A Kind of Freedom

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?

The authors’ extremely legalistic negative liberty perspective is most appealing when it deals with what libertarians tend to categorize as “social freedom,” called “paternalism” in the study, as a counterpart to “economic freedom.” Laws against the recreational use of drugs, restricting the right to obtain marriage contract, and controlling the ownership and operation of firearms have a direct and constraining affect on the scope of choices many people can make. In theory, libertarians value these freedoms and economic freedoms equally, and the study’s scoring system (graphed on page 65) equally divides weighting between “paternalism” and the economic considerations of “fiscal policy” (taxing and spending) and “regulatory policy.” On closer inspection, though, an interesting pattern emerges.

Consider that one of the greatest regulatory concerns is “labor regulation.” (Health insurance regulation is tied in importance.) This generally involves policies which “raise the cost of doing business” such as minimum wages, workers’ compensation, and ease of unionization. Right-to-work laws, we are informed, protect “employers and employees” from the predation of a closed union shop (page 7). Many of the other regulatory concerns resolve to costs or restrictions imposed on business, and the “licensing” issue is especially interesting: it represents “guild-style rent-seeking aimed at fleecing the consumer by artificially limiting the supply of services.” It’s worth noting that businesses, through employment, are major “consumers” of skilled “services.” (Page 8.)

On the “fiscal policy” side, taxation, the eternal enemy of profit, makes up a quarter of the economic policy concerns, an eighth of the study’s total. The other side of this coin, also weighing in at a quarter of economic freedom metrics, is spending. The authors favor local-level spending over state-level spending. Ostensibly, this is because the actions of local governments are more representative of community needs than distant mandates from the state capitol. An unfortunate side effect is that poor municipalities and counties will have a harder time maintaining infrastructure and services than wealthy localities. A more positive way of looking at this, one I suspect the authors would prefer, is that prosperous citizens will not have as much of their wealth seized and redistributed to benefit the poor. Each of these considerations have a larger share of the total freedom score than any other issue; that is, none of the other governmental impositions on freedom are as important as either taxation or government spending.

There’s also something odd about the “paternalism” scores. Campaign finance regulation is listed as an affront to personal liberties, specifically free speech. The authors seem to have an inkling of who actually benefits from unrestricted campaign finance, “suspecting” that donors with deep pockets “are often lobbying for an agenda that restricts freedom in some way.” For this reason, restrictions on corporate and union donors are not considered as important as those on personal or grass-roots lobbying. On the other hand, another reason for this diminished importance is that “corporations may even prefer restrictions on what they can give to candidates so that politicians cannot shake them down for more funds.” Public financing of elections is also considered a hindrance to liberty. (Page 12.) The largest area of concern on the paternalism side is education. State regulations in this category “probably exist to serve the interests of school administrators and teachers’ unions rather than for any more highminded purpose,” the authors note. An important part of assessing a state’s infringement on educational freedom is its policies on private education: whether citizens can receive a tax credits for sending their children to private schools, or whether private school teachers must be licensed or teach according to a mandated curriculum. (Pages 14-15.)

The pattern emerging here is that the authors seem to be primarily concerned with the “economic freedom” side of things. This fits with my suspicions about the actual priorities of the libertarian movement, that when economic liberty and social liberty are at odds, the latter gets thrown under the bus, which accounts for why libertarians are more comfortable aligning or allying with the Republican party than the Democratic party. There are additional examples attesting to how libertarians often have a propertarian emphasis which obscures non-economic limits to liberty: they valorize late 19th century, which may have been a freer time for businessmen, but not for women or people of color. Another indication is the scorecards the authors provide. There is one list of rankings for state by “paternalism,” but three for economic freedom: separate fiscal and regulatory scores, and a list of combined economic scores. One of the theoretically “equal” sides of liberty is given much more finely-scaled analysis than the other. It’s important to note, too, that much of the concern over economic freedom is focused on policies which restrict businesses and employers.1

So, what are the results of all this? Who’s living free, who toils in tyranny? States in the overall top five include South Dakota, Indiana, Idaho and Missouri, while the bottom five include New York, New Jersey California, and Massachusetts. On economic freedom, beacons of liberty include both Dakotas, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Alabama, while oppressive regimes include (again) New York, New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts. If you notice something counterintuitive about this, you’re not alone.  The authors themselves note the oddity that unfree states “…make up a substantial portion of the total American population.” (Page 15.) For some reason, Americans seem to prefer living in relatively despotic regimes. Even a writer at Reason “Free Minds and Free Markets” Magazine doesn’t buy it, and provides a plausible explanation. In critiquing a similar study (of economic freedom) with similar results, Nick Gillespie writes that economic freedom may be “just another word for nothing left to do.”

The simple fact is that many people–arguably most people, if population patterns are any indication–are ready, willing, and able to pay a steep premium to live in more densely populated places where things inevitably cost more money and take more time, where there are more regulations, higher taxes, bigger annoyances, you name it.

It’s useful to think of any given area as making a deal with people who might live there: We’ll throw off this much employment opportunity, this many diversions, this much action, at a given price –a figure that includes not only money but all the sorts of petty tyrannies that zoning and planning boards routinely generate.

Ruger and Sorens respond to this idea on page 23 of “Embargoed” by, essentially, arguing that Alabama may someday be the new New York. They support this with an observation that internal migration generally flows from unfree states to freer states and (by way of quoting another writer) that the cultural and social Meccas of today were once backwater cities, pining for the “dynamic freedom” once offered by cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York in the 19th century, which “led to their rise.” In addition to possessing the same blind spots with regard to freedom in this conception of a 19th century Golden Age (rather than a Gilded Age) noted above, the authors have a strange understanding of how and why cities form and grow. Chicago and Los Angeles were once backwaters because they were once frontier towns, and the major factor in their growth was the pattern of western expansion and settlement. The “economic freedom” they offered was that of an unsettled wilderness. Exploitation of natural resources and land for cultivation were their main draws. New York has a similar story stretching back to colonial history, but it’s worth noting that it didn’t overtake Philadelphia as America’s premier city until a massive and ambitious public works project, the Eerie Canal, opened up the agricultural production of the Midwest to distribution at New York’s ports. The growth of New York City was aided and abetted by big government spending. It’s also not clear that even if, say, Sioux Falls were to overtake Los Angeles, it wouldn’t eventually have to institute similar policies. “Unfree” policies may actually accrete around densely populated areas for a reason.

New York actually provides a good example of what is really going on in this conception of freedom, and why it seems very odd and out of touch. On page 15 the authors write:

New York is the least free by a considerable margin. This will surprise few residents of the Empire state.

All I can say to this is that as a person who lived in New York for most of his life, this absolutely does surprise me. I wouldn’t consider myself more free living in South Dakota, in any case.2 There are problems with New York, of course. If someone simply wanted to argue that it’s a prohibitively expensive place to live, I could not and would not offer any argument. But there’s a big difference, it seems to me, between economic pragmatism, on the one hand, and the authors’ concept of economic “freedom” on the other. Even greater is the difference between this concept of freedom and what I perceive to be the actual, living experience of being free. On the one hand, I can’t afford to live in New York without a very good job, a constraint on my choices, but on the other, I’d very much like to live and work in New York City and consider it to provide good employment, social, cultural, and entertainment opportunities. Even when I was working in the city, though, I wasn’t able able to maintain the lifestyle I wanted within driving distance inside the state. I didn’t pack up my bags for the liberated land of Alabama, though. I just rented an apartment in New Jersey, a comparatively less expensive state even if it is nearly as much of a tyranny.3

An article on the blog “newgeography” written by Fred Siegel looks at New York’s issues from the perspective of economic pragmatism: the author’s concerns are practical matters which people really have to consider when deciding where to live, such as employment opportunity and quality, cost of living, taxes, etc. He doesn’t elevate these concerns to the lofty heights of ideals like freedom, instead using realistic analysis to answer the question, why has New York led the country in out-migration? His summary of reasons is revealing:

…a new Marist poll released last week suggests that the rate is likely to increase: 36 percent of New Yorkers under 30 are planning to leave over the next five years. Why are all these people fleeing?

For one thing, according to a recent survey in Chief Executive, New York State has the second-worst business climate in the country. (Only California ranks lower.) People go where the jobs are, so when a state repels businesses, it repels residents, too. It’s also telling that in the Marist poll, 62 percent of New Yorkers planning to leave cited economic factors—including cost of living (30 percent), taxes (19 percent), and the job environment (10 percent)—as the primary reason.

Notice that while he leads with a focus on employment opportunity, this makes up a small part of the actual reasons for leaving his sources cite: despite conceptually tying employment concerns to “economic factors,” the “job environment” is a minor factor. The most important factor seems to be cost of living. Gillespie has an interesting take on this:

Fewer tax and regulatory hassles and, most important, a tremendously lower cost of living are, in the end, probably not that important to people… Living in [a small Texas town] in particular taught me that the cost of living is far less important than the demand for living.

By the most basic of economic axioms, demand for something increases its price. The cost of living in New York may not reflect artificial legal impositions on the economy so much as popular demand for its various advantages. There is an embedded argument for the spirit of my conception of liberty here: what people seem to value is a choice in meaningful options for how to spend their time. They will prefer to live in places that support a breadth of options. Ruger and Sorens even note that in terms of migration, “…the positive effect of personal freedom is actually more than twice as large as that of economic freedom.” (Page 18.) The freedoms, even in terms of strictly government-focused negative liberty, that matter to people are those that affect their variety of options and experiences in life, whether this is their freedom to marry, their control over their reproduction,4 their ability to indulge in recreational vices, etc. Business regulation and taxes are secondary concerns. People don’t generally demand that the government stay out of their financial lives anywhere near as much as they demand that their lives are rich in diverse activities and freedom to change their circumstances. It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that prosperous and populous places with a strong public infrastructure and social safety net provide these, whatever they may take in taxation. So who, exactly, does economic freedom matter to?

Perhaps looking at the article in Chief Executive Siegel cites would be instructive. If nothing else, I trust businessmen to approach public policy with a pragmatic eye towards profit rather than an idealistic search for moral values. Like “Embargoed,” it offers a ranking of states (here, according to the surveyed opinions of CEOs), and there are familiar losers: New York, New Jersey, and California are in the bottom five. Interestingly, though, their first place winner, Texas, has a modest 15th place in the Mercatus study’s economic freedom rankings. Could it be that economic freedom doesn’t even matter to CEOs?

Ruger and Sorens praise Texas for its low taxes and spending, generally loose labor regulation, lack of obligation on employers to contribute to worker’s comp funds, and deregulation. These align with the chief concerns of the CEOs surveyed: taxation, regulation, and employment flexibility. Issues such as health insurance regulation and eminent domain, which hurt Texas’ ranking in “Embargoed,” don’t appear on the CEOs’ radars. In fact, one area where they two rankings butt heads is over education: the CEOs seem to prize quality education and the article chides Texas for its poor policy in this regard, while the Mercatus study praises Texas for its lack of educational regulation. In general, though, the biggest factors in “economic freedom” correspond with the desires of businessmen.5 While the CEOs are generally as practical as I expected, describing their concerns in terms of what is good for business, there is an area in which they take on an idealistic tone.

One of the key tasks of this analysis is to untangle the relationship between the conception of the universal ideal of freedom expressed in “Embargoed,” the policies it represents, and the actual concerns of most people. The authors use a universal moral ideal, liberty, to describe policies that seem to be special interests by tying the needs and desires of businessmen to the lofty goal of freedom. The CEOs, too, express their concerns in a universal tone, tying their interests to those of ordinary people. They are much more frank and mercenary in their manner of expressing it, however. Consider this complaint about environmental regulation:

Then there is [California’s] carbon emission law (AB 32), which the Small Business Roundtable and PRI say will cost half a million in foregone jobs in 2011 and up to 1.3 million jobs by 2020. What’s more, it is by no means certain the law will reduce carbon emissions since it only applies to California.

It’s not clear how much of a practical concern it is to CEOs how many jobs will be aborted by this policy, since they would be the ones making more conservative hiring decisions in reaction to the constraints this policy places on them. One surveyed businessman is very open about the implications here:

We need some political backbone to control spending, address out-of-control debts, and use common sense on environmental and other governmental regulations. Quit demonizing businesses. Who do they think provide real jobs?

In other words, give us the policies we want or we’re taking your jobs and going to Texas. Employment, the source of most peoples’ livelihood, is a bargaining chip. Businessmen want more control over it, as evidenced by praise for the destruction of collective bargaining rights, reduction in public employment, and a desire for “labor market flexibility.” In return, ordinary people get to work for them. As one CEO puts it,

Make sure your tax scheme does not drive business to another state. Have a regulatory environment and regulators that encourage good business—not one that punishes businesses for minor infractions. Good employment laws help too. Let companies decide what benefits and terms will attract and keep the quality of employee they need. Rules that make it hard, if not impossible, to separate from a non-productive employee make companies fearful to hire or locate in a state.

In each case, the price of employment is greater control over it by employers. The economic freedom of hiring and firing thus resolves to a concentration of power in the hands of employers. The benefit to ordinary people is not so much freedom as economic survival, with a high degree of dependency. There is nothing idealistic about these concerns; they are expressed in very practical terms, although they correspond to an important part of “economic freedom.” Where the Chief Executive article becomes idealistic is in its discussion of regulations. In each of these quotes, businessmen don’t seem openly against regulation, per se. They simply want regulation to be “fair,” to not be punitive, to display common sense. They are somewhat short on details as to what, exactly, this means. This is cause for suspicion, and it’s borne out by a careful look at the criticism of California’s new emissions standards. The article’s author expresses skepticism that it will be of any use in reducing emissions since it only applies to California. Putting aside the objection that reducing emissions in one of the most populous and most car-dependent states may have significant effects on pollution, it’s clear that the author doesn’t really mean it. The concern over effectiveness is a ploy for audience sympathy, and to see that you only have to realize what a good argument it makes for expanding this job-killing regulation to all states.

The triumph of vague idealism over detailed pragmatism in regulation is most obvious when the article discusses another California environmental regulation:

Sacramento seems to take perverse delight in job-killing legislation, of which the pair of bills known as California’s “Green Chemistry Initiative” that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law in September 2008 serve as an example. The regulations mandated that “manufacturers seek safer alternatives to toxic chemicals in their products, and create tough governmental responses for lack of compliance.” When the 92-page final set of commands was issued, the “green community” demanded a rewrite with even tougher requirements.

Look at the word choice here: “mandated,” “commands,” “demanded.” This is the language of economic freedom! Instead of freely choosing business practices, entrepreneurs are forced to obey the dictates of the state. Lost in the shuffle here is any discussion of whether the Green Chemistry Initiative is actually a good idea. Are “safer alternatives to toxic chemicals in their products” bad things? Is this a front for frivolous interference? At no point does the article assess the fairness or sensibility of these laws, only the burden they represent. Business must be free from state coercion in the choice of chemicals they choose to use, or be reduced to serfdom.

If living in fear of violence reduces peoples’ freedom, how does uncertainty about the products they consume affect their liberty? Or anxiety about their future prosperity when their livelihood is entirely dependent on the whims of their employer and they lack any recourse in a confrontation? It’s clear at this point that economic freedom deserves no such lofty term. What it signifies is not the universal moral ideal of liberty, but policy that empowers business interests. If the apparent popularity of economically “unfree” states and the double emphasis ordinary people tend to place on non-economic liberty weren’t enough to demonstrate this, the CEOs’ frank discussion of labor laws and regulations should make the case very plain. Economic freedom doesn’t appeal to most people because it doesn’t actually benefit most people. Employers reap the greatest rewards of this kind of liberty. Employees (i.e., most people) gain the fringe benefit of continued subsistence.

It’s interesting to take a second look at Texas, darling of the CEOs, in the context of Siegel’s article on New York’s lack of opportunity. It’s clear that New York is losing residents and Texas is gaining them. We could attribute this to the “Texas Miracle” of job creation, fueled perhaps by an abundance of “economic freedom.” But Siegel complains that the opportunities in New York City are limited to menial and low-paying jobs with poor advancement prospects. The providence behind the Texas Miracle, meanwhile, is “race to the bottom” policies that result in poor working conditions and low-wage jobs. Siegel makes the case crystal clear when he writes that “people go where the jobs are.” All other lines of evidence indicate the people would like to go where the action is, where there is variety and culture and the personal freedom to explore a wide range of choices and experiences. But of course, if businessmen would prefer a “freer” state with fewer such options, then many people will have few practical options but to follow. Economic freedom is the freedom to follow your paymaster, even if he takes you away from vibrant and exciting places. Economic freedom is, for most people, no freedom at all. In fact, it’s just just the opposite: a reduction in choice and a destruction of independent agency. It gets the government off your boss’s back so he can climb onto yours.

Update: Salon has posted an article on the most recent release of this study, which shows that not much has changed in the past two years.

1. I want to note that this economic emphasis not part of any hidden agenda on the authors’ part, so far as I can tell. They seem genuinely interested in analyzing “personal” or “social” freedom. In their notes on methodology, they point out that most studies of this kind only discuss economic freedom. Still, there seems to be an unconscious emphasis on economic liberties. As to the party-line divides, the study discusses the correlation between freedom scores and political parties, finding that left-liberal or Democratic party strongholds, contrary to the “economic authoritarian, social libertarian” stereotype, score poorly on personal freedoms compared to right-conservative or Republican party states in certain metrics. Of course, one should take into account that in the authors’ opinion freedom is limited by, for example, regulation of alcohol and tobacco, a restriction on both consumers and producers, licensing and standards requirements for home-schooling and private education, arguably a benefit to the ultimate liberty of children by ensuring a standard of quality in education even outside the school system, and gun-control laws, which has interesting implications given their dismissal of the state’s role in providing security as a function of freedom. In general, then, social freedom corresponds closely with Republican party platform planks, thus aligning their ideal of personal freedom more closely with the party favoring their ideal of economic freedom. The areas where the authors do not investigate social or personal freedom are just as revealing of this bias (see note 4).
2. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that people with a conservative or libertarian political bent living in other states often have very strange ideas about New York which seem to be a projection of their own concerns more than anything actual New Yorkers care about. I was once involved in a Facebook discussion about New York’s laws restricting the sale and ownership of knives. As far as I could tell, I was the only participant who had actually lived in New York. The others seemed to find New York’s knife laws to be an oppressive imposition, at one point citing “Embargoed” to highlight the state’s lack of freedom, and one person even suggested that New Yorkers need to overthrow their government oppressors, by force if necessary. I can’t think of many political issues most actual New Yorkers care less about than whether they can buy certain kinds of knives, and this includes conservatives in New York.
3. The study’s evaluation of New Jersey is another good example of the variance between the importance of “economic freedom,” the lived experience of being free, and how out-of-touch these rankings feel as a result. The authors offer the Garden State this liberatory advice: “Cut state funding to local school districts and use the savings to cut income, property, and cigarette taxes.” All of a sudden, there are a host of questions about the authors’ priorities. Perhaps children in poor towns, which can’t afford to provide quality schools with local funding alone, will make up for their lack of opportunity due to stunted education by being able to buy a pack of Camels on the cheap? It all balances out in the end. On the plus side, their recommendations for “asset forfeiture,” requiring a higher burden of proof and redirecting funds from law enforcement, adroitly recognizes a true bane of liberty in New Jersey: the revenue-focused highway robbery of its traffic courts system.
4. Interestingly, while the authors collected data on abortion rights, they did not incorporate them into their index. They cite the moral ambiguity of the issue, and on similar grounds they exclude analysis of the death penalty. Reproductive freedom probably ranks very highly in the concerns of the “left-liberals” they describe as not being as socially libertine as commonly thought. This is another area where the authors’ evaluation of personal liberty seems suspiciously compatible with right-conservative and Republican party concerns. Rather than actively courting this interest, the aim here is (seemingly) to avoid offending a conservative audience by not taking a stand even on issues where an “intrusion by the state” focus seems to have a very clear implication. Which party or political tendency would be most offended by decrying government restrictions on access to abortion, or the death penalty as an unacceptable exercise of power by the state? How many libertarians actually believe life begins at conception, or that it’s a good thing for the state to use deadly force more frequently? On the other hand, they are very clear about supporting gay marriage and marijuana legalization, so it’s possible that this represents a sincere difference of opinion between the authors. It’s also just as possible that there is no even theoretical way to construe legal restrictions on gay marriage or recreational drug use as consistent with a libertarian perspective, “tying their hands,” in a sense.
5. In fairness, the Chief Executive article also takes into account factors which “Embargoed” does not, which will necessarily skew the results.

8 thoughts on “A Kind of Freedom

  1. As a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, I can tell you that absolutely the “job killing” emission standards have improved the quality of the air immensely. The only time you see “brown skies” anymore is when there is a large fire, or the Santa Ana winds are blowing half of the desert out to sea. When I was a kid, there were days when I would have trouble breathing after spending more than an hour outside. That just doesn’t happen any more. How do I measure the reduction in jobs against the ability to breathe the air in the context of Freedom?

    Well, the answer to that is obvious to me…

    • Hence the lack of detail about what these regulations do besides cost businessmen money. Everyone is for “common sense” regulations until you look at the purpose of supposedly senseless ones. Thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: The Mask of Liberty « A Register of Follies

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  4. Pingback: Quick Note: Should the Government Get Out of the Marriage Business? | A Register of Follies

  5. Pingback: “Freedom Industries” and the Freedom of Industries. | A Register of Follies

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