When I think about what it means to be free, I come to the conclusion that I am as free as my choice of experiences and to the extent that I can choose to change my circumstances. In other words, independent choice and agency are freedom, and freedom is a matter of degree. I think this is a useful definition because it’s inclusive: it encompasses the negative liberty concept of “freedom from coercion,” since being credibly threatened reduces my effective options, while accounting for limits to freedom that are not coercive, which are systemic and environmental.
But seeing as it’s a matter of degree, could I determine how free I am? How would I measure it? Is there a unit of freedom, “libertons” maybe? Does anyone study this sort of thing? Are there scientific papers on levels of freedom? It turns out there are, and that unfortunately for me, those who seriously study freedom have a more specific approach. They extend the concept of negative liberties to its ultimate economic, political, and social conclusions, with an emphasis on the role of the government. Political scientists William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens at the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank, define freedom strictly by how little the government obliges one to do. They’ve taken this standard and applied it to public policy with enough fine-grained precision to rank the fifty states according to how free they are, in their study “Embargoed: Freedom in the 50 States.”
The study’s commitment to defining freedom by the lack of government intervention is actually fairly extreme even from a libertarian standpoint. It seems as if the authors are so intent on denying any other circumstantial limit to freedom that they discard analysis of the one function of government most libertarians will recognize: protection of person and property.
We would also argue that freedom, properly understood, can be threatened as much by the weakness of the state as by overbearing state intervention. Individuals are less free the more they have reason to fear private assaults and depredations, and a useful government punishes private aggression vigorously. However, we focus on threats to individual liberty originating in the state. Therefore, we do not code the effectiveness of state governments in punishing rights violations. -Embargoed, Page 6
Even personal coercion, the use of force or intimidation by one person against another, is not a part of their measurement of freedom unless the aggressor is an agent of the government. While studying government interference in freedom is a valid and interesting pursuit, to rhetorically define government non-interference, and that alone, as “freedom” is actually a deeply problematic standard. On the one hand, it makes sense that, for example, laws banning marijuana or which make it illegal to videotape the police are restrictions on one’s choice of actions, and potentially very severe ones. On the other hand, taxation is a vital part of their understanding of freedom: lower taxes mean more freedom. Again, on the surface, it makes sense that the less money someone has, the more limited are their options. I would never argue that economic circumstances do not constrain agency. But most libertarians are able to make a sort of intellectual “devil’s bargain” here, accepting so much taxation to support an institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, which is limited in action to protecting that monopoly. Here there is an implicit recognition that non-legal circumstances constrain freedom: in the authors’ words, “individuals are less free” if they live in fear of violence from other individuals. But this is not actually a part of their measurements, and so freedom from taxation has an asymptotic maximum, no taxes at all, which would be the most free in this respect regardless of one’s personal safety in such a society.
With this complete exclusion of circumstances beyond impositions by the government from their measurement of tyranny, the authors are able to discount any argument that the state is an enabler of freedom by providing positive liberties. This is “compulsory welfare,” presumably as much an imposition on freedom as “compulsory upkeep of public security.” From these premises, what conclusions do we reach about the nature of freedom?