How Do Libgressives Define Freedom?

Matt Yglesias throws some scorn the way of Freedom in the 50 States 2011:

Reasonable people can disagree as to whether there’s more freedom in Los Angeles or Brooklyn, and there may be good reasons to move from either place to Sioux Falls, but obviously “for the freedom” is not one of those reasons. For the lower taxes? Sure. Because there’s less government regulation? Maybe so. But because there’s more freedom? Clearly not. They say that they “explicitly ground our conception of freedom on an individual rights framework” but all that goes to show is that their understanding of the individual rights framework offers an unsound conception of freedom. These answers are clearly and uncontroversially mistaken.

Because he doesn’t propose any alternative conception of freedom, it’s unclear precisely in what way he thinks that the libertarian conception of freedom is mistaken. But it’s even more perplexing how he comes to the conclusion that the ranking “refutes” the libertarian conception of freedom. California lost 4.4% of its 2000 population over the next 9 years to other states, on net. New York lost 8.9% of its 2000 population over the next 9 years to other states, on net. New Hampshire, by contrast, enjoyed a net gain of 2.8% of its 2000 population over the same period. South Dakota’s net in-migration was 0.8%. The study finds that freer states experience more net in-migration, controlling for climate.

So let’s get this straight: People are fleeing a state with gorgeous year-round climate, world-class universities, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood and flocking to a wintry, windswept state with… the Badlands. People are fleeing a state with Wall Street, the Met, the Yankees, and Broadway for a wintry, rural state with… the Old Man of the Mountain. Wait, he’s gone now too. The omitted variable? Libertarian freedom. And that makes all the difference.

So how do libgressives define freedom? They often seem to conflate freedom and utility. (See for instance the quotes at the end of this story.) But surely a man locked in a cell hooked to an experience machine isn’t really free, is he?

8 thoughts on “How Do Libgressives Define Freedom?

  1. Sometime back in the early 2000s I remember engaging in a somewhat heated discussion with a left leaning co-worker who was trying to argue the superiority of socialist/communist systems like the one in Cuba. At one point I flippantly remarked that if his thesis were true how did he explain why the stream of refugees moves in only one direction, towards us and other democratic capitalist countries and away from his socialist paradises? He turned to face me and said, “They just come here for the money.”

  2. If Yglesias knew his libertarian history, he might try to argue that your index is “libéral et non LIBERTAIRE,” to quote Joseph Déjacque criticizing Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the origin of the term libertarian, in contrast to liberal. Both were liberals/anarchists/small government advocates (although with some unusual concepts of how a free market would organize), but Proudhon had no problems with sexism and patriarchy. Your index focuses narrowly on freedom based on the state, not society as a whole. Are some states and cities more free because their residents are more accepting of, say, openly homosexual couples? Muslims? Blacks?

    Your index does include measurements of some state restrictions on personal freedom, but perhaps there’s a liberal argument for a measurement of freedom that looks not only at the state’s restrictions on personal freedom but society’s restrictions. But how can you measure that? Perhaps this is linked to experiences, but I would suspect a liberal/progressive would push back against an experience machine by talking about authenticity. Which probably relates to their concepts of multiculturalism. Just some thoughts.

  3. “Are some states and cities more free because their residents are more accepting of, say, openly homosexual couples? Muslims? Blacks? ”

    I think this more an effect of cities, where the commercial motive and (relative) diversity make it difficult to form coalitions targeting any specific group.

    You will hear some talk about how heartland states have greater economic freedom but less personal freedom vis-a-vis the state, but even this isn’t quite true. I would grant the economic freedom case – though in the positive sense of the word freedom certainly bigger metro areas offer more opportunity to engage in a myriad of economic transactions – but personal freedom is greatly restricted in many a “progressive” city as well. It’s just that these are personal freedoms that progressives don’t particularly care to engage in anyway, so they don’t feel stifled – e.g. the freedom to eat fast food, freedom to smoke in restaurants, etc.

    1. “I think this more an effect of cities, where the commercial motive and (relative) diversity make it difficult to form coalitions targeting any specific group.”

      Right, so is an “unfree” metropolitan still more “free” than a “free” rural area because of commercial motive, more opportunities to engage in economic transactions, diversity, etc? If so, we’re hitting a concept of “freedom” that’s outside of the narrow libertarian view of “freedom” as defined by state action and moving to a concept of “freedom” that is rested on experience, which Jason has criticized with his reference to a man in a cell with an “experience machine.”

      1. I’d say it is.

        I’ve come over to the consequentialist side more or less full throttle (I say more or less because I’m not certain of the full implications what I just wrote). I’d go as far as to say that yes, I’d go for the experience machine.

  4. I’m away at a seminar this week, so am responding to this interesting conversation a little late.

    I certainly think that we have duties not to treat people in certain ways that go beyond just not coercing them or breaking our contracts with them. In fact, some things we can do to people are worse than coercing them. Ostracism, for instance, can be more harmful and dehumanizing than a petty fine. So I certainly think that “tolerance,” if you will, can be just as important as freedom in a narrower, formal-legal sense. Whether you call tolerance part of freedom or not is perhaps not too important, as it’s just a matter of semantics. But I do think that negative duties of tolerance have a fundamentally different justification from positive duties to provide well-being – I took Yglesias as referring to the latter as the missing element from libertarian freedom, but I could have been mistaken in my interpretation.

  5. “I certainly think that we have duties not to treat people in certain ways that go beyond just not coercing them or breaking our contracts with them.”

    What I’m defending is the greater freedom that comes not merely from the enforcement of negative rights but the presence of widespread violations of such rights if they’re offset by greater positive rights, i.e. access to a greater choice set. I think this is what VA Liberaltarian is getting at too.

    Assuming that human traits like tolerance, compassion and others not strictly related to the avoidance of proactive imposition (I believe Jan Lester’s preferred term over the murkier ‘coercion’, though I see now it has its limitations as well) – say, prudence – are held constant, this is still something libertarians need to grapple with.

    (In fact, Hayek addressed Yglesias’s concern when he said something to the effect that he wouldn’t want the rules of the extended order applied to family life, and I’d say citing Hayek is not cherry picking given how large he looms in the canon of political philosophy.)

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