, as in a competitive market?  If so, then a week of kindness toward Chuck Hagel will have no effect on the political system. 

I'm no great believer in free will--the neuroscientific evidence for it isn't great--but even if I were, I'd still have to wonder whether individual acts of choice can drive long-term outcomes.  In competitive markets and perhaps in politics, the answer is no.  

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CATEGORIES: Public Goods

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Ted Levy writes:

"I'm no great believer in free will--the neuroscientific evidence for it isn't great--"

That is to say, you've evaluated the evidence against free will, you've considered the pros and cons, you've assessed whether there is sufficient or insufficient reason to believe it, and you've made your choice...and this should be dispositive, since had the evidence been more in free will's favor you would have made a different choice.

Aaron Zierman writes:

What is not being taken into account here is the economics of precedent. There are undeniable long term effects when a new precedent is set. In the Hagel scenario, will a filibuster make it easier for cabinet appointments to be filibustered in the future? Most likely. The simple fact is that once something has been done, it can easily become the standard.

Bostonian writes:

"I'd still have to wonder whether individual acts of choice can drive long-term outcomes."

John Roberts could have thrown out Obamacare, but he chose not to. One man can make a huge difference.

Curt writes:

I agree with the point that the internet is a powerful force which greatly influences political decisions.

I also agree with the notion that precedents are important.

In this situation it's not so much a matter of individuals making decisions to be 'mean' or 'kind' but rather a group political decision, driven by a bunch of factors.

Laura writes:

While what is happening in the Senate looks like a filibuster, it isn't actually one.

There is genuine debate and ongoing investigation here. So this isn't purely a blocking move. Rand Paul and others genuinely believe they will sway the body.

Cloture is a vote of judgement by the Senate as to whether the discussion going on is real or just a blocking maneuver. If it is a blocking maneuver it is a filibuster. This is why cloture requires positive action rather requiring those who want more time to take positive action. They may be few, and cloture is an attempt to roll them by force. That's why it takes sixty votes.

Now, whether the senate votes to end debate or not is not enough to tell you whether there was genuine debate in progress or if the hold was purely a blocking move. This is because the two parties insist on discipline from their members on procedural questions.

Arthur_500 writes:

Influences may be strong but we allegedly elect political leaders. Leadership needs to balance their influences and continue to lead.

In my State we had a republican congressman who was lambasted at home for not signing on to Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. He responded very publicly stating that the Contract was not good for our State and no one should ever dare say he was not a good republican.

Partisian politics are not the issue here. My point is that here was a true leader who stood up to the influences and made a call he could stand by. Many came to respect him for that regardless of their political persuasion.

The truth is that we have precious few leaders in elected office. Most of them are like tumbleweeds blowing in the wind - no roots, no direction.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Garett Jones,
I'm no great believer in free will
And you're blogging because?

Greg G writes:

"And you're blogging because?"

In a deterministic world he's blogging because that was his fate. You really can't ask a believer in determinism to show good faith by performing an act of free will.

Whether or not we live in a world with free will or determinism there is no debate about the fact that we live in a world where people often behave in ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs.

MingoV writes:

Ms. Kissel ignores the Constitution and its "advice and consent" Appointments Clause. Apparently, Ms. Kissel believes that supporting Obama's (poor) choice is more important than persuading Obama to choose a Secretary of Defense who is, at a minimum, neutral towards Israel.

The free will/free choice issue is not relevant in this situation. Presidents never had free will in regard to major appointments. If Obama didn't want such constitutional limitations (that he twice swore to uphold), then he should not have run for president. It's like someone volunteering for the Army and complaining because he doesn't have the freedom to bring his girlfriend into the barracks.

joshua writes:

Of course filibusters can set precedents - they already have! Didn't D's filibuster some assorted Bush nominees? Or are the specific circumstances different enough that pundits can claim this filibuster is not a reaction to those ones but future filibusters would be a reaction to this one?

philemon writes:

I'm no great believer in free will--the neuroscientific evidence for it isn't great--but even if I were, I'd still have to wonder whether individual acts of choice can drive long-term outcomes. In competitive markets and perhaps in politics, the answer is no.

1. Even in a deterministic universe, previous actions are causally connected with and thus drive later outcomes. Whether the will is 'free' in a way that requires a non-deterministic universe, or is a separate issue. The same for the neuroscientific case against free will--surely you not saying that according to neuroscience, an agent's action at t1 is not causally connected with the outcome of that action at t2?

2. If the question is whether a singular individual act at t1 can drive some long term outcome at t2, then answer is obviously--very often not. And this is the same whether the universe is deterministic or not, whether free will exists or not. Commonsense tells us that, often enough, an individual's action won't make a difference. (Think of the usual reason against bothering to vote.)

3. If the question is whether individual acts at t1 can drive some long term outcome at t2, then, the answer is: Sure, why not? One supplier cutting her prices will not make a difference to the market as a whole. But one scenario in which there is a shift in the market as a whole just is the situation in which some critical mass of suppliers each (individually) adjusting their prices--for whatever reason, free will or not.

Isn't this just a classic Re-iterated Prisoners' Dilemma? According to Axelrod, the best strategy is Tit for Tat.

Adam writes:

Assuming free will does not exist, the idea of free will still has significant bearing on social outcomes. For example, imagine a society in which everybody is taught from birth that freewill does not exist. Also imagine that everyone believes this. All members of this society would view their actions has having no bearing on outcomes, so the incentive to act would be completely eliminated. Action may still occur due to physiological reflex, but never due to a conscious will to alleviate uneasiness. The productivity of this society would fall to never before seen lows. We have already seen a natural experiment of this kind in the form of North and South Korea. In the former,citizens' incentive to act is very low because, free will or not, they can't change outcomes. The conclusion is that even if people respond on a subconscious level prior to conscious action, we should be very careful in ridding ourselves of the idea of free will, or the ability to affect outcomes.

Richard writes:

I don't understand Henderson's point. What does free will have to do with whether someone is blogging? People would blog in a deterministic universe, I suppose.

Tracy W writes:

Do you think the actions of elite politicians are driven by forces as strong, as deterministic, as in a competitive market?

No. Most noticeably, in a competitive market, you can always turn around and buy from another provider. In a democracy, you get a choice once every few years, and typically only an effective choice between 2 or 3 people, as in there's no chance that the others will get enough votes to win. That's not a competitive market.

I keep finding myself contemplating the counter-factual, if George Washington had been a power-hungry type, rather than someone who stood down after 2 presidencies, could the USA have become a dictatorship? There's no way of definitively answering that one but plenty of countries with written democratic constitutions have become dictatorships, while the UK and NZ without written constitutions have stayed democracies. That does imply path-dependency effects.

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