Uncertainty and Freedom

freedomsartre

I am beginning to increasingly think that Keynes’ economics, with its every present emphasis on uncertainty, is actually an economics that takes the idea that humans are free seriously. That is, it is an anti-deterministic economics. I think that the only economist who recognised this was GLS Shackle.

At many points in Shackle’s work you find rather contemptuous references to philosophers. Shackle seems to be contemptuous of what he thinks to be philosophy because he seems to think that all philosophers argue in terms of a deterministic universe. I have no idea where Shackle got this idea but it is completely untrue. In fact, I think that certain strains of phenomenology — I think of the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty — might well be the best point of departure when considering how human beings make decisions when faced with uncertainty or, what amounts to the same thing, when faced with the fact that they are free to choose.

I have a brief appendix on this issue in my forthcoming book and I am considering writing a paper on Keynes, Shackle and Sartre in the next few weeks so I will not go into this too much here. Suffice to say that it is rather amusing that marginalist economists are always talking about how in a market economy people are ‘Free to Choose’ (thanks, Dr. Friedman) but then they model human agents as pre-determined entities and study the economy as if there is no freedom of choice and everything is determined. It’s a rather silly self-contradiction but I believe it is one of the most damaging in economics.

Anyway, I would encourage people to listen to the following lecture on the philosophy of Sartre if they want to get a better feel for what I am talking about here. Pay particular attention to the discussion of temporality around the 31.30 mark.

About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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10 Responses to Uncertainty and Freedom

  1. LK says:

    “I am beginning to increasingly think that Keynes’ economics, with its every present emphasis on uncertainty, is actually an economics that takes the idea that humans are free seriously.”

    Yes, this is a profound philosophical and even scientific point: the idea of “ontological uncertainty”, if true, entails that we cannot know the future because that future has yet to be created and is not pre-determined.

    And that in turn seems to entail:

    (1) humans have free will
    (2) crude “block universe” eternalist theories of time as are popular amongst some philosophers and even physicists are wrong.
    (3) any postulated theistic god or super-mind (as in idealism) cannot know the future with perfect certainty either, so that such a being, if it existed, could not be omniscient in the conventional sense.

    My musings on these points here:
    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2014/05/ontological-uncertainty-and-theology.html

  2. I’ve found Keynes to be one the last real students of human nature in economics, which as I recall is why he was not so starry eyed about turning economics into mathematics. The real problem with using math is that mathematics is entirely deterministic; so for the mathematical models to hold, then people have to behave in accordance with the assumptions used to justify the mathematics. And so today we have our brutal neo-classical war on civilization to force society to act according to the stricture and structures of mathematics.

  3. Glenn says:

    I never thought of it in those terms but another good point. Love your blog, keep up the good work!

  4. Dantey says:

    Ironic that the idea that humans are free is explored in economics by a guy called Shackle. HAHA!

    • Haha! Excellent! I never noticed that.

      Recorded in several spellings as shown below, this is an English medieval surname. It has at least two possible origins. The first is as a metonymic occupational name, given to a man who made and or sold chains, fetters, and shackles. This is from the pre 7th century word sceacol, or the later Middle English schackel meaning a chain or bond.

      http://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/shackle

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