Libertarian Fallacies

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March 29 2013 9:59 AM

Freedom Map and The Fallacies of Libertarianism

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Freedom, as a concept, has a lot of positive affect in the United States so in an apparent effort to get people to hate freedom the libertarian Mercatus Center devised the following rankings which state that people who live in Sioux Falls are freer than people who live in Salt Lake City who are freer than people who live in Dallas who are freer than people who live in Portland Oregon who, in turn, are freer than people who live in New York City which is located in the least-free state of the entire union.

Personally, I do think freedom is important so fortunately we can salvage the concept from the wreckage of Mercatus. Some of the problem here arise 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. A woman's right to terminate a pregnancy or a doctor's right to offer a pregnant woman treatment she considers appropriate are given zero weight. 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 at which point they lose autonomy until graduation from high school.

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But when you slip into the purely economic realm, the concepts actually get sloppier and more ridiculous. Texas is deemed very economically free in most respects but it's dinged for the fact that its local governments have relatively high levels of debt. What on earth does that have to do with freedom? This is simply a policy choice. Arguably, a correct policy choice. Texas' population is growing much more rapidly than the average American state so it's entirely appropriate for its localities to engage in above-average levels of borrowing.

Nor is there any coherent treatment of the question your "freedom" to trample all over my legitimate interests. New Hampshire, for example, ranks number one in "travel freedom" in part because New Hampshire has lax laws about your right to engage in the dangerous practice of driving while talking on a cell phone. Obviously states attempt to curb unsafe driving in part out of paternalistic interests, but also because safe drivers have a strong interest in not seeing our property or our persons destroyed by unsafe driving. One possible reply is that instead of prophylactic rules about safe driving practices we could let people drive how they want and address claims of harm ex post. But "freedom from tort abuse"—i.e, making it difficult for the victims of the reckless behavior of others to secure financial compensation—is considered a dimension of freedom. What's more, while Mercatus does consider the right to buy cheap beer to be an important dimension of freedom and also considers the right to dangerously talk on your phone while driving a car, they don't consider the right to drive while drunk to be an important dimension of freedom. Presumably because that would be considered beyond the pale politically.

What's particularly distressing here is that while any reasonable person can look at this map and see that something's gone wrong, Mercatus has persuaded itself that these findings are empirically confirmed. 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. A larger issue, however, is prices. If New York is so terrible, how come Brooklyn is so much more expensive than it was ten or fifteen years ago? Perhaps the population would grow more rapidly if housing costs were lower. 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. Does that demand exist because people put very little weight on freedom in deciding where they'd like to live? The much more plausible explanation is that no normal person's experience of freedom tracks the conclusion that New York is less free than South Dakota. You can, obviously, do a much wider range of things in New York than in South Dakota. People attempting to construct some alternate definition of freedom that will better-track the libertarian political program will try and fail to put together a metaphysically workable distinction between "negative" and "positive" freedoms that immediately collapses in the face of air pollution, unsafe driving, lawsuits, etc.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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