Freedom (for people like us) in the 50 States

The Mercatus Center just released a report called Freedom in the 50 States. It ranks states according to how “free” they are, based on issues which they’ve weighted according to their perceived importance to freedom. The report immediately garnered an onslaught of criticism for the weights it assigned certain freedoms—and for the factors it wouldn’t touch.

Mercatus decided it was a good idea to name North Dakota the freest state right after it passed the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country. Why? Because abortion wasn’t even counted in the factors of freedom, the reason given being that many people cannot agree on how abortion relates to freedom.

But as J.D. Tuccille at Reason wrote,

Yes, abortion is controversial and people who care about freedom disagree about it. But ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away. Including data about the issue as an option for people to consider in personalizing their own rankings would have made a good report even better.

Others disliked the way the study gave the short end of the stick to civil liberties compared to economic freedom. Alex Pareene at Salon, complained:

‘Economic freedom’ is of course their most important freedom, and so it is weighted the heaviest, with fiscal and regulatory matters making up a bit more than two-thirds of each state’s score. Which is how their No. 1 freest state is ranked 39th on the “Civil Liberties” list.

Their definition of “freedom” largely adheres to the standard American libertarian conception of “liberty,” which is to say it is oriented almost entirely around private property ownership and low taxation.

Nathan Goodman at C4SS took issue with the way the study ranks economic freedom, calling the study an “embarrassment to libertarians”:

One significant portion of their evaluation of states was based on their “lawsuit climate.” But litigation is an important way to hold companies accountable for damage in a free society, and has in fact been unjustly limited by the rise of the regulatory state. They also treat “right to work laws” as a boon to freedom, even though the laws are a violation of free contract.

I think the decision to rank economic freedom as more important to freedom than civil liberties was a huge mistake, if not for Mercatus, then for libertarianism. First, libertarians generally purport to care equally about both. This is part of our general claim to be “economically conservative and socially liberal.” If we leave off or devalue civil liberties, what then do we offer that conservatism or the GOP doesn’t? I think it says a lot about the weights assigned that “eight of the top 10 most economically free states are solid red states with a Republican governor and Republican-controlled state legislatures.”

Second, libertarians have a bad reputation as only caring about the “freedoms” that benefit us (a movement that is largely middle-class white men). Every time we go on about taxes or try to rein in entitlement spending but fail to talk as much about no-knock raids and stop-and-frisk, we reveal that the victims we care most about look, talk, and earn like we do.

One great way to get someone on your side is to establish yourself as a moral person in their eyes. Finding and advocating for victims is a great way to do this. But rich, white, highly educated men are the least sympathetic victims around, and by continually advocating for the freedoms that benefit them most first and foremost, we lose legitimacy in the eyes of people who care about other victims.

Every time we prioritize communities torn asunder by civil liberties violations at or above property taxes, we demonstrate that we care about and have something of value to everyone, and not just to people like ourselves. I wish this study had taken that opportunity, and I hope the next one will.