Thanks to President Cleveland for the invitation to guest blog here at Pileus. Grover’s invitation came shortly after Marginal Revolution linked to the minor challenge I threw to American libertarians: if libertarians love freedom so much, why do so many libertarians live in such unfree places? I probably ought to follow-up on that a bit here.
I moved to New Zealand in 2003. The academic job market was looking a bit thin the year I went out – state budget crises were bad enough that some places that offered flyouts had to cancel them after their positions were canned. Fortunately, I’d applied very broadly. I sent applications to universities in any country where my wife and I could imagine living. When the offer came from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, I was ecstatic. The pay was not good compared to U.S. offers, though the overall package wasn’t bad. But what had me over the moon was New Zealand’s spirit of freedom. The safety nuts who’d taken over Northern Virginia – none of them seemed to have made it down here. Narrow winding mountain roads without safety rails, a hike up a river through a long natural limestone cave in a national park with only a sign suggesting you bring a flashlight and dress warmly in winter, bouldering around cliff faces that would have had a thousand American mothers screaming that barricades were needed for the sake of the children – I was in heaven.
What’s the point of liking freedom if you can’t live the parts of it that matter most to you?
We weighed our options and made the move. And New Zealand hasn’t disappointed on the freedom front. There’s been a bit of backsliding, but our relative position has probably gotten better rather than worse.
The Libertarian Standard posted recently about an American in Maryland who wanted to start a business distilling vodka. The regulatory regime meant he’d have to have all the plant in place before applying for permission, then it would have to sit there for two years. Since home distilling is illegal, he couldn’t even try out his recipes. In New Zealand, a guy in Queenstown started making vodka at home (legal), then started selling it to local bars (also legal), then was bought out a few years later by Baccardi.
There is no chance that the would-be Maryland distiller can get the regulations changed. But he could move to a different US state with better regulations, or he could move internationally. Jason Sorens and William Ruger have put together a very handy guide listing which states tread most heavily on different dimensions of freedom. Pick whichever list of American libertarians you like – Walter Block’s list of autobiographies, the membership list for the Mont Pelerin Society – lots of American libertarians live in places that are fundamentally unfree.
Sure, there can be plenty of reasons for living in a less free state. If marijuana access is the freedom that matters most to you, then the other ways that California infringes on freedom might matter less. And if we have a few dimensions that yield rather different rankings for the different states, we can always come up with a weighting of dimensions such that the state you live in doesn’t fare too badly. But let’s avoid that kind of ex post rationalisation for now. If we can derive measures of the value of a statistical life by comparing house prices close to and far away from toxic waste dumps, we could similarly estimate how much value folks put on liberty. If you’ve moved from a more free to a less free state for a slightly better job, the difference in freedom is worth less than the difference in jobs.
It’s easy to reply that differences in freedom across states aren’t big enough to matter that much. But if that’s true, what’s the point of expending any effort at all in trying to achieve policy changes in your state that, if you’re incredibly lucky, might make your state move up one or two positions in the state league tables? Think about all the time and effort you’ve put into achieving one incremental change. Folk activism feels good and it can be fun. But why not do it after moving first to the state that offers the bundle of freedoms you find most attractive? You’ll be more effective in persuading a set of voters who are more inclined to agree with you than a set of voters who think you’re evil, and you can help your new state be a better beacon unto others.
You don’t have to move as far as New Zealand either. Just crossing a state line can make a difference: Virginia beats Maryland on every measure of freedom and is right next door. The ranking of states by respect for personal freedoms puts Virginia ninth of fifty and Maryland dead last. But Jason Sorens found there are about as many libertarian voters in Maryland as in Virginia. If libertarian voters won’t suffer a longer commute from Pennsylvania or Virginia to a job in Maryland, how much value do we put on freedom? And if we personally put little value on freedom in the personal sphere, our calls against eroding it in the political sphere might ring a bit hollow.
Nobody’s demand curve for freedom is or should be completely inelastic. New York and Boston are awesome cities filled with great amenities; that’s one reason their mayors can afford such awful policies. I can imagine living in unfree places if the compensation bundle were good enough – liberty matters, but so do wealth and other amenities. But I wonder how cheaply we’re trading freedom. Give me Liberty or give me … a one course reduction, an accelerated tenure clock and a corner office?