On free markets, personal responsibility and rational agents

There are a few arguments that come up in all too many conversations about social justice and related issues that I would like to unpack here. The words often used are fairness, freedom and personal responsibility. It seems to me that these arguments are derived from the concepts of individualism, essentialism and free markets. These in turn are directly connected with neoliberalism, liberalism, alt-right, libertarianism and many others, but extend beyond political affiliations, so I will talk about these concepts, rather than political views. I also don’t think that a lot of people actually follow these principles in all situations, unless they are a hardcore Ayn Rand fan, but they often come up as default assumptions for many issues, which is why they deserve further examination.

Firstly, free market is neither pleasant, nor effective economic model. For example it doesn’t describe labour markets, immigration or rent control the way people think it does when they propose policies about these issues. Free market also isn’t what brought prosperity to the western countries. Wars, protectionism and colonialism did. We don’t want and don’t actually have unregulated free markets now. We don’t allow people, child labour, human organs, university places, hard drugs, votes and many other things to be traded freely. I definitely don’t envy American free market healthcare. I would say market regulations are pretty good in these cases.

In a world where free market is the optimal system and pursuing self-interest leads to the best of the worlds vaccination doesn’t make any sense. Why would you vaccinate if your personal decision doesn’t give you any benefit as long as most people around you are already vaccinated? Why would you stay at home during a pandemic if you’re not in the risk group? Why would you go vote?

You might say that the rational agent wouldn’t. But that breaks the logic of perfection of free markets. You might say that the rational agent would include context, like how many people already vaccinated or voted. But really, outside of toy problems, how complex do you think can the computations of predicting other people’s actions get? We would be stuck in infinite computations trying to predict the consequences of our actions. Which is why we have heuristics and emotions baked into our brains. But it is a mistake to think that it’s some immutable function impermeable to the outside influences.

There isn’t any inherent self-interest that our rational self is driven by because there is no separate rational self and no separate self-interest. Both are essentialist concepts that just don’t hold up to the reality. And yet this is and the idea that is often implicit in conversations about free vs regulated market and morality, the assumption often being that political ideology can be reduced to rationality. The central idea of neoliberalism is the extension of free markets to all spheres of life.

The real world turns out to be more complicated than that. Everyone’s interest is always a mix of biology, societal pressures, and meta-cognition that exist intertwined and inseparable in constantly ongoing feedback loops. Our biology defines our physiology, our physiology influences how we interact with the world and how society interacts with us, as well as our cognition and metacognition, which in turn influences our environment, which changes our physiology (neural connections in our brains, our weight, fitness, etc). In the same way there is no clear line between what you really want and what other people made you think you want.

A good example is treating IQ as some inherent ability that quantifies goodness of a certain person. If IQ is strongly correlated with genes, then it must be a biological trait, an essential ability inherent to every person. To see how it is not true, I suggest you to think about correlation between genetics and slavery… If you want a less loaded example try earrings and gender. That shows that if the trait is affected by genetics does not mean that it is an inherent quality or ability. Personal qualities are the result of complex interplay between biology, society, history of society, history of your family and countless other factors.

Which is, of course, problematic, if you want to operate in the framework of fairness, personal achievement and individual responsibility. So you start desperately searching for boundaries of what is truly an individual and what is the outside (the virtue signaling accusation is a good example of this). Never mind that the entire idea was just that, an idea, a model, an especially convenient one if you want to justify slavery, for example. We have countless examples from economics, psychology, and sociology to show that it is not a good descriptive model.

The attempts to resolve this often include evolutionary psychology and pointing out that altruism was just effective for our survival, so altruism and emotions, for example, is just a part of the rational agent. Except that including emotions and society and altruism into definition of rationality is never actually performed because that would destroy the entire concept of rationality and make the free market model unmanageable. Also evolutionary psychology is all too often takes after folk etymology and is used to explain any differences and justify bigotry, but that’s another story. It’s just one of this concepts that is used in science, but doesn’t make any explanation scientific on its own.

The problem with individualism is that it often implies essentialism. If society played a role in shaping an individual and influencing their choices, then the concepts of fairness and personal responsibility start to look shaky. What does it mean that you deserved something, good or bad?

Accepting the role of society in shaping individuals might mean that we actually need to change our society. And that doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for personal choices, but that these consequences need to be judged on their overall impact, rather than framed in terms of reward and punishment. Restorative vs punitive justice is part of this debate. Availability of childcare and equal parental leave vs “having children is your personal choice” is about this too. As well as natural consequences in authoritative parenting vs punishment in authoritarian parenting. It’s not just about policies, it is also about the way we interact with each other.

And I understand that throwing out these clear concepts of individualism and personal responsibility is hard. But if you still feel like individualism should remain a normative theory, that this is the moral stance that we should take, despite its failings, then I urge you to ask yourself why. Why instead of accepting the complexity of human condition and our limited understanding and working from that you decide to pick one arbitrary measure. And how is this better than, say, accepting what the church says is good or bad? If we have outgrown church as the moral judge, then maybe it’s time we outgrow individualism too?

On a personal level, I know pretty well how anxiety-inducing this uncertainty can be. Uncertainty about the future, about what is good and bad, whether you made the right decision and the right judgment. I have no way of seeing what is in other people’s heads, but there are better ways of dealing with it than claiming that one moral theory is fundamentally right and then wasting all that energy and thought ignoring all the inconsistencies it creates. Just as with other kinds of anxiety the key is not to run, but to accept it, sit with it, and eventually realize that it doesn’t kill you. Emotions are not a thing to be rationalized away, they’re just a fact of life, a signal, a part of you. Since there is never a way to confirm that a moral theory is correct, the endless doubting just creates more suffering. Don’t think that I’m advertising accepting every uncomfortable situation if there is a way to make it better, it’s just that this isn’t one of those.

On a societal level I see the truth in Mark Fisher’s dire view that capitalism has achieved its goal of concealing the fact that it depends on some subjectively assumed belief. This leads to the situation where the power of corporations and capital is accepted as the default and any attempt at market regulation is scrutinised and requires more and more justification. We’re alright with people not even having an opportunity to get good education from the start because of the web of intergenerational effects of socioeconomic status and long-lasting effects of colonialism, but affirmative action is discrimination. This is called meritocracy. Individualism is not a lens at all because it’s the default, but any other lens[19] is just part of identity politics. Humanities and (post)modern philosophy with all their attempts to makes sense of and analyse society and human nature are just gibberish. Individualism is the clear rational choice. Or science. Or utilitarianism. And yet, there is a Hardin for every Hobbes, an Ostrom for every Hardin, a Wittgenstein for every Russell, a Kuhn for every Popper and a Nietzsche for every Bentham. Moral theory and rationality is an ongoing conversation without a single answer.

This is what people like Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Charles Murray, Stephen Hicks and Ben Shapiro refuse to acknowledge. They might not agree on the solutions, but they are promoting this idea that the dominant culture must be the right one. Claiming, erroneously, that there is one moral position that can be justified either by science or rationality (often obscuring the conflicting nature of pure reason and empiricism). Shutting down other voices by calling them irrational. And many rationalists buy this, because unquestioned scientism and dismissal of every argument not based on facts is very natural, especially in the tech community. But the problem is that the facts are only a part of the picture. Who gets to choose what facts to show is determined by society. What is being left unsaid is just as important as what is being said. Narratives and opinions matter.

There are many ways in which the ideology of free markets and individualism destroy our environment, increases discrimination and inequality, affects our mental health, etc. The issue is that all of these problems are somehow justifiable if we just accept individualism and essentialism as the axioms. If you do that then all the talk about systemic racism, sexism, fatphobia, ableism, mental health issues makes sense, because of course each of the individuals is responsible for their condition and this is all that matters. We are all just trading our essential abilities on the free market and this is what the free market has decided. Any casualties are necessary sacrifices on our path to the bright future.

To see all of these as problems requires changing the perspective and questioning your values. And this is just not something that happens if you are comfortable in your status quo and is surrounded by people who are just like you. To reach out to other people and listen to them, to accept that voices that seem irrational from inside your framework can have a point, one needs some kind of motivation. It seems that the most effective way to create this motivation is to talk and listen to people who are like you, but not quite. Maybe I can be one of these people, I don’t know. That is my hope in writing this. Thank you for your attention.

Stuff to read (from more accessible to more technical):

Youtube channels to watch (from more entertaining to more technical, kinda. It’s a mix of philosophy, politics and economics):

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