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?