Free monad considered harmful
Published on September 27, 2017, last updated January 25, 2018
Now and then blog posts explaining and promoting use of free monads pop up, so for the sake of diversity I decided to write a post advising against free monads. What I’m going to tell is not new and there have been good comments on Reddit and in chats explaining downsides of free monads as basis of Haskell programs, but I thought it might be useful to write a proper post on the topic.
What and why
I’m not going to explain free monads here, as it has been done before. As the aim of this post is to show that one should not write program logic in free monads, I can assume that the reader is already familiar with the concept. Nevertheless, let’s reiterate quickly some points, so we have a proper continuous narrative here.
Free monad is a data type that given a functor f
gives us a monad Free f
“for free” (or the most “unconstrained” monad we can get for that functor),
like this:
data Free f a
= Pure a
 Free (f (Free f a))
instance Functor f => Functor (Free f) where
fmap f (Pure a) = Pure (f a)
fmap f (Free x) = Free (fmap f <$> x)
instance Functor f => Applicative (Free f) where
pure = Pure
Pure f <*> Pure a = Pure (f a)
Pure f <*> Free x = Free (fmap f <$> x)
Free x <*> my = Free ((<*> my) <$> x)
instance Functor f => Monad (Free f) where
return = pure
Pure a >>= f = f a
Free x >>= f = Free ((>>= f) <$> x)
(Showing Functor
and Applicative
instances here even though everyone
seem to skip them.)
Being so abstract, free monad can’t really do anything but to build a data structure representing monadic computation, which we can then inspect or interpret in some way. Let’s steal an example from another blog post:
data Terminal a
= GetLine (String > a)
 PrintLine String a
deriving Functor
type TerminalM = Free Terminal
liftF :: Functor f => f a > Free f a
liftF = Free . fmap return
getLine :: TerminalM String
getLine = Free (GetLine return)
printLine :: String > TerminalM ()
printLine str = liftF (PrintLine str ())
myProgram :: TerminalM ()
myProgram = do
a < getLine
b < getLine
printLine (a ++ b)
Here we go:

Terminal
is our functor algebra 
TerminalM
is our free monad 
liftF
is a way to lift a functor value into the free monad 
getLine
andprintLine
are the actions in the free monad 
myProgram
is the entire program consisting of those actions bound together using monadic bind.
So now we could take this myProgram
value and interpret/transform it in
many ways. We could make an IO ()
action from it that accepts two lines of
input, concatenates them, and prints the result to the console—the classic
example of the power free monad gives.
Problems with free monads
Inspection
I’ll start by stating that free monads are not that easy to inspect as it may seem from introductory blog posts. Sure, we could write an interpreter:
interpret :: TerminalM a > IO a
interpret = foldFree $ \case
GetLine next >
next <$> System.IO.getLine
PrintLine str next >
next <$ putStrLn str
But it’s necessary to understand that in order to analyze myProgram
, we
would need to provide a full environment for getting through its layers. For
example, we would need a way to generate the values getLines
would return
(we need to give something to the function inside GetLine
to make it
produce next action), and since we have a monad here, further actions can
depend on those values (we can’t pass something dummy there!).
Truth to be told, functions will almost inevitably be in the functor you
build upon (as in GetLine
), and functions are not very inspectable. Sure,
this is just a consequence of the fact that free monads can model things
with complex behavior, but it was necessary to note that explicitly in a
post such as this.
Efficiency
Another problem is inefficiency. Recall the definition of (>>=)
for free
monad:
instance Functor f => Monad (Free f) where
return = pure
Pure a >>= f = f a
Free x >>= f = Free ((>>= f) <$> x)
What does it mean? Every time we use (>>=)
(and with do
notation it’s
all the time), the whole structure accumulated so far needs to be traversed
with fmap
and then at the end (where Pure
thing hangs) (>>= f)
will be
applied and chances are the “snake” will grow by one layer. With (>>=)
being leftassociative, this is obviously inefficient.
There is a way to deal with this though. Since the reason why
leftassociative (>>=)
is inefficient is pretty much the same why
leftassociative (++)
would be inefficient, we could use an analogue of
difference lists for monads which is called codensity monad, and is best
explained in the paper “Asymptotic Improvement of Computations over Free
Monads”.
This approach makes construction of free monads more efficient, but when we
want to inspect the resulting data structure we still must “build” it, just
like we must apply all the composed functions with difference lists to get a
“normal” list out of it. See a readytouse solution is the
Control.Monad.Condensity
module.
Similarly, there are other efforts to improve the situation, for example in
the paper “Freer monads, more extensible
effects” the authors
introduce freer monads which further lighten prerequisites on the type
f
, so it doesn’t even need to be a Functor
. The solution involves
storing the function (a Kleisli arrow) to apply to some initial value and
just composing functions on the right hand side of (>>=)
with that using
Kleisli composition in a fashion that is quite similar to the approach based
on coyoneda lemma for functors.
Freer monads are still mostly an esoteric zone and it’s not common to see them used, but they are at least better than free monads with respect to efficiency of building of actual data structure.
Composability
Now there is the third issue: combining code in free monads with different functor types. This can be solved by making the actual functor type polymorphic and then using functor injection as shown for example in this blog post. We can apply this to the terminal example:
  Could get fancier, but this will do.
class (Functor f, Functor g) => Inject f g where
inject :: f a > g a
project :: g a > Maybe (f a)
getLine :: Inject Terminal f => Free f String
getLine = Free (inject $ GetLine return)
printLine :: Inject Terminal f => String > Free f ()
printLine str = liftF (inject $ PrintLine str ())
myProgram :: Inject Terminal f => Free f ()
myProgram = do
a < getLine
b < getLine
printLine (a ++ b)
Which means if you’re clever and you really want to write composable code with free monads, then you can do that. But is it really the best way to write code?
A better solution
So we want to be able to interpret a monadic action in different ways, inspect/transform it, etc. Well, Haskell already has a mechanism for giving different concrete meanings to the same abstract (read polymorphic) thing. It’s called type classes. It’s simple, efficient, familiar, composable, and if you really want to build data structures representing your actions to do whatever you want with them, guess what… you can do that too.
Let’s return to our (or “their”, since it’s stolen anyway) terminal example.
We start by defining a MonadTerm
type class which abstracts actions
related to working with a terminal:
class Monad m => MonadTerm m where
getLine :: m String
printLine :: String > m ()
myProgram :: MonadTerm m => m ()  TerminalM ()
myProgram = do
a < getLine
b < getLine
printLine (a ++ b)
More formally, this approach is called final tagless encoding, you can read more about it here.
More efficient
Now we can have a very efficient implementation in terms of IO
:
instance MonadTerm IO where
getLine = System.IO.getLine
printLine = printLine
main :: IO ()
main = myProgram
Or more realistically in a more complex application it would be something on
top of ReaderT r IO
, following the ReaderT
design
pattern, so
the instance definition would be more like:
instance (HasMyEnvA r, HasMyEnvB r) => MonadFoo (ReaderT r IO) where
 …
The approach with using this simple ReaderT
based stack for things that
actually run real actions is nice as explained in the post I link to above.
It’s exceptionfriendly because of the stateless nature of the reader monad
transformer and the context is easy to manipulate. In particular, I advise
to always use lenses with this setup because with them it’s possible to
change (not only read) a specific component of the abstract r
thing, so
you can have a region of code with changed environment using local
with
Lens'
and withReader
with the more general Lens
type.
Note that if performance is of any concern, it’s possible to use
INLINEABLE
and SPECIALIZE
pragmas to squeeze out any undesirable
polymorphism for maximal efficiency (unless the polymorphic code is defined
in the same module where it’s used with concrete monadic stack, in which
case GHC is able to specialize by itself).
Free monads can’t possibly compete with this approach in terms of performance.
Still inspectable
The second reason to prefer writing in polymorphic monads to writing in free
monads is that this approach is strictly more powerful in the sense that
we can recover the same data structure simply by defining an instance of
MonadTerm
:
instance MonadTerm TerminalM where
getLine = Free (GetLine return)
printLine str = liftF (PrintLine str ())
myFreeProgram :: TerminalM ()
myFreeProgram = myProgram
Let’s see:

the effects in
myProgram
are constrained, we only use the methods ofMonadTerm
there;  we can turn it into very efficient runable code without the need to first construct a data structure and then interpret it;

still we can do everything that we could do if we wrote
myProgram
in free monad directly.
Composable
If we want to combine actions from two different type classes, we just need to merge the constraints:
class Monad m => MonadTerm m where
getLine :: m String
printLine :: String > m ()
class Monad m => MonadLog m where
log :: String > m ()
myProgram :: (MonadTerm m, MonadLog m) => m ()
myProgram = do
a < getLine
log "got a"
b < getLine
log "got b"
printLine (a ++ b)
And this is familiar to any Haskeller. No brain damage can be incurred from reading the code. With some effort we can still recover the same data structure we would get if we wrote directly in free monad, and G. Allais showed in the comments that one in fact can do the following transformation:
newtype LogTerm f a = LogTerm { runLogTerm :: Free f a }
deriving (Functor, Applicative, Monad)
instance Inject Terminal f => MonadTerm (LogTerm f) where
getLine = LogTerm (Free $ inject (GetLine return))
printLine str = LogTerm (liftF $ inject (PrintLine str ()))
instance Inject Log f => MonadLog (LogTerm f) where
log str = LogTerm (liftF $ inject (Log str ()))
liberate :: (Inject Terminal f, Inject Log f)
=> (forall m. (MonadTerm m, MonadLog m) => m a)
> Free f a
liberate = runLogTerm
So it is possible to go from type classbased representation to free representation quite straightforwardly.
Conclusion
Of course the title is a click bait and I do not mean to be so categorical. Free monads do have their uses, but in most cases I’d think twice before committing to that style of programming because it’s somewhat tedious and inefficient (unless you’re careful). So the post is just a fair warning and a demonstration of alternative solutions.