The upcoming battle between Republicans and Democrats has been framed a thousand different ways: as a fight between rich and poor, capitalism and socialism, nostalgia and progressivism, Christianity and secularism. And each is true in a limited way.
But listening to Mitt Romney’s victory speech in New Hampshire last week, after he swept a five-state primary and effectively ended his party’s primary season, the battle suddenly seemed to be between those who believe unabashedly in free will and those who know enough of bad luck or physics or psychology to doubt it.
I have a very different vision for America, and of our future. It is an America driven by freedom, where free people, pursuing happiness in their own unique ways, create free enterprises that employ more and more Americans. Because there are so many enterprises that are succeeding, the competition for hard-working, educated and skilled employees is intense, and so wages and salaries rise.
I see an America with a growing middle class, with rising standards of living. I see children even more successful than their parents – some successful even beyond their wildest dreams – and others congratulating them for their achievement, not attacking them for it.
This America is fundamentally fair. We will stop the unfairness of urban children being denied access to the good schools of their choice; we will stop the unfairness of politicians giving taxpayer money to their friends’ businesses; we will stop the unfairness of requiring union workers to contribute to politicians not of their choosing; we will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve; and we will stop the unfairness of one generation passing larger and larger debts on to the next.
In the America I see, character and choices matter. And education, hard work, and living within our means are valued and rewarded. And poverty will be defeated, not with a government check, but with respect and achievement that is taught by parents, learned in school, and practiced in the workplace.
The most important phrase in that excerpt is “fundamentally fair.” It is clear that “fairness,” to Romney, means “meritocratic.” In Mitt Romney’s ideal America, hard work and good ideas are rewarded, and a failure to work hard or produce good ideas is punished. Moderate failure is punished moderately: those “hard working, educated, and skilled employees” with their ever-rising wages ought to enjoy some measure of security and happiness in Romney’s imagined middle class, even if they’re denied the material rewards of the most accomplished entrepreneurs. To the lazy, un-educated, and un-skilled non-employees, Mitt Romney’s America promises only grief. (“Character matters”!)
Though to hear Romney tell it, these unworthies won’t be around long. “Poverty will be defeated,” after all, because parents and schools and businesses will conspire to create an environment in which individuals behave rationally, choose in their best interest, and make themselves assets to enterprises of all kinds. The middle class shall also be the bottom class, and none shall fall any further.
It’s a lovely idea. And it could be realized, if only we possessed free will.
Yet common sense is sufficient to tell us that many individuals will be hopeless failures even if confronted with a surplus of educational and professional opportunities. It tells us that the vast majority of those individuals won’t mean to fail, and will hate themselves for failing. But they will be insufficiently motivated, or insufficiently talented, or they will be stupid. They will curse their laziness and incapacity and stupidity, and they will spend a lifetime of insomniac nights praying and promising to overcome their failings. Many of them will fail anyway, and some of them will fail disastrously. And despite Romney’s assurances to the contrary, the distribution of failure and success will not be “fundamentally fair.” It will not be fair because it will not be freely chosen. And it will not be freely chosen because there is no such thing as free will.
There are several semi-compelling arguments for the existence of free will, most of which require a great deal of explication, and all of which amount to radically re-defining the meaning of free will until it bears no resemblance of the kind of freedom most humans assume they possess. (To read the very best of these arguments, please consult Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves.) Arguments against free will are more concise. I’ll summarize two of them, but first let’s agree that just because we experience the sensation of exercising free will we should not assume it exists. Perception is very often untrustworthy. You know this already if you’ve ever witnessed a successful magic trick, or been held rapt by the illusion of reality playing across a glass screen in your living room. (And if you’ve already come around on the free will question, please feel free to skip to the last two paragraphs. There’s nothing here you don’t know already.)
The first and most famous argument against free will is the physical argument, and it goes like this: The universe is a physical system. The objects within this system, at least the ones with which we regularly and knowingly interact, behave in deterministic ways. Think of planets in their orbits, molecules in a glass of liquid, billiard balls on a table. If you could know the properties of any of these objects, and know the properties of the forces that will act upon them in the future, then you could predict their future movements with perfect accuracy. This would be possible because the physical laws governing those objects are precise. An object of a particular mass will exert a particular amount of gravitational pull on another object, and it will never exert more or less. The object upon which that pull is exerted will respond in a particular way, depending upon its own mass and velocity and so on. It has no choice in the matter. And the laws of physics do not become less precise within the human brain, even if the actions governed by those laws become vastly more complex.
The thought-making machinery of the brain, which gives rise to the feeling that we are beings endowed with free will, is itself a byproduct of the playing out of those laws. And just as Venus cannot tomorrow decide to reverse its orbit around the sun, a particular electrical impulse within your brain cannot elect to excite a neuron any more than its charge will allow, or reroute itself so it might excite another neuron entirely. The stimulation of this neuron is a physical occurrence caused by a previous physical occurrence caused by a previous physical occurrence — a regression of precise and foreordained physical occurrences stretching all the way back to the beginning of the universe. Each thought to occur to a human mind, no matter how chosen or spontaneous it might feel subjectively, is a product of these foreordained physical occurrences. The human behaviors which result from these neural occurrences are no less foreordained.
(Some proponents of free will point out that not all objects behave deterministically; that in quantum mechanics, which deals with the behavior of very small objects, individual objects seem to behave randomly. But randomness is no friendlier to free will than determinism. Even if very tiny objects are instrumental in the workings of consciousness, humans cannot control how such objects will behave. If anything, it’s the other way around.)
If you’re unswayed by the physical argument, try this:
Imagine you’re a long-time smoker, and you’re trying to drop the habit. You’ve psyched yourself up for weeks. You smoke what you hope will be your last Winston late one evening, snub it out, kill the lights, mutter a prayer for success, and go to sleep. You wake with a desire to smoke. But lucky you, you also wake with an overwhelming desire to not smoke. You drink your coffee, dress for work, and drive to work smoke-free.
But the next day you awake feeling less certain. Your nerve endings scream for nicotine. You count yourself lucky that there are no cigarettes in the house, else you know you’d light up. You drive to work, have a miserable day, and retire with co-workers to a bar for a needed cocktail. You do not intend to smoke. But then, for just a moment, when a co-worker dodges outside the bar for a cigarette, you forget yourself and join him. Your will is shattered, and after a few more faltering false quits you’re back to a pack a day. What happened? If your answer is “Well, my will just weakened,” please realize that’s no answer at all. Instead ask yourself, “What is will?” Without answering that question with a synonym for “will” — “resolve,” say — the only sane answer is this: Your desire for a cigarette briefly overpowered your desire to not have a cigarette.
Catalogue the entirety of your life, and you’ll find that there’s never an instant in which something similar isn’t occurring. Presented with a variety of options, human brains inevitably select the thing they most desire. We don’t lose weight until we desire trimness more than cheeseburgers. We don’t quit smoking until we desire health and money more than nicotine. We don’t become world-beating entrepreneurial successes until entrepreneurial success becomes more important to us than late-afternoon naps and X-Box. And how do we control our desires? We don’t. (At least one person reading this will think to himself: Well, observant Buddhists do it all the time. I’d point out that Buddhists become Buddhists because they desire to do so.)
Mitt Romney, of course, has seldom had need to lament his desires. A special combination of genetics and rearing has led him to desire respectability and professional accomplishment over, say, drunken debauchery and pointless leisure. It’s a condition of being which he takes for granted, and it’s not in his nature to imagine that equally able-bodied and -minded individuals might have interests less in line with the economic realities of modern America, and that such individuals might not deserve to be punished excessively for being less than simpatico.
Even so, Mitt Romney should be aware that some people are just dumb. And some people who aren’t quite dumb might nevertheless lack any discernible talent. They might be bad with numbers, terrible at fact retention, aesthetically dumpy, physically sickly, unimaginative in thought, and dull of conversation. In Romney’s imagined America, such individuals aren’t supposed to exist, and that they persist in existing anyway is an affront for which he cannot forgive them. Romney can’t view them as unlucky, because America’s not supposed to be a lucktocracy — it’s supposed to be a meritocracy, and these hapless sods must therefore be moral failures, and their poverty must be a just punishment. It’s a rather convenient worldview for a quarter-billionaire.