Mises Wire

Who Hijacked Our Free Will?

Imagine someone giving a State of the World address that begins with a reminder that people possess free will and ought to be doing a better job of exercising it. This could possibly raise doubts about the speaker’s mental stability—at least until the talk went into the dark details of civilization’s condition.

If the state of the world reflects the choices people make, and if those choices are autonomous, originating from within the minds of individuals, then the speaker is making a solid point. But if we’re at the mercy of forces we regard as beyond our control, then the world couldn’t be other than it is.

So, which is it?

If we consult the philosophers who have discussed free will we will get a wide range of views, including the denial that it exists (as one example see the book Free Will, by Sam Harris), but everyday people accept its truth in an Aristotelian sense even if they’ve never heard of Aristotle.

In his writing on ethics, Aristotle distinguished voluntary and involuntary actions. When a person acts voluntarily he becomes “the cause and source of his acts. . . . And all that he does from deliberate choice he clearly does voluntarily. It is clear then that virtue and vice have to do with voluntary acts.” He continues, “Things done on the spur of the moment, and things done by animals and children can be willing [voluntary], but driven by desire and spirit and not what we would normally call true choice.”

For Aristotle and most of us, deliberate choice is what is meant by free will.

Let’s take a look at the world we’ve created and ask some questions:

  • Is the current economic and political landscape an accurate reflection of our choices?
  • Have we, as members of a democracy, chosen to participate in the wars of the past and current century?
  • Have we chosen to outlaw honest money and substitute bureaucratic control of easily counterfeited digits?
  • Have we decided as a group that prices should rise continuously to allow big market players to get rich while the rest of us slowly decline?
  • Are we okay with bailing them out when things blow up?
  • Do most of us like seeing the Federal Reserve Note lose 98 percent of its value since the Fed’s inception?

Have most of us decided that merit is racist and diversity, equity, and inclusion is the solution? Are most of us on board with the need to severely curtail the economy to save the planet from human activity? Are we in agreement that social media needs to be regulated by people calling themselves fact-checkers, who will claim to spot untruthful and hateful posts, then have them censored and their authors permanently expelled?

Did we decide, through majority vote, that the Constitution’s interpretation is up for grabs, that certain amendments don’t mean what they say?

It might be that we find ourselves trapped in an alien world. It might be very far from what we wanted. It might even be a living nightmare.

Clearly, other people highjacked our choices. Other people, mostly politicians and professional busybodies, have exercised their choices while denying us the right to ours. Isn’t that how democracies work? We settle for an approximation of what we want by voting, and after repeated attempts at free will by proxy we end up with the near opposite of what we intended.

Free markets and honest money prevailed in the late nineteenth century, and prosperity abounded. In 1912 Americans went to the polls and elected Woodrow Wilson, who in his second term promised to keep them out of war but changed his mind—not the people’s minds, his mind. In his first term he gave us the income tax and the Fed, which covered the monetary demands of the war.

The economy seemed to roar during the 1920s, but it was built on monetary fallacy. As Hans Sennholz explains,

In 1924, after a sharp decline in business, the Reserve banks suddenly created some $500 million in new credit, which led to a bank credit expansion of over $4 billion in less than one year. While the immediate effects of this new powerful expansion of the nation’s money and credit were seemingly beneficial, initiating a new economic boom and effacing the 1924 decline, the ultimate outcome was most disastrous.

Thus, the crash, and a little later the New Deal, and with it the end of honest money. Recovery lingered always in the future until the Japanese surprised the living daylights out of the administration at Pearl Harbor. It continued to linger in the future during the second bloodbath.

To borrow a word from Lee Harvey Oswald two days before he was assassinated, we’ve been patsies. We’ve been set up.

But we can’t push all the blame on our princes. We’re responsible for our lives, not them, even if we give them vague proxy power through elections. We’re ultimately the guilty party.

For instance, why didn’t Americans put up a fight when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued his decree to turn in their gold? There should have been riots in the streets, with Roosevelt and the Fed burned in effigy.

But what would they riot about, exactly? They were told gold caused the Depression. Was it true? They didn’t know. Who are they to argue with court economists? Somehow it didn’t feel right, but they were cold and hungry. Nothing felt right.

To make a deliberate choice to defend their right to own gold required knowledge most of them didn’t have. Instead, they trusted the experts, among them phobic deflationist John Maynard Keynes.

Keynes missed out on the Nobel Prize, but his überdevotee, Paul Samuelson, swept it up for him. Samuelson reviewed The General Theory in Econometrica in 1946:

Herein lies the secret of the General Theory. It is a badly written book, poorly organized; any layman who, beguiled by the author’s previous reputation, bought the book was cheated of his five shillings. It is not well suited for classroom use. It is arrogant, bad-tempered, polemical, and not overly generous in its acknowledgments. It abounds in mares’ nests or confusions.

Keynes was the most influential economist of the twentieth century. We’re being ruled by frauds.

Everyday people possess Aristotle’s deliberate choice, but their choices have been commandeered. Our Ivy League overlords claim to know better. Even adhering to the government’s famed food pyramid has backfired.

It may be true that most people will do anything if the price is right, as the Godfather clearly understood. But they still weigh the consequences. Money or even one’s life isn’t always the driver of choices. In Atlas Shrugged, productive people abandoned their jobs or took less demanding ones because they were on strike against a world that considered them sacrificial fodder.

Conclusion

One of the reasons so many people admire Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard was their uncompromising resilience to ideological rot. They stood tall. They did not go along to get along, and we are infinitely better for it. In their vast repertoire of written works, available for a download on mises.org, they’ve provided us a robust Austrian economic theory.

We fight in the shadow of giants. Let’s not let them down.

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Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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