Tuesday, April 2, 2013

More on libertarian priorities

I recently had a post where I wondered about what Libertarians in the United States focused their attention onIt seems I am not alone. Consider these examples:

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.

.  I think he meant from conception until birth, above.  And also consider his later examples:
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.

Part of the problem here is that freedom is a very broad concept and different people can have very different weighting functions on what they see as being the key freedoms.  It is also a factor in economic opportunity -- without the ability to feed and clothe oneself, it is rather academic how much the locals enforce no cell phone use while driving. 

But this is precisely what I was talking about. The idea that Texas is less free because of municipal debt is odd.  People can be less free because they have mortgages but we normally consider the freedom to enter long term contracts to be a good thing. 

Now it may be that I do not have the whole picture.  But I look at the free states and I wonder exactly how these rankings reflect the actual experiences of the residents. 


  1. I came across your blog a few months ago from another similar academic blog and I like a lot of what you write. And I dislike picking fights, especially when I’m the only one talking, so I hope it doesn’t come off that way.

    Your comment on your last post on libertarian priorities and this post confuse me, because I feel like citing the Mercatus Institute of all places belies any genuine attempt to seriously evaluate “ libertarian” priorities. You’re using a study from one obscure free market-leaning economic think tank that creates an index of freedom that (surprise!) emphasizes economics, to reconfirm your bias that libertarians as a whole care predominantly about taxes/economics.

    That’s almost like someone pulling a study off of NOW to argue that liberals only care about women’s rights and not environmental issues or education.

    If you want an honest assessment of libertarian priorities, then why not just look at sources that most libertarians are familiar with/frequently read, like Reason or Cato. Do an article count divided into whatever categories you see fit to see what they write most about. This isn’t perfect of course, since a magazine is going to write more on whatever issues are popular/currently in the news, but it will certainly give you a more accurate sampling of “libertarian priorities” than two random economists at George Mason.

    Anything else is just giving in to some major confirmation bias.

    1. This is Joseph's thread, not mine, but I'll give this my best shot.

      While I understand the appeal of an objective metric like an article count but a variety of reasons those measures scan be misleading.

      Two alternate methods are to focus on leading figures in a group or to follow the money. Both these methods lead us to the Mercatus Center. Like the Cato Institute, Mercatus is heavily funded by the Koch brothers and, at least from an economics standpoint, its scholar list reads like the center of the libertarian universe (from Wikipedia):

      Tyler Cowen (director)
      Charles Blahous
      Peter Boettke
      Veronique de Rugy
      Peter Leeson
      Donald Boudreaux
      Bryan Caplan
      Christopher Coyne
      Robin Hanson
      Steven Horwitz
      Arnold Kling
      Maurice McTigue
      Russ Roberts
      Vernon L. Smith
      Alexander Tabarrok
      Lawrence H. White
      Bruce Yandle
      Todd Zywicki

      "Freedom in the 50 states" is arguably the most prominent publication put out by Mercatus. Using it to get a read on the libertarian establishment would seem perfectly understandable.

  2. Hi D

    Let me approach this differently than Mark. I am huge believer in free debate and I am most certainly not always right. I would be happy to post a guest post from you giving a different focus or perspective on libertarianism. You are not the first libertarian to make this comment of our blog, Megan McArdle has as well.

    If you are interested just reply to this post and I will send you my email so we can sort out details.