David R. Henderson  

Yglesias on Freedom in the 50 States

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The Mercatus Center, for which I have done a few studies, is about to release a study of the degree of freedom in the 50 states of the union. I'll probably have more to say once it's released, but enough of the discussion of the data has been released to allow some commentary now. Some people, including Matt Yglesias, have already commented.

I found Yglesias's discussion disappointing and, in one instance, apparently contradicting basic supply and demand.

Yglesias does make one good point: that it's difficult to say that someone's freedom to drive while using his cell phone should count as a clear positive when that person's use of the cell phone could endanger the freedom of others to drive and not be run into. Handling this requires some kind of cost/benefit analysis. It will be interesting to see, when the study comes out, how the authors have handled it .

Much of rest of Yglesias's critique, though, is off-target.

Start with his attribution of motives. He writes:
"Some of the problem here arise[s] from arbitrary weighting of different categories in order to simultaneously preserve libertarianism as a distinct brand and also preserve libertarianism's strong alliance with social conservatism. Consequently, a gay man's freedom to marry the love of his life is given some weight in the rankings but less than his right to purchase a gun with minimal hassle."

How does Yglesias know that the authors' motive is to "preserve libertarianism's strong alliance with social conservatism?" He doesn't. Moreover, what's his evidence that libertarianism has a strong alliance with social conservatism? When I think of social conservatives, one issue I think of is their advocacy of throwing people in prison for peacefully using drugs. But libertarians have been probably the most outspoken opponents of the drug war. Indeed, I think they have been more outspoken on this than Matt Yglesias. I also think, as, presumably does Yglesias, of social conservatives' opposition to same-sex marriage. So I'm willing to bet that social conservatives wouldn't like any positive weight on "a gay man's freedom to marry the love of his life." If the authors' goal is to "preserve libertarianism's strong alliance with social conservatism," this weighting scheme is prima facie evidence that they blew it.

In fact, one of the authors, Jason Sorens, explains their weighting:
In this edition, variables are weighted according to the value of the freedom affected by a particular policy to those people whose freedoms are at stake.

On the treatment of children's freedom, Yglesias writes:
"You might think at first that abortion rights are given zero weight for metaphysical reasons rather than reasons of cultural politics, but it turns out that permissive homeschooling laws are given weight as a factor in freedom. Children, in other words, are considered fully autonomous agents whose rights the state must safeguard vis-a-vis their own parents from birth until conception [sic] at which point they lose autonomy until graduation from high school."

Because, you know, children are just dying to attend government schools, which are really good at protecting children's autonomy.

On New York being at the bottom:
"Writing of New York, for example, they say that it is "by far the least free state in the union" and that it is therefore "no surprise that New York residents have been heading for the exits: 9.0 percent of the state's 2000 population, on net, left the state for another state between 2000 and 2011, the highest such figure in the nation."

That's great if you want to build a tendentious case against New York, but in fact the state's population is higher than it was ten years ago since it experiences large levels of international in-migration."

Again, I doubt that the authors want to "build a tendentious case against New York." Notice again, how Yglesias reverts to motives. And notice also that he doesn't challenge their data on out-migration. Of course, New York experiences large levels of international in-migration: if you don't speak English and you want to get a good start, New York city, in particular is a good place to move to.
Also, as John Thacker points out:
"New York's population may be higher than it was ten years ago, but that's a pretty low bar to clear. The state did rank 47th among the 50 states plus DC in population growth rate from 2000 to 2010, after all. (And one of the states it beat had a massive hurricane.)"

Yglesias on land use restrictions, something he has been excellent on:
"This is in fact an excellent example of something the Mercatus Center could be teaching New York. A lighter hand in property development rules would be great for the state and let it grow much more rapidly. But conversely, this particular lack of liberty issue wouldn't be a problem unless there were strong underlying demand for living in New York."

So Yglesias grants that restrictions on development matter. But his last sentence is simply wrong: for a given demand, no matter how strong or weak it is, a restriction in supply makes prices higher than otherwise. More to the point, a given restriction in supply represents a loss of liberty.

Or maybe he's not denying the effect on price but simply the effect on liberty because if not many people want to live there, then restricting development doesn't reduce freedom that much. But isn't that precisely the methodology that he attacked in discussing the freedom of gay men to marry?


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Greg G writes:

Yglesias is right on target. The evidence that libertarianism has a strong alliance with social conservatism is the fact that members of both groups are much more likely to vote Republican than Democratic.

Even the Tea Party is mostly just a rebranding of people who voted for George W. Bush twice and continue to vote Republican. Of course there are important differences between the two groups. If there weren't then there wouldn't be any need for an alliance in the first place.

As for Jason Sorens, he left the fabulous freedom of Texas supposedly because he hated the climate there. Where did he choose to go? He chose the most oppressive of all states, New York, and the delightful climate of...Buffalo, to be employed by...a state funded university. You gotta love this kind of irony.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Greg G,
On the alleged alliance, do you care to reply to the actual argument I made?

Steven Flaeck writes:

So... just glancing at the map, "freedom" heavily prefers rural areas which makes one wonder how much freedom is just a function of population density and the corresponding ease with which externalities can be internalized.

Growing up in Oklahoma (between 9th and 4th when I left) it seemed like any activity which would have Californians up-in-arms was simply sited away from people because land was cheap. New developments rarely imposed on others because they'd be strung along massive Federal highways away from one another. No one supported gun control because, to a first approximation, there were legal things to do if you had one; shooting ranges, hunting, plinking on your own land, were all viable pastimes and nearly everyone seemed to have done at least one at least once. Air quality control wasn't a high priority, either, because there just weren't that many sources of air pollution per square mile. Plenty of safety issues were unimportant as well, because there were often no other people to be affected. Traffic planning wasn't important because you could often just build a new road with your own money.

And that seemed to have been a conscious and possible law-demanded strategy: if you had something that would tick people off, you usually had a wide band of sparsely planted grass and berms around it, provided that there were people nearby at all. I can't imagine doing that in California and I can't imagine light regulation surviving long the moment developers decided it was better to risk ticking people off than let expensive land go to waste.

Greg G writes:

I did reply to your actual argument David. We just disagree on some things. I pointed out that if there weren't important differences between libertarians and social conservatives there wouldn't need to be an alliance between them in regards to which party they are likely to vote for in general elections. That was me agreeing that your differences with social conservatives on issues like drugs and gay marriage are real and important.

You consider the study's bias toward the libertarian position "prima facia evidence that they blew it." "It" being the attempt to support a voting alliance between the two groups. And yet their map corresponds quite closely with the red state/blue state divide. If you want to look for a shortage of "actual arguments" then prima facia arguments are a good place to start.

One thing that libertarians and social conservatives have in common is that each tends to feel they have the one true insight into really understanding what freedom is and a distaste for the policies in the states claimed to lack it in this study. Even though libertarians and social conservatives disagree on many social issues they are likely to agree on the makeup of this 'freedom map" and they are both much more likely to vote Republican than Democratic. This study will certainly remind them of that.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Greg G,
I pointed out that if there weren't important differences between libertarians and social conservatives there wouldn't need to be an alliance between them in regards to which party they are likely to vote for in general elections. That was me agreeing that your differences with social conservatives on issues like drugs and gay marriage are real and important.
OK. Good point, Greg.
You consider the study's bias toward the libertarian position "prima facia evidence that they blew it."
No, I didn't say that. I said that counting the freedom to have same-sex marriage with a positive weight is "prima facie evidence that they blew it."

David R. Henderson writes:

@Steven Flaeck,
Growing up in Oklahoma (between 9th and 4th when I left) it seemed like any activity which would have Californians up-in-arms was simply sited away from people because land was cheap.
Exactly. That's one thing that makes this study so valuable. Pretty much everyone knows that rural Oklahoma is rural and coastal California between Mill Valley and San Diego is heavily populated. But they don't know as much about freedom along various dimensions. So they can trade off their taste for freedom with their other tastes and figure out where they want to live.

Let's Be Free writes:

On matters of government policy (economic policy in particular) there is quite a bit of intersection among people with a libertarian bent and tolerant social conservatives. There is no such thing as a tolerant Democrat anymore -- government can and should intervene to pursue their interests and squash others on anything, at any time, and for any reason.

Kevin Dick writes:

I always think it's funny when left liberals try to pin down libertarians as conservative. My reply is generally something along the lines of:

"Wait a minute. Let me make a list of my positions that piss off conservatives. I'm pretty sure it's about as long as the list of ones that piss off liberals. We're equal opportunity contrarians."

shecky writes:
On matters of government policy (economic policy in particular) there is quite a bit of intersection among people with a libertarian bent and tolerant social conservatives.

There is such a thing as a tolerant social conservative?

Josh Hall writes:

David,

You said: "Yglesias does make one good point: that it's difficult to say that someone's freedom to drive while using his cell phone should count as a clear positive when that person's use of the cell phone could endanger the freedom of others to drive and not be run into. "

If your goal it to measure freedom, whether it is normatively good or bad is not a good measure of freedom. You start with a definition of freedom and then apply it rigorously.

Ken B writes:

This alleged alliance is nothing but tendentious fantasy.

Abortion.
War on drugs.
Prayer in school.
Immigration.
Gay marriage.
Pornography.
Ten Commandments on civic buildings.
TSA.
Patriot Act.

Tom in Miami writes:

Greg G: From the (large but no doubt biased) sample of libertarians I know, more voted for Obama than for either McCain or Romney--largely due to the issues of militarism, immigration, and gay rights. My libertarian friends who voted for Romney did so entirely because of Obama's belief that we can get more economic growth by getting the government to spend more money. Even if it were the case that libertarians and social conservatives both voted Republican in larger numbers than they voted Democratic, that is not by itself evidence of an alliance (that is, of purposeful coordination). Do you have any actual evidence to support your assertion that there is a libertarian-social conservative alliance?

Chris Koresko writes:

Since this discussion seems to be pretty much limited to libertarians and progressives, and since both are making references to the positions of social conservatives, I'll chime in.

To begin with, one of the widely reported results from the study was that while there is a strong connection between Republican dominance (“red state”) and economic freedom, there is no clear correlation with so-called personal freedom. In other words, it's not an trade between one kind of freedom and another; it's a trade between more freedom and less.

Part of the reason people are surprised by that is probably that they don't know the actual positions of social conservatives on personal-freedom issues. They aren't likely to learn them from the progressive mass media outlets. For the record, here is my personal set of positions on the list of issues offered by Ken B. I believe they're fairly representative of what social conservatives typically think.

Abortion: This is an issue which would properly be decided at the state level. The federal Constitution gives Congress no authority either to regulate or ban regulation of abortion. It's very rare to find a serious judicial scholar who thinks Roe v. Wade was well decided. Personally I'd support a broad state-level abortion ban on right-to-life grounds, but I admit that honorable people might disagree. It depends on when you consider a person's humanity to begin.

War on drugs: This is a disaster. No question about it. I've heard conservative talk-show hosts ranting about this. Notice how much of the driving force behind it is a combination of bureaucratic inertia and the Progressive drive to get into everybody's affairs? I do wonder why so many big-L libertarians devote so much effort to trying to legalize recreational drugs and so little to legalize therapeutic ones. The latter strike me as hugely more important.

Prayer in school: There's no reason this should be banned. There's nothing in the Constitution that requires it, and the creation of “prayer-free zones” strikes me as deeply opposed to both liberty and American tradition. Note that I am not advocating that public schools force kids to pray, only that they don't force them not to. And parents who want their kids to go to religious schools should be able to send them there on the same terms as non-religious schools.

Immigration: Conservatives of just about every stripe support immigration. Where's the issue? As far as I can tell, it's whether the U.S. ought to try and regulate immigration at all. Most of us think it should, especially to the extent that immigrants are granted access to the largess of the welfare state. We think the point of immigration is to bring in new Americans, not people who will isolate themselves in ghettos or demand that our culture adapt to theirs.

Gay marriage: Libertarians have gone completely off-track on this one. It's understandable: superficially, it looks like an issue of getting government out of the way of gays who wish to marry whom they like. A little more thought suggests that's not the right picture. In reality, gay marriage is mostly about the extension of access to government's coercive apparatus to gays who wish to use it against those private individuals and organizations who reject the notion that marriage can take on non-traditional forms. This is an expansion of government's reach, which I suspect is the reason so many Progressives support it.

Pornography: Pornography can be very destructive to the person who partakes of it regularly. On liberty grounds I would not ban it, but given the ease with which it can be consumed incidentally and unintentionally I would not object to restrictions on its availability, provided they are implemented with the goal of limiting exposure to pornography only to those who deliberately seek it out.

Ten Commandments on civic buildings: Why is that an issue? Seriously.

TSA: Currently has the support of basically nobody outside the federal government. If memory serves, even the guy who originally set it up thinks it's out of control. As for airline safety, a lot of conservatives take positions that are pretty close to what a small-L libertarian might: experience teaches us that an alert and prepared citizen is more likely to stop a terror attack than a TSA agent. We should end the tight restrictions on carrying potential (and maybe actual) weapons – they give the advantage to whomever invests the effort and takes the risk to bring weapons illegally, and a person who does that is more likely to have nefarious motives than honorable ones. And those restrictions are the main justification for the ritual humiliation we all go through when we fly. Furthermore, we should open up airport security to private contractors. The few airports which have been permitted to use private security have demonstrated substantially better security along with less intrusiveness than what the rest get with the TSA.

Patriot Act: This was passed as an emergency measure in the wake of the 9-11 terror attacks. I believe the intent was to deliberately err on the side of security in the liberty-vs-security trade, but then refine or replace the law as more was learned about the threat, so that a better compromise could be reached. As far as I can tell, that second step has never been taken. It should be, and soon.

mark writes:

I was actually surprised at how poorly the rural states I am familiar with did, Nebraska and Iowa. But I could add Kansas, Wyoming and Arkansas to the list. Really, would have thought most of those states would have been in the top 15 and their not even close. David don't want to impinge on your freedom but if you chose to comment on the study could you mention something about Wyoming and Nevada and their disappointing scores. That would help the alliance! Really, interesting the large borders Mississippi/Alabama,Illinois/Indiana with sharply different results. Basically, commenting on my ill informed opinions because I think that they are fairly common. Lastly, gambling is quite problematic for me. Yes, state x allows casinos but only a few people can run them and they almost never allow sports gaming which is about the only kind of gaming I am interested in. I think an argument could be made that the existence of these monopolies actually decrease human freedom.

Chris Koresko writes:

David Henderson: Yglesias does make one good point: that it's difficult to say that someone's freedom to drive while using his cell phone should count as a clear positive when that person's use of the cell phone could endanger the freedom of others to drive and not be run into. Handling this requires some kind of cost/benefit analysis. It will be interesting to see, when the study comes out, how the authors have handled it.

I wouldn't have given Yglesias that much credit. It strikes me that he's doing a a bit of rhetorical jujitsu here by speaking of a security concern (reducing the danger from distracted drivers) as a kind of freedom. Admittedly it could be, but only in the extreme case that one is so concerned about that risk as to seriously consider not driving because of it. In reality, this is a pretty clear-cut trade between liberty and security, not a trade between two liberties.

Jonathan writes:
So Yglesias grants that restrictions on development matter. But his last sentence is simply wrong: for a given demand, no matter how strong or weak it is, a restriction in supply makes prices higher than otherwise.

Housing services are provided by a housing stock. Property development rules likely restrict (positive) flows, not existing stock. Matt's claims are plausible for reasons linked to the asymmetries described by Glaeser & Gyourko (JPE 2005). If demand intersects supply on the vertical part of the supply curve, rules against (new) development won't affect the equilibrium price.

Brandon Berg writes:

Chris Koresko:
Prayer in school isn't banned, and nobody wants to ban it. The only thing that's banned is school promotion of prayer. Students can and do pray at school during their free time, both individually and as part of organized prayer groups, and no one is trying to ban this.

Brandon Berg writes:

But conversely, this particular lack of liberty issue wouldn't be a problem unless there were strong underlying demand for living in New York.

It seems to me that advocates of big government get the cause and effect reversed here. It's not that big government promotes prosperity and makes a place attractive to live, but rather that prosperity and other desirable/useful features of the city (e.g., access to shipping ports, high population) enable the growth of big government. The growth of cities is highly path-dependent; cities that were big in the past tend to be big in the present due to network effects, giving government a captive tax base who won't be driven away by an extra 5% of income in taxes. The network effects, not the government spending, make the extra taxes worth putting up with.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Josh Hall,
If your goal it to measure freedom, whether it is normatively good or bad is not a good measure of freedom. You start with a definition of freedom and then apply it rigorously.
Good point. And so I'll say it differently. If people are free to run into me with their cars because they're on their cell phones, I'm less free. Freedom means freedom from coercion. A big SUV T-boning me is pretty coercive. What say you?
@Jonathan,
If demand intersects supply on the vertical part of the supply curve, rules against (new) development won't affect the equilibrium price.
Not true. Allowing additional building would have shifted the supply curve to the right, causing prices to fall. Not allowing it keeps supply where it is, keep prices higher than otherwise.

8 writes:

If rural areas are more free, then that has a big impact on immigration policy, no? Do you want more people and less freedom?

Steve Z writes:

I am always surprised when I hear stories about economists who vote; but I suppose I tip at restaurants when traveling out of state, so I should not be.

The colloquy regarding cell-phone use while driving raises the issue of freedom and negligence.

I would state the problem like this. If your voluntary behavior is likely to reduce your attention, and thereby increase involuntary behavior that impacts the freedom of others, how do you measure the impact of laws that curtail your ability to engage in the initial voluntary behavior?

Seems pretty straightforward in theory (difficult in practice)- just look at the expected value. Let's say people have a certain revealed preference for texting while driving, based on the rate of change in texting while driving after a certain law with a known rate of enforcement and penalty is passed; call that A. Let's also say that people have a revealed preference for not getting T-boned, which can be derived in any number of ways; call that B. Compare A and B, and you can compute the impact on freedom that the cell-phone laws have.

Is that a useful way to think about the problem? I don't know.

Jeff writes:

There are so many different dimensions along the freedom/coercion axis (as Arnold Kling likes to put it) that a single study which purports to measure them state by state is going to be open to all sorts of nit-picking from the left or the right based on the individual preferences of those commenting. The problem is "freedom" writ large is a concept that doesn't easily lend itself to quantification. So I guess I kind of agree with Yglesias to some degree about the study being flawed like that.

That said, I'm guessing Yglesias' criticisms are based in large part on the fact that his beloved blue states of New York, Maryland, and wherever else didn't grade out all that highly. If the report had been more complimentary of New York and its ilk, I doubt you'd have heard a peep from him.

George Balella writes:

I like how California is low on the economic freedom rating yet it gets consistently more than 50% of ALL venture capital dollars, is tenth in median income and is the worlds 9th largest economy. In fact the Mercatus "economically free" states tend to have the lowest median incomes. Some ideologies are just hard to prop up with facts but Mercatus has a job to do.

David Eakin writes:

@George Balella
I like how California is low on the economic freedom rating yet it gets consistently more than 50% of ALL venture capital dollars, is tenth in median income and is the worlds 9th largest economy.

Have you considered the that California's economic policies are a result of its desirability as a place to do business? People want to do business in California because it has a huge economy, developed infrastructure, proximity to other businesses, and offers access to a world class talent pool.

These assets allow the state to enact onerous economic policy. California will remain extremely attractive to venture capitalists in spite of the burden its policies place on its residents and businesses.

States like South Dakota and Idaho can't afford to have the same economic policies as California because they don't have the same benefits that California can offer.

Josh Hall writes:

David,

Sorry coming back to you late. The infringement on your negative liberty was when the person T-boned your car. Whether or not the cellphone was the proximate cause seems of little consequence to a proper measure of negative liberty.

The report does not say people should have the right to T-bone people. That would clearly be a positive freedom. It says the state should not infringe upon their right to use their cell phones while in their cars. That sometimes that activity causes infringement on others negative liberties is no different than saying I have a right to my fists, even though I might punch someone with them.

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