Let’s return to an age-old debate on free will. If there is a choice between two unequal objects, then a refusal to trade is quite rational; a computer with no notion of free will would decide similarly. Presented with a buying choice, do people really exercise their free will or do they merely perform complex calculations based on desirability and price? Are their subjective feelings really a rational, objective process, one so complex that we cannot trace it?

Likewise, when the choice is between equal objects, free will really amounts to randomness. Will implies an informed, conscious choice; absent any reason to prefer one stack of hay to another, identical stack, the choice is as good as random.

Moral choices can be described in economic terms. Considering the murder of old usurer, Raskolnikov weighed arguments pro and contra in a manner not unlike that of a car buyer. The assumption that he exercised free will in carrying out the murder can easily be debunked: suppose that he knew that his chance of being caught was 100%: he would certainly refrain from carrying out the murder. And he would hesitate if the chance of conviction were around 30%. So his act, a textbook case of free will, is actually a very practical choice by an informed customer.

In other cases, free will may be confused with emotion. Killing one’s spouse despite great odds of conviction is rationally a bad deal; walking away is clearly more beneficial. Yet, many people make this violent choice. Is that free will? Hardly: they just place an unreasonably high value on the immediate, fleeting satisfaction of getting even and discount their future suffering in jail. Their act entails as little free will as that of an impulsive buyer who allegedly exercises free will in buying an item for which he rationally has no use.

The scarcity of free will in human actions can be highlighted by noting that almost any course of action can be made more probable by advertising or propaganda. Parents buy expensive and ridiculous toys because their children are subjected to intense advertising campaigns approaching the Brave New World threshold. Just how much free will is in the child’s demand or the parent’s compliance? More advertising means more demand and still higher rates of compliance, which leaves eventually no space for free will.

Perhaps free will is the power to act against all odds and rational forces? Only if we miscalculate the odds and misread the forces. A rebel who chooses the gallows over clemency—is he irrational or does he simply value his ideology too highly? Considering that he has risked his life for ideological goals, it is reasonable to believe that he places a much higher value on his ideology than we do. Or if not on ideology, then on the pride he takes in his stiff-necked allegiance to his ideas, even if he doubts them deep inside.

The last refuge of free will is, in Primo Levy’s words, “the power to refuse consent,” the last-minute hopeless revolt against one’s murderers herding him into the shooting pit. But there, too, the supposed free will is really a rational choice for people strong enough to take control of themselves when they appear to be under their murderers’ control.

The notion of free will may be an euphemism akin to “market pricing,” both really being a product of an immense number of complex interactions, theoretically predictable but in practice too complex to predict.