Pileus blogger Jason Sorens recently released his co-authored study “Freedom in the 50 States.” This is now the second edition of the report, and it has deservedly generated a lot of attention. Even Paul Krugman has added his two cents.
At Salon.com, Andrew Leonard criticizes the report under the sarcastic headline, “Why do liberals hate freedom so much?” Because the Mercatus Center, which sponsored the research that led to the report, has received funding from the Koch Foundation, by a long chain of guilt-by-association reasoning, Leonard implies that the intent of the report is not really to gather and present data that provide an objective, quantifiable measure of both economic and personal freedom in each state, but is rather simply to bash liberals. A rather egocentric view of the world, that.
Of course, even if Leonard’s insinuations were true, that the study were part of Charles and David Koch’s nefarious plot to, well, extend economic and personal freedom, that fact would have no bearing on whether its findings were true. Attacking an author, or an author’s (alleged) motives, does not defeat the author’s argument. Philosophy 101: the ad hominem fallacy is . . . a fallacy.
But Leonard raises two other objections. The first:
[According to the report,] 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!
(Why “admittedly”? Is Leonard aiming to provide analysis, or advocacy? But that is by the by.)
As analysis, this is quite weak. Sorens and his co-author William Ruger claim that there are real differences between the least “free” and most “free” states in their report, but they do not claim that even residents of the, by their measure, “least free” state, New York, face anything like what people in, say, North Korea face. Although there are real relative differences among the states, no place in America is under a “totalitarian shadow.” To say otherwise is just moral posturing.
More substantively, however, one need not believe that their conception of economic and personal “freedom” is the only or the best one. They provide an explicit definition of their terms; they provide explanations and justifications for the metrics they use; and their data are openly available. If they make an error in their math or their reasoning, that should be simple enough to discover and point out. Leonard does not do that.
Leonard apparently wants to define “freedom” differently. Fair enough. He unfortunately is not as explicit about his own preferred definition as Sorens and Ruger are. Yet Leonard does, perhaps inadvertantly, disclose a clue about what his definition of freedom would be. He writes:
But from my perspective, not having access to universal healthcare is an imposition on my freedom. 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? 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. 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. [Leonard's emphasis]
So his objection is that Sorens and Ruger do not consider the enjoyment of government-provided health care as an element of freedom, along with government-mandated (paid, presumably) parental leave from work. How much freer would Leonard be if he did not have to pay for his own health care? How much freer would he be if he did not have to work to support his family, but could instead simply spend time with his family?
How much freer indeed. The life Leonard wants for himself has its attractions. It is the life of an old-fashioned aristocrat, of a manorly lord. Leonard has the freedom of leisure to be a gentleman, pursuing properly gentlemanly ends—not the ignominious and base life of a man who has to actually work to support himself in the lifestyle he chooses.
Now, Leonard has the feigned greatness of soul to allow that he would like this life of gentlemanly leisure for “all” of us. But that is dishonesty. He knows as well as anyone that we cannot all be leisured gentlemen. Someone will actually have to labor to provide the goods and services off which the gentlemen will live. Who are those people making his life free? Who are the people providing him his health care, paying his bills while he takes time off to romp with the kids, bearing the costs generated by his insousciant skipping from one activity to the next as he follows his bliss?
And now we see the real import of the “freedom” Leonard wants. It is the freedom of the pharaoh: the serfs, whom I never deign to see and whom I never condescend to consider, will labor to provide me the comforts and enjoyments and leisure I require. I am not held responsible for them—that would be beneath me.
I believe that is not only a loathsome attitude, but it is a morally reprehensible position. Mr. Leonard, you have no right to live off the fruits of others’ labor. Yes, it would increase your freedom if you could command others to work for you, but yours is a moral code that entitles one group of people to live at the expense of unwilling others, that requires one group of people to be held responsible for the leisurely lifestyle of another, that treats one group as superior to others and fails to respect the inherent dignity of the members of the other group as independent moral agents and indeed as fully human.
Realizing that we are not entitled to others’ labor, and that we are ourselves responsible for the choices—and the consequences of the choices—that we make is bracing and can be, depending on where our moral heads were to begin with, startling. But it is the only way to respect human dignity, both in ourselves and in others. And it implies the only freedom worth the name.