Degrees of Freedom


Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is the dual relationship between optimization and indifference, and the relationship between both of them and the idea of freedom.

Optimization: “Of all the possible actions available to me, which one is best? (by some criterion).  Ok, I’ll choose the best.”

Indifference: “Multiple possible options are equally good, or incommensurate (by the criterion I’m using). My decision algorithm equally allows me to take any of them.”

Total indifference between all options makes optimization impossible or vacuous. An optimization criterion which assigns a total ordering between all possibilities makes indifference vanishingly rare. So these notions are dual in a sense. Every dimension along which you optimize is in the domain of optimization; every dimension you leave “free” is in the domain of indifference.

Being “free” in one sense can mean “free to optimize”.  I choose the outcome that is best according to an internal criterion, which is not blocked by external barriers.  A limit on freedom is a constraint that keeps me away from my favorite choice. Either a natural limit (“I would like to do that but the technology doesn’t exist yet”) or a man-made limit (“I would like to do that but it’s illegal.”)

There’s an ambiguity here, of course, when it comes to whether you count “I would like to do that, but it would have a consequence I don’t like” as a limit on freedom.  Is that a barrier blocking you from the optimal choice, or is it simply another way of saying that it’s not an optimal choice after all?

And, in the latter case, isn’t that basically equivalent to saying there is no such thing as a barrier to free choice? After all, “I would like to do that, but it’s illegal” is effectively the same thing as “I would like to do that, but it has a consequence I don’t like, such as going to jail.” You can get around this ambiguity in a political context by distinguishing natural from social barriers, but that’s not a particularly principled distinction.

Another issue with freedom-as-optimization is that it’s compatible with quite tightly constrained behavior, in a way that’s not consistent with our primitive intuitions about freedom.  If you’re only “free” to do the optimal thing, that can mean you are free to do only one thing, all the time, as rigidly as a machine. If, for instance, you are only free to “act in your own best interests”, you don’t have the option to act against your best interests.  People in real life can feel constrained by following a rigid algorithm even when they agree it’s “best”; “but what if I want to do something that’s not best?”  Or, they can acknowledge they’re free to do what they choose, but are dismayed to learn that their choices are “dictated” as rigidly by habit and conditioning as they might have been by some human dictator.

An alternative notion of freedom might be freedom-as-arbitrariness.  Freedom in the sense of “degrees of freedom” or “free group”, derived from the intuition that freedom means breadth of possibility rather than optimization power.  You are only free if you could equally do any of a number of things, which ultimately means something like indifference.

This is the intuition behind claims like Viktor Frankl’s: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  If you always respond automatically to a given stimulus, you have only one choice, and that makes you unfree in the sense of “degrees of freedom.”

Venkat Rao’s concept of freedom is pretty much this freedom-as-arbitrariness, with some more specific wrinkles. He mentions degrees of freedom (“dimensionality”) as well as “inscrutability”, the inability to predict one’s motion from the outside.

Buddhists also often speak of freedom more literally in terms of indifference, and there’s a very straightforward logic to this; you can only choose equally between A and B if you have been “liberated” from the attractions and aversions that constrain you to choose A over B.  Those who insist that Buddhism is compatible with a fairly normal life say that after Buddhist practice you still will choose systematically most of the time — your utility function cannot fully flatten if you act like a living organism — but that, like Viktor Frankl’s ideal human, you will be able to reflect with equinamity and consider choosing B over A; you will be more “mentally flexible.”  Of course, some Buddhist texts simply say that you become actually indifferent, and that sufficient vipassana meditation will make you indistinguishable from a corpse.

Freedom-as-indifference, I think, is lurking behind our intuitions about things like “rights” or “ownership.” When we say you have a “right” to free speech — even a right bounded with certain limits, as it of course always is in practice — we mean that within those limits, you may speak however you want.  Your rights define a space, within which you may behave arbitrarily.  Not optimally. A right, if it’s not to be vacuous, must mean the right to behave “badly” in some way or other.  To own a piece of property means that, within whatever limits the concept of ownership sets, you may make use of it in any way you like, even in suboptimal ways.

This is very clearly illustrated by Glen Weyl’s notion of radical markets, which neatly disassociates two concepts usually both considered representative of free-market systems: ownership and economic efficiency.  To own something just is to be able to hang onto it even when it is economically inefficient to do so.  As Weyl says, “property is monopoly.”  The owner of a piece of land can sit on it, making no improvements, while holding out for a high price; the owner of intellectual property can sit on it without using it; in exactly the same way that a monopolist can sit on a factory and depress output while charging higher prices than he could get away with in a competitive market.

For better or for worse, rights and ownership define spaces in which you can destroy value.  If your car was subject to a perpetual auction and ownership tax as Weyl proposes, bashing your car to bits with a hammer would cost you even if you didn’t personally need a car, because it would hurt the rental or resale value and you’d still be paying tax.  On some psychological level, I think this means you couldn’t feel fully secure in your possessions, only probabilistically likely to be able to provide for your needs. You only truly own what you have a right to wreck.

Freedom-as-a-space-of-arbitrary-action is also, I think, an intuition behind the fact that society (all societies, but the US more than other rich countries, I think) is shaped by people’s desire for more discretion in decisionmaking as opposed to transparent rubrics.  College admissions, job applications, organizational codes of conduct, laws and tax codes, all are designed deliberately to allow ample discretion on the part of decisionmakers rather than restricting them to following “optimal” or “rational”, simple and legible, rules.  Some discretion is necessary to ensure good outcomes; a wise human decisionmaker can always make the right decision in some hard cases where a mechanical checklist fails, simply because the human has more cognitive processing power than the checklist.  This phenomenon is as old as Plato’s Laws and as current as the debate over algorithms and automation in medicine.  However, what we observe in the world is more discretion than would be necessary, for the aforementioned reasons of cognitive complexity, to generate socially beneficial outcomes.  We have discretion that enables corruption and special privileges in cases that pretty much nobody would claim to be ideal — rich parents buying their not-so-competent children Ivy League admissions, favored corporations voting themselves government subsidies.  Decisionmakers want the “freedom” to make illegible choices, choices which would look “suboptimal” by naively sensible metrics like “performance” or “efficiency”, choices they would prefer not to reveal or explain to the public.  Decisionmakers feel trapped when there’s too much “accountability” or “transparency”, and prefer a wider sphere of discretion.  Or, to put it more unfavorably, they want to be free to destroy value.

And this is true at an individual psychological level too, of course — we want to be free to “waste time” and resist pressure to account for literally everything we do. Proponents of optimization insist that this is simply a failure mode from picking the wrong optimization target — rest, socializing, and entertainment are also needs, the optimal amount of time to devote to them isn’t zero, and you don’t have to consider personal time to be “stolen” or “wasted” or “bad”, you can, in principle, legibilize your entire life including your pleasures. Anything you wish you could do “in the dark”, off the record, you could also do “in the light,” explicitly and fully accounted for.  If your boss uses “optimization” to mean overworking you, the problem is with your boss, not with optimization per se.

The freedom-as-arbitrariness impulse in us is skeptical.

I see optimization and arbitrariness everywhere now; I see intelligent people who more or less take one or another as ideologies, and see them as obviously correct.

Venkat Rao and Eric Weinstein are partisans of arbitrariness; they speak out in favor of “mediocrity” and against “excellence” respectively.  The rationale being, that being highly optimized at some widely appreciated metric — being very intelligent, or very efficient, or something like that — is often less valuable than being creative, generating something in a part of the world that is “dark” to the rest of us, that is not even on our map as something to value and thus appears as lack of value.  Ordinary people being “mediocre”, or talented people being “undisciplined” or “disreputable”, may be more creative than highly-optimized “top performers”.

Robin Hanson, by contrast, is a partisan of optimization; he speaks out against bias and unprincipled favoritism and in favor of systems like prediction markets which would force the “best ideas to win” in a fair competition.  Proponents of ideas like radical markets, universal basic income, open borders, income-sharing agreements, or smart contracts (I’d here include, for instance, Vitalik Buterin) are also optimization partisans.  These are legibilizing policies that, if optimally implemented, can always be Pareto improvements over the status quo; “whatever degree of wealth redistribution you prefer”, proponents claim, “surely it is better to achieve it in whatever way results in the least deadweight loss.”  This is the very reason that they are not the policies that public choice theory would predict would emerge naturally in governments. Legibilizing policies allow little scope for discretion, so they don’t let policymakers give illegible rewards to allies and punishments to enemies.  They reduce the scope of the “political”, i.e. that which is negotiated at the personal or group level, and replace it with an impersonal set of rules within which individuals are “free to choose” but not very “free to behave arbitrarily” since their actions are transparent and they must bear the costs of being in full view.

Optimization partisans are against weakly enforced rules — they say “if a rule is good, enforce it consistently; if a rule is bad, remove it; but selective enforcement is just another word for favoritism and corruption.”  Illegibility partisans say that weakly enforced rules are the only way to incorporate valuable information — precisely that information which enforcers do not feel they can make explicit, either because it’s controversial or because it’s too complex to verbalize. “If you make everything explicit, you’ll dumb everything in the world down to what the stupidest and most truculent members of the public will accept.  Say goodbye to any creative or challenging innovations!”

I see the value of arguments on both sides. However, I have positive (as opposed to normative) opinions that I don’t think everybody shares.  I think that the world I see around me is moving in the direction of greater arbitrariness and has been since WWII or so (when much of US society, including scientific and technological research, was organized along military lines).  I see arbitrariness as a thing that arises in “mature” or “late” organizations.  Bigger, older companies are more “political” and more monopolistic.  Bigger, older states and empires are more “corrupt” or “decadent.”

Arbitrariness has a tendency to protect those in power rather than out of power, though the correlation isn’t perfect.  Zones that protect your ability to do “whatever” you want without incurring costs (which include zones of privacy or property) are protective, conservative forces — they allow people security.  This often means protection for those who already have a lot; arbitrariness is often “elitist”; but it can also protect “underdogs” on the grounds of tradition, or protect them by shrouding them in secrecy.  (Scott thought “illegibility” was a valuable defense of marginalized peoples like the Roma. Illegibility is not always the province of the powerful and privileged.)  No; the people such zones of arbitrary, illegible freedom systematically harm are those who benefit from increased accountability and revealing of information. Whistleblowers and accusers; those who expect their merit/performance is good enough that displaying it will work to their advantage; those who call for change and want to display information to justify it; those who are newcomers or young and want a chance to demonstrate their value.

If your intuition is “you don’t know me, but you’ll like me if you give me a chance” or “you don’t know him, but you’ll be horrified when you find out what he did”, or “if you gave me a chance to explain, you’d agree”, or “if you just let me compete, I bet I could win”, then you want more optimization.

If your intuition is “I can’t explain, you wouldn’t understand” or “if you knew what I was really like, you’d see what an impostor I am”, or “malicious people will just use this information to take advantage of me and interpret everything in the worst possible light” or “I’m not for public consumption, I am my own sovereign person, I don’t owe everyone an explanation or justification for actions I have a right to do”, then you’ll want less optimization.

Of course, these aren’t so much static “personality traits” of a person as one’s assessment of the situation around oneself.  The latter cluster is an assumption that you’re living in a social environment where there’s very little concordance of interests — people knowing more about you will allow them to more effectively harm you.  The former cluster is an assumption that you’re living in an environment where there’s a great deal of concordance of interests — people knowing more about you will allow them to more effectively help you.

For instance, being “predictable” is, in Venkat’s writing, usually a bad thing, because it means you can be exploited by adversaries. Free people are “inscrutable.”  In other contexts, such as parenting, being predictable is a good thing, because you want your kids to have an easier time learning how to “work” the house rules.  You and your kid are not, most of the time, wily adversaries outwitting each other; conflicts are more likely to come from too much confusion or inconsistently enforced boundaries.  Relationship advice and management advice usually recommends making yourself easier for your partners and employees to understand, never more inscrutable.  (Sales advice, however, and occasionally advice for keeping romance alive in a marriage, sometimes recommends cultivating an aura of mystery, perhaps because it’s more adversarial.)

A related notion: wanting to join discussions is a sign of expecting a more cooperative world, while trying to keep people from joining your (private or illegible) communications is a sign of expecting a more adversarial world.

As social organizations “mature” and become larger, it becomes harder to enforce universal and impartial rules, harder to keep the larger population aligned on similar goals, and harder to comprehend the more complex phenomena in this larger group.  . This means that there’s both motivation and opportunity to carve out “hidden” and “special” zones where arbitrary behavior can persist even when it would otherwise come with negative consequences.

New or small organizations, by contrast, must gain/create resources or die, so they have more motivation to “optimize” for resource production; and they’re simple, small, and/or homogeneous enough that legible optimization rules and goals and transparent communication are practical and widely embraced.  “Security” is not available to begin with, so people mostly seek opportunity instead.

This theory explains, for instance, why US public policy is more fragmented, discretionary, and special-case-y, and less efficient and technocratic, than it is in other developed countries: the US is more racially diverse, which means, in a world where racism exists, that US civil institutions have evolved to allow ample opportunities to “play favorites” (giving special legal privileges to those with clout) in full generality, because a large population has historically been highly motivated to “play favorites” on the basis of race.  Homogeneity makes a polity behave more like a “smaller” one, while diversity makes a polity behave more like a “larger” one.

Aesthetically, I think of optimization as corresponding to an “early” style, like Doric columns, or like Masaccio; simple, martial, all form and principle.  Arbitrariness corresponds to a “late” style, like Corinthian columns or like Rubens: elaborate, sensual, full of details and personality.

The basic argument for optimization over arbitrariness is that it creates growth and value while arbitrariness creates stagnation.

Arbitrariness can’t really argue for itself as well, because communication itself is on the other side.  Arbitrariness always looks illogical and inconsistent.  It kind of is illogical and inconsistent. All it can say is “I’m going to defend my right to be wrong, because I don’t trust the world to understand me when I have a counterintuitive or hard-to-express or controversial reason for my choice.  I don’t think I can get what I want by asking for it or explaining my reasons or playing ‘fair’.”  And from the outside, you can’t always tell the difference between someone who thinks (perhaps correctly!) that the game is really rigged against them a profound level, and somebody who just wants to cheat or who isn’t thinking coherently.  Sufficiently advanced cynicism is indistinguishable from malice and stupidity.

For a fairly sympathetic example, you see something like Darkness at Noon, where the protagonist thinks, “Logic inexorably points to Stalinism; but Stalinism is awful! Therefore, let me insist on some space free from the depredations of logic, some space where justice can be tempered by mercy and reason by emotion.” From the distance of many years, it’s easy to say that’s silly, that of course there are reasons not to support Stalin’s purges, that it’s totally unnecessary to reject logic and justice in order to object to killing innocents.  But from inside the system, if all the arguments you know how to formulate are Stalinist, if all the “shoulds” and “oughts” around you are Stalinist, perhaps all you can articulate at first is “I know all this is right, of course, but I don’t like it.”

Not everything people call reason, logic, justice, or optimization, is in fact reasonable, logical, just, or optimal; so, a person needs some defenses against those claims of superiority.  In particular, defenses that can shelter them even when they don’t know what’s wrong with the claims.  And that’s the closest thing we get to an argument in favor of arbitrariness. It’s actually not a bad point, in many contexts.  The counterargument usually has to boil down to hope — to a sense of “I bet we can do better.”