Sunday, June 19, 2011

That Mercatus study

I noticed that the post on Andrew Sullivan's blog containing my email (at top) has been updated with the following response to what I wrote:
I thought that Mercatus "study" your reader cited looked familiar; turns out I read about it earlier today in an article on Salon that basically tore it apart. A Koch Brother-founded thinktank using dubious and laughable criteria of what "freedom" is? Gee, what a surprise that every major blue state ranks at the bottom of the list.
Giving the Salon article a read, I found it to be pretty much what one would expect from a piece that invokes the Koch brothers, notorious bogeymen of the left, in the subheading and opening paragraph. Let's take a closer look:
As is usually the case in studies of this sort, high-population blue states inevitably end up ranking last. The metrics used by the authors of the [Mecatus] study penalize high taxes, regulations and, in general, just about anything that restricts the freedom of individuals and corporations to do as they please, from gun control laws and healthcare mandates to rules requiring seat belts and motorcycle helmets. Befitting libertarian sensibilities, the ideological biases in the Mercatus report do not purely jibe with conservative Republican priorities -- states get points for decriminalizing marijuana and allowing same sex marriage or civil unions, for example -- but nevertheless, the political gist is hard to ignore. Blue states cluster at the bottom, while red states are at the top.
In other words, the study gave points to states that allow more personal freedom -- such as the decriminalization of marijuana -- while giving poorer marks to those that regulate their behavior. States with more freedom were rewarded and those with less were punished. It's a very straightforward and consistent approach.  How is this a "political gist"? 
But here's the brutal truth, apart from the politics: Most Americans are not free. A telling example: In the Mercatus rankings the two states blessed by the highest freedom quotient boast a combined population of a little over 2 million -- South Dakota and New Hampshire (the latter of which, admittedly, went for Obama in 2008). The bottom three states were New York, New Jersey and California, which have a combined population of over 65 million.
Sixty-five million Americans in just three states cower under a totalitarian shadow! That's a little distressing!
...Once you have defined "freedom" according to a specific set of criteria it must be just a tad confounding to realize how many Americans live in a state of relative slavery...And yet: 19 million Americans still call themselves New Yorkers. Surely, this is a great bafflement.
A revolting and absurd strawman. Not only do the authors refuse to label the residents of these states as unfree or anything of the kind, but they specifically go out of their way to avoid this characterization or any confusion with authoritarian countries:
Finally, we would stress that the variance in liberty at the state level in the United States is quite small in the global context. Even New York provides a much freer environment for the individual than the majority of countries. There are no Burmas or Zimbabwes among the American states.
As for the fact that 19 million people still reside in New York, it's worth noting that between 2005-07 638,000 people left the Empire State for other parts of the country. Indeed, the decline in New York's population relative to other states over the past decade was sufficiently large that the state will be losing two congressional districts

The author of the Salon article, Andrew Leonard, then attempts to present the notion of freedom as some ill-defined or nebulous concept open for debate. This is unsurprising, as if we agree that freedom as commonly defined is the "exemption from external control, interference, regulation" and "power to determine action without restraint," his team comes off looking pretty bad. It's an obvious truth that the political left believes in greater external controls, restraints and regulations -- in the economic sphere at the very least -- and thus less freedom. Rather than admit this, Leonard attempts to confuse the issue:
Of course, we can also nitpick about what really constitutes true "freedom." For the authors, a mandate to buy healthcare insurance is a dastardly imposition on individual rights...But from my perspective, not having access to universal healthcare is an imposition on my freedom.
Leonard seeks to turn the definition of freedom on its head and alter it so completely as to render it meaningless. Forcing someone to buy a product is coercion, and thus an impingement on one's freedom by definition (whether it is "dastardly" or not is another debate). His supposed freedom to use government-run healthcare, meanwhile, is an imposition on the freedom of others as such a system can only be constructed by force. By this logic, any good that I desire -- clothes, airfare, cars, you name it -- that is not provided to me by government (and thus confiscated from someone else) is an imposition on my freedom. Ridiculous. He continues:
The fact that for most Americans healthcare is tied to one's employer is a dread shackle limiting the freedom of movement of every worker. How much more liberated would we all be if we could switch jobs or work for ourselves without the fear that at any moment we might be crippled by an exorbitantly expensive health emergency?
I agree! The linkage between employment and health insurance is nonsensical, and thus it is little surprise that such an arrangement is due to government intervention
Similarly, a state requirement that employers offer paid parental leave (another black mark against California) clearly frees me to be a better father to my newborn.
Again, notice that Leonard's version of freedom involves a claim on someone else's resources -- in this case his employer. This is simply not freedom as we understand the word. 
I'd really love to see what would happen to internal migration patterns in the United States if all the big blue states had universal single-payer healthcare, while everyone else was left at the mercy of a completely unregulated private market. That civil war would end rather quickly, I suspect.
Believe me, I would too, which is why I hope Vermont's effort to pull this off actually succeeds. Of course, I'd also like to see neighboring New Hampshire move to a completely deregulated model that is absent Medicare and the insurance tax distortion so we could have a truly fair contest. Given the choice between obtaining one's health care from the sector which gives us dynamic companies such Apple and the one that operates the DMV and TSA, I know which state I would bet on to prevail. 

The column then changes course, getting into more of a discussion of why centers of economic dynamism still persist in many of these states found lower on the freedom ranking:
...The millions who cluster on the coasts delight in their thriving arts communities and smorgasbord of dining options and the sheer intellectual stimulation that accrues from the helter-skelter activity of a big city. Many of us have agreed to an implicit trade-off: We'll put up with the impositions of big government because we are getting something essential out of the deal. Freedom is not a zero sum game. And you know, some of us might not even think that paying high taxes to support a robust safety net for those less fortunate is the worst thing that ever happened. We might even pride ourselves on it.
I live in a city and enjoy doing so, but that has absolutely nothing to do with its scandal-ridden government. The lengthy permitting processes and regulations it imposes have only served to restrict my dining options and drive up the cost of housing, making the urban experience too expensive for at least some of those who desire to experience it. And don't forget the government-run schools

Freedom, meanwhile, most certainly is a zero sum game. Every restriction and regulation on my behavior is a transfer of freedom from myself to the government. Sometimes this trade-off is worthwhile. Often times it is not. 
As best I understand it, the authors explain the persistence of these population clusters as holdover relics from the days when the surrounding regions enjoyed dynamic economic growth under less regulated regimes. So San Francisco, for example, exploded because of the benefits that accrued from its peerless logistics -- the Bay -- and its proximity to gold, timber and agricultural resources. But now that the state has imposed its overweening presence into everyone's private affairs, the citizens of California will supposedly flee to more welcoming climes. Idaho (the fourth freest state) or bust!
Supposedly flee? From 2005-07 681,000 people moved from California to other states, while at the same time literally every other state in the west coast and mountain west regions except Wyoming experienced a net migration influx. 

Even Leonard, however, can't deny the facts staring him in the face:
...Certainly, there has been a significant population shift from the Rust Belt and Northeast to the South and Southwest, which might lend support to that thesis. California's population did increase its population by 4 million from 2000-2010, but even that represented the slowest rate of growth in many decades.
He concludes by hedging:
How the rest of the 21st century plays out is anyone's guess. Maybe California's current fiscal troubles really do presage an uninterrupted fall from grace. Maybe the burgeoning South will establish a political hegemony that delivers the ultimate libertarian utopia of freedom-loving Tea Party dreams. Or maybe, just maybe, the citizens who swell the ranks of rising urban centers in Virginia and North Carolina and Texas -- diverse, dynamic, conceivably interested in better healthcare for themselves and their children -- will find themselves beginning to make the same trade-offs that New Yorkers and Californians once agreed to. The country seemed headed in one direction in 2008 and another in 2010 -- I certainly won't pretend to know where it's going next. 
To summarize, Leonard opens his column by mischaracterizing the study, seeks to redefine the idea of freedom to something more politically palatable, concedes that the people voting with their feet are moving towards states with greater levels of freedom and concludes by admitting he has no idea how things will end up. This is the column that "basically tore apart" the Mercatus study? Give me a break.


Tom Bolt said...

Great analysis. Thanks.

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