Evolving Debate

I haven't been able to follow the debate over Buller's Adapting Minds as closely as I would like. (I never finished the post I was writing about Fodor's silly review.)  But the debate proceeds apace. Cosmides and Tooby have put up a page with preliminary replies to Buller. University of Wisconsin anthropologist John Hawks has blogged a nice overview of some of Buller's main arguments, and a response to C&T's claim that Buller has ignored evidence about social exhange. Buller's reply to critics [pdf] in Trends of Cognitive Science is on his website. Hawks compares the debate to the already fabled case of Python v Crocodile.

Behind the Veils

Glen Whitman asks whether Buchanan & Tullock "scooped" Rawls and his device of a "veil of ignorance" by introducing the device of a "veil of uncertainty" into their contractarian choice procedure in the Calculus of Consent. My answer is "sort of."  It is clear from the footnotes of A Theory of Justice that Rawls knew Calculus, and much of Buchanan's work beside. They are not cited when the veil of ignorance is introduced, however. Instead, Rawls cites Harsanyi's 1953 paper, "Cardinal Utility in Welfare Economics and in the Theory of Risk Taking," in which Harsanyi introduces the idea that social welfare consists in the state of the world all individual's would prefer should they be in a state of uncertainty about their identity. (I think it works like this: if you are equally likely to be anybody, then your expected utility is the total utility of the world divided by the number of people in it. So, being a rational maximizer, you prefer the world with the most utility in it, or something like that.)

B&T don't cite Harsanyi, however. They cite Hayek in the Constitution of Liberty where he is making the point that equality under the law, and the rule of law, requires that law be general, and not framed with particular cases or persons in mind.

Rawls does cite Calculus, but in in order to distinguish what B&T mean by "constitutional choice" from what Rawls means by the "constitutional convention" in his four-stage sequence. It's worth quoting the footnote [p. 173, rev. ed]:

The idea of the four-stage sequence is part of a moral theory, and does not belong to an account of the working of actual constitutions, except insofar as political agents are influenced by the conception of justice in question. In the contract doctrine [i.e., in Rawls's scheme], the principles of justice have already been agreed to, and our problem is to formulate a schema that will assist us in applying them. The aim is to characterize a just constitution and not to ascertain which sort of constitution would be adopted, or acquiesced in, under more or less realistic (though simplified) assumptions about political life, much less on individualistic assumptions of the kind characteristic of economic theory.  

This points up a tension that runs throughout Rawls's work between his penchant for moral idealization and his claim to be looking for a "realistically utopian" theory at the "limits of the realistically practicable." Here Rawls rejects B&T's behavioral assumptions. If he did not, B&T would likely have an impossibility theorem for the politics Rawls prefers, which is how descriptive theories can defeat normative aspirations, and Rawls would be left with something utopian in the pejorative sense.

But that's an aside. The point is that it is more likely that Rawls is drawing on the more explicit methodological machinery of Harsanyi than on B&T in Calculus, although he was obviously acquainted with that book, and it may have reinforced the theoretical need for a device for modeling impartiality like the veil of ignorance. In any case, they were both "scooped" by Harsanyi. But then again, the kernal of the veil of ignorance is there in impartial spectator theories, and in the categorical imperative.

Is Game Theory Worth a Damn?

The Aumann/Schelling Nobel has inspired much discussion over the intellectual usefulness of game theory. In response to Michael Mandel's worry that game theory does us no good, Tyler offers a number of responses, and Mandel reiterates his concern. Over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin discusses problems of indeterminacy in the absence of the common knowledge assumption. Drezner defends Schelling against Slate's Fred Kaplan. Mark Kleiman notes that Todd Gitlin is a moron for claiming that Schelling doesn't understand non-zero-sum games!

Unless we understand game theory to simply be the Aummann-ish formalism, with its ridiculous epistemic and behavioral assumptions, then it is probably not very useful. But it is better to see Aummann style game theory as a stylized limiting case of the logic of interdependent action, which is what game theory is the theory of. We can contrast between formal and substantive game theory, the latter being the very heart of social science and social and political philosophy. Thomas Schelling is the greatest living substantive game theorist, in the tradition of Hobbes and David Hume, but with the benefit of the discipline Nash, von Neumann, and Morgenstern (and others, including Aumann,) imposed upon game theory through formalization.

To move the subject toward my domain, let me assert that the reason contractarian political theories are superior to the alternatives is not due to the idea of a fictive contract, but because of the recognition of the centrality of patterns of interdependent action to social order. You can't understand the good society until you understand society. And you can't understand society without understanding interdependent behavior. But you can't understand interdependent behavior unless you understand behavior. And to do that, you need to understand (1) how people represent their alternatives, and (2) how they order them, for which you need the cognitive sciences.

(Esoteric aside: Regarding Tyler's five options for making game theory predictive, my sense is that (1) and (5) actually are one. The indeterminacy of the social world is a function of the indeterminacy of representation. Sooner or later the behavioralists will get around to discovering basic philosophy of language.  This also bears on Quiggin's worries. For Kripkenstein reasons, previous behavior underdetermines the "rule" upon which one behaves, even if the rule is "maximize expected utility." If my strategy is a conditional rule sensitive to my representation of your strategy, which is a conditional rule sensitive to your representation of my strategy, etc., then an equilibrium, being a set of strategies, will be a slippery creature indeed. Thankfully, the in-principle indeterminacy of rules and representation need not worry us too much if there is stable regularity in the way we in fact tend to ascribe belief and motivation to others.)     

Let me quote my abandoned dissertation proposal by way of saying why I think substantive game theory is about the most important thing there is:

Central to the contractarian framework is a clear grasp of the interdependence of reasons for action in certain kinds of social settings. The idea of mutual advantage implies that we can often do better jointly than we can individually. There are gains to be had from cooperation.  However, as Hume put it, “the actions of each of us have a reference to those of the other, and are performed on the supposition that something is to be performed on the part of the other.”  It follows that the kinds of social cooperation we will be able to achieve and sustain depends on our expectations of the behavior of others. Our reasons to act to bring about the goods of cooperation, and to enter into agreements and comply with principles designed to facilitate them, therefore depend on the nature of the psychological capacities that enable agreement, assurance, and compliance. If we cannot sufficiently trust ourselves and others to keep agreements, or to adhere to conventions that are like agreements, or if we by nature severely discount future value, or are unwilling to tolerate more than a little risk, then we may find ourselves able to conceive of a social order that each of us would prefer, but which none of us may enjoy.   

Comments Without Registration

Because MT 2.3 has considerably better spam controls, I thought I'd experiment in removing the registration barrier for comments.

The new version has a "folder" for comment and trackback spam, and I'm absolutely amazed by the quantity of it. I appear to be getting about one spam comment a minute, but so far, the levee is holding. So we'll see how it goes.


I'm just thrilled that Thomas Schelling will share with Robert Aumann a piece of this year's Nobel Prize in economics. I had the opportunity to meet Schelling at a conference on self-deception I helped organize for Mercatus. I believe he may well be the most astonishingly articulate person I've ever heard speak. But more important, Schelling is a profound and creative thinker. He deserves to be your intellectual hero. I don't think I truly understood the idea of coordination until I read Schelling's elegant, imaginative, and lucid explanations.

Here is Schelling's 1982 Tanner Lecture, “Ethics, Law, and the Excercise of Self-Command,” which you can also find in his collection of essays Choice and Consequence (along with the Tyler-recommended “The Mind as a Consuming Organ.”) I know of no other economist who writes better prose, or is who is more authentically wise. Big props to the Swedes.

Who Am I? Why Am I Here?: Admiral Stockdale on the Anxiety of Choice (Guest-Starring Victor Frankl)

It struck me this morning that Schwartz's problem of managing “too much” freedom is kind of the opposite of the problem of managing too little freedom implicit in Admiral Stockdale's Epictetian stoicism and Victor Frankl's existential therapy. Or is it the same!? (If you don't know, Stockdale was tortured for years by the North Vietnamese as a prisoner of war. Frankl was imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis.)

Stockdale tells us [pdf]:

Epictetus was telling his students that there can be no such thing as being the “victim” of another. You can only be a “victim” of yourself. It's all in how you discipline your mind. Who is your master? “He who has authority over any of the things on which you have set your heart… What is the result at which all virtue aims? Serenity… Show me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I'll show you a Stoic.”

[If you haven't read Stockdale's amazing account of his torture and confinement, do it.]

Frankl writes:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

So here we have strategies for maintaining a sense of freedom — a psychological feeling of choice, control, agency, and self-efficacy — under conditions where the external menu of open alternatives is more or less blank. Both push us to consider what ultimately is and is not in our power. In the end, the only steadfast choices, the only ones that cannot be taken away, are choices about how to orient our minds, and about our attitude toward our situation. This implies that we can maintain a sense of freedom and openness, and the sense of responsibility and dignity that entails, even under conditions where we are not at liberty to act on most of our desires. The Stoic also implies that other freedoms, because they can be taken away, are not genuine freedoms, and so we should cultivate an attitude of indifference toward them. The only true freedom for the stoic is in virtue, and virtue is entirely a matter of what is genuinely up to us, and the only thing that is genuinely up to us is the maintenance of our composure.

Because the problem of two much choice is apparently the opposite of the problem of too little, I entertained the idea that what we need is to turn the stoic and/or existential attitude inside out. But now I'm not so sure. It seems to me that the problem of too much choice requires, in the first instance, a kind of withdrawal, detachment, and centering, and then a kind of selective re-engagement with the panoply of choices once we've achieved a firmer grasp of what one really cares about and is after in life.

It seems like a mistake to concentrate on the sheer quantity of choices rather than on the quality of the choices relative to the nature of the choosers. Chinese takeouts generally offer hamburgers, pizza, jalapeno poppers, etc., etc. The most celebrated restaurants often have tiny menus. If a friend offered to take me to either Lucky Dragon carryout or a Michelin 3 star, I would not regret my loss of the freedom to order curly fires with my wantons upon choosing the fancier joint. A single job you like is better than 1000 you don't want.

If we were homogeneous in our natures, interests, talents, projects, and preferences, then it might be possible to trim the set of choices to a subset that is more manageable, and yet with all the best choices intact. But we are not homogeneous. So, even if the set of choices that is ideal for each of us, given our unique constitution and aims, is small, the fact of our variety will require the availability of a huge set of choices overall. Almost any reduction of the most inclusive set of choices reduces the quality of choices for someone, i.e., it restricts their freedom to choose something that is best for them.

The difficulty is that the plenitude of consumer culture, which offers the tantalizing possibility of a different ideal pattern of consumption for each of us, tends to drown out the whisper of what is best for each of us in the cacophony of variety. We are left searching through a junkyard for a handful of gems (though one man's junk is another man's gem), often without knowing what's junk and what's gems. But the problem is not quite that we have too much choice. If I need to get to Minnesota and don't know how, the problem is not that there are just too many roads. The problem is that I don't know which ones to take. It wouldn't help me if there were fewer roads, none of which goes to my destination. But if I know the route, the number of other roads is irrelevant. Similarly, if I know what I am, know what I need, know what I like, and know what will make my unique life go uniquely well, then I can just tune out the stuff that is superfluous to me. Most of the choices will just psychologically fall away, fade into the background, because they are not for me.

So what we need is self-knowledge, and a procedure for identifying authenticity in desire, a kind of practical wisdom. It does not seem that public policy can do much about this for us. But a kind of Stoic indifference toward the hurly burly of market culture may be useful, helping us to stay disentangled from the lures of marketers, salespeople, and taste makers, and allow us to better focus and who we really are. A kind of existential therapy may also be useful, sensitizing us to reflexive modes of thought and action, our bad faith, our false consciousness, and our ability and responsibility to consciously define ourselves and make meaning in our lives.

So maybe the ways of thinking that make it possible to remain human in Nazi concentration camps and Hanoi prisons are also indispensable in carving authentic lives of customized meaning out of the otherwise disorienting surplus of alternatives. Maybe the way to maintain a sense of freedom when in chains is also a way to manage agoraphobic hyperventilation in the unbounded consumer paradise.

Reality & Representation

Schwartz also constantly mixes up objective opportunity and the representation of such: “. . . choice has negative features, and the negative features escalate as the number of choices increases.” No, the negative features escalate as the number of choices entertained, or represented to the self, increases.

It is very important for Schwartz that whatever negative consequences there may be here aren't a simple function of the number of choices, but are rather a function of the individual's psychology, otherwise all the advice he gives us (choose when to choose; satisfice more, maximize less; don't dwell on foregone alternatives; be grateful; anticipate adaptation; be wary of social comparison; etc.) would be moot.

But if he lays too much weight on the point that whether or not there are negative consequences to more choice depends on how individuals psychologically manage their representation of the choices, their procedures for making them, and their attitudes toward choices already made, then it becomes fairly clear that the market, per se, isn't harming anyone, or causing dissatisfaction by causing choices to proliferate. But Schwartz wouldn't want that to be clear.

Like Layard's argument that upward moves in the income distribution impose a negative externality on people beneath, Schwartz is more or less arguing that a high number of alternatives amounts to a negative externality of markets. But in both cases, the authors provide very useful and likely effective techniques of individual psychological management to immunize oneself against the negative effects of dimished comparative position or a vast array of choices. But this self-help advice directly implies that the market is not the causal origin of the imagined harm.

Use the Schwartz, Lone Starr!

OK, am I being fair to Schwartz? There's obviously a sense in which someone who gets married is less free. What sense is that?

First, what are our main options for the meaning of 'freedom' here?

(1) Freedom as objective opportunity/ability.

(2) Freedom as lack of coercively imposed constraint.

(3) Freedom as a lack of culturally (but non-coercively)imposed constraint.

(4) Freedom as a psychological sense of openness.

The only sense in which a person who gets married is unambiguously less free is (3). Part of the social function of marriage is to end the search for mates and to create a stable basis for raising children, and so sexual and emotion fidelity is generally expected of married people. Infidelity has real negative social costs, given the prevailing cultural dispensation, and so the prospect of facing those costs is generally a real constraint.

Now, (3) often leads to (4), but need not, for two reasons. One, I may not really care about the social costs. Suppose that this is because I have an “open marriage.” So I'm married, but the general social meaning of marriage carries less weight with me. Because it's OK with my partner, I'm always on the prowl, and so I maintain (4), the sense of openness. Two, I may have no interest whatsoever in infidelity, just as I may have no interest in drinking a Tab cola. I want my wife, and no other, and so there is nothing that I want that is out of reach. If there was a social taboo against drinking Tab, my psychological sense of openness would be unaffected.

In comments below, R.J. Lehmann gives us this line from Larry David:

Who do you think has more freedom — the married man in America, or the single guy in Communist China? I gotta go with the Chinese guy. Yes, I can leave the country…but I can't leave the house. He can leave the house, but he can't leave the country. I'll take his deal.

Part of the humor is, I guess, in the equivocation between senses of 'freedom'. The Chinese guy is unfree in sense (2). He'll got shot if he tries to leave. Larry David is unfree in sense (4). He feels a psychological lack of openness simply because of his internalization of his wife's expectations. She'll kvetch if he leaves. Obviously, however, there is no broader cultural norm dictating whether or not it is acceptable for him to leave the house. And there is no coercive sanction. And he is perfectly able to get up and walk out. The only unfreedom here is a consequence of Larry David's neurotic relationship.

Now when Schwartz asks whether we have too much choice, what he is he asking? In part, I think he's asking whether we have too much freedom in sense (4). In a market society, our objective opportunities proliferate, increasing freedom in sense (1). When I represent all those opportunities to myself, the sense of openness (4) can be overwhelming. Schwartz seems to me to be saying that if I have “thick” social ties, then the obligations and social constraint (unfreedom in sense (3)) that make those ties thick will narrow my sense of what is really open to me, reducing my sense of freedom in sense (4), but also relieving my sense of anxiety about the overwhelming scope of choice.

So, in this scenario, I will be less free, in senses (3) and (4), but better off. Notice that this leaves freedom in senses (1) and (2) unaffected.

However, Schwartz also seems to blame the anxiety of too much (4) on too much (1). Now, this wouldn't be such a problem if less (3) helped us manage too much (4). But he also seems to think that too much (1) erodes our ability to maintain the thick relationships that lead to less (3). So we are left in a condition where we have a huge amount of objective opportunities. Some of these opportunities seduce us into dissolving our thick bonds. And then we are left with an overwhelming sense of openness, with no basis in convention or social obligation to help us to manage it.

What to do, then? Pull policy levers that reduce freedom in sense (2) in order to slow down the growth of (1) and to foster choices that lead to thicker relationships, thereby reducing (3) and the anxiety of (4).

Now, Schwartz is never clear about which sense of freedom he is employing at any given time. And he allows its meaning to float around, so that we encouraged to think that if too much freedom in sense (4) is troubling, then we shouldn't be so adamant about preserving our freedom in sense (2). I object to the slide.

In The Paradox of Choice itself, Schwartz's “What Can We Do?” section is full of individual psychological strategies for managing the sense of being overwhelmed by choice, and the sense of regret from all the trade-offs plenitude entails. This is all excellent advice. But elsewhere he is quick to offer political strategies for managing the woes of choice. In this TNR piece he tells us that his research justifies socking it to the rich.

if people already have more choices in life than they can handle, then adding wealth only exacerbates the problem. Conversely, it should be possible to make the rich better off by reducing their wealth . . .

The point is simply that we now know there is some significant subset of people likely to be made better off through heavier taxation, and that these people reside at the top end of the wealth distribution. Given that a concern for people's welfare has traditionally been one of the chief moral objections to taxing wealth (at least among those sympathetic to redistribution in principle), a policy of heavier taxation for the very wealthy may be the only moral course of action.

The slide to reducing freedom from coercion from data about an overwhelming sense of psychological openness is really THAT quick.

Now, what I meant by counterposing Schwartz with Browne is a contrast in attitude toward the idea of an “encumbered self,” to use Michael Sandel's term. I think this issue deserves its own post, since I think it may take me a bit of space to work out my inchoate thoughts. But my idea is that Schwartz and Browne represent a false choice about our attitude toward encumbrance.

The idea of encumbrance is that our identities are in part constituted by the nature of our relationships, our membership in communities, and the beliefs and commitments we inherit through these. Communitarian republicans, like Sandel, tend to celebrate the encumbered self, and to promote the idea that our membership in a nation state also carries with it thick obligations of solidarity. I sense, perhaps wrongly, that Schwartz is operating within this universe of thought. He seems sort of delighted in the cleverness of arguing that higher taxes would make the rich happier. His delight stems from the fact that he thinks they should feel obligated to pay high taxes anyway, out of a sense of solidaristic political obligation, and he's happy to have another argument to that conclusion. He's also delighted that the evidence points toward the benefits of thick relationships on well-being.

Browne is motivated by a kind of horror of encumbrance. Relationships, conventional systems of rules, communities, families, etc., that we didn't voluntarily opt into are characterized as autonomy threatening “traps”. Self-liberation consists in extricating yourself from these traps and becoming a truly unencumbered self.

Now, it seems to me that the right view has got to be that many inherited encumbrances are in fact oppressively restrictive — many kinds of relationships are predatory, parasitic, and impede the development of our individual potential. Reading Stirner or Browne or Rand is so bracing largely because they make this so clear. But then again many “thick” relationships and obligations truly are identity constituting, and are necessary for the realization of ones goals and capacities. In which case the self isn't encumbered, exactly, but simply enabled and fulfilled. What matters is the quality of our attachments, not whether or not to have them.

Part of my problem may be that my menu of the senses of 'freedom' is too short. I found C. Fred Alford's account of Iris Murdoch's notion of freedom as “seeing correctly clearly,” which requires both getting over your own narcissism as well as seeing past false social claims, pretty compelling. We are freed from our illusions, which opens us to authentic engagement with others.

There should be less now, so perhaps more later.

Schwartz on Freedom: Vacuity or Stirnerism?

Looking again at Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice, I'm struck by something Virginia Postrel picked up on in her Reason review, which is that Schwartz's argument turns on a false opposition between freedom and commitment. I tripped up on the same passage Virginia noted:

In the context of this discussion of choice and autonomy, it is also important to note that, in many ways, social ties actually decrease freedom, choice, and autonomy. Marriage, for example, is a commitment to a particular other person that curtails freedom of choice of sexual and even emotional partners.

To which Virginia sensibly responds:

So gays who cannot legally marry their partners are somehow freer than heterosexuals who can? There’s something deeply wrong with this understanding of choice. Freedom to choose must include the freedom to commit.

But I think there is something even more deeply wrong with Schwartz's opposition of freedom and commitment than Virginia brings out. It is either trivial, or commits what I will call the “Stirnerite fallacy.”

Most of the time, Schwartz seems to be operating under a notion of freedom as opportunity or ability. In this sense, if a new variety of jam comes on the market, then my freedom has increased, because now I have the opportunity to buy it. Conversely, any reduction in my feasible set of alternatives is a reduction of freedom. But this is a completely formal notion devoid of any real content. If I set out 5:00 pm to drive from DC to Indiana, then, by the time I make it to Ohio, the possibility of arriving at New York City by midnight has dropped out of my set of alternatives. It trivially follows that my “commitment” to get to Indiana requires that I forgo some alternatives. But, even so, it doesn't follow that my feasible set is now diminished. By the time I get to Indiana, there will be a large number of places I could get to by midnight that I couldn't have reached in that time had I stayed in place in DC. Or, if I get a new job, in a different building, my options for lunch will have changed. I can no longer go to the place I liked around the corner from my old building (too far away). But there may be two places I really like around the corner from my new building.

Now, marriage… If become married, I expect to forgo some opportunities for romance and sex. But the reason I am committing is precisely because the commitment, like getting to Ohio in order to get to Indiana, is a necessary step to other exciting opportunities. If I am NOT married, then, in this trivial sense of freedom, I am not free to experience the benefits of marriage. Conceiving a child with my wife, for example, is not now in my set of opportunities. A good commitment is precisely one in which the door you close behind you leads to several more that open.

Of course, to bring the trivial formality of this idea of freedom to the fore, it's also true that conceiving a child with my slave isn't in my set of opportunities, given the fact that I cannot own a slave. And every time a state strikes down an archaic law, like a law that says you can't bring a chicken into a saloon, people there will no longer be free to break the law by carrying chickens into saloons. However, as compensation, they will be free to legally carry chickens into saloons.

So, if freedom is just an increase in the size of the feasible set, then it simply doesn't follow that commitment diminishes freedom in this sense. So why say that “social ties actually decrease freedom, choice, and autonomy?”

This only makes sense, I think, if one commits the Stirnerite fallacy, which is the claim that any obligation whatsoever erodes freedom. The fallacy is named for Max Stirner, author of The Ego and It's Own, who argued that even the rules of language and logic are intolerable constraints on the fully free self. If you make a promise today, and don't want to keep it tomorrow, then DON'T! That would be self-enslavement!

Schwartz is the modus tollens to Harry Browne's libertarian Stirnerist modus ponens. Both agree that if you assume an obligation, then you are unfree. Browne advises us to avoid falling into the “trap” of assuming obligations. Schwartz advises us to be wary of too much freedom. Schwartz tells us we'll be less free if we're married, but we'll be miserable if we don't forge this kind of deep social bond. Browne tells us to not get married.

But we can be smart, and just reject the common assumption and understand the assumption of obligation and commitment as an expression of freedom that can also enhance freedom. And thus we can resist the inference(a non-sequitur anyway) that if freedom in the Stirnerite sense is good or bad, then it's good or bad for the political-economic system to offer us more or less of it.