A Thought Experiment on Freedom

Imagine two countries, each the size of the U.S. In one of them, the average tax rate is 1% (of income) lower than the other, but unlike the other it randomly selects ten innocent individuals for execution each year (perhaps ritual human sacrifice!). Assuming personal income of $12 trillion like the United States, the lower tax rate in this country allows for more freedom worth $120 billion a year, by our method. If the statistical value of a life is $7 million, however, the execution policy only costs $70 million a year in freedom. Thus, not only is the human-sacrifice state with a slightly lower tax rate “freer” by this crude metric, but it is not even close.

Which is truly the freer country, assuming they are exactly alike in all other respects? And by how much?

The first paragraph above comes from the forthcoming third edition of Freedom in the 50 States: Index of Personal and Economic Freedom.

15 thoughts on “A Thought Experiment on Freedom

    1. Is that the margin that makes the difference? If it were guaranteed that the ten victims would be chosen randomly, then would that society be the freer one, whereas the risk of cronyism would otherwise drag it below the level of the other society?

      1. Well I am not valuing the general proposition, just stating the fact that if I know I could be hit by a very deadly and painful cancer, I would feel much freer if getting the disease was a totally random result of nature, than if I thought someone could pinpoint it on me.

      2. That sounds right to me.

        However, I’m inclined to think that in this specific example, even randomized killings would make me feel sufficiently unfree that I’d prefer the society with slightly higher taxes.

    2. How about the method used by the USofA? The ones who comply with nanny laws such as mandatory seatbelt use, and are killed as a direct result of it.

  1. Freedom is more than marginal tax rates and the monetary value of different policies. Is there a way to calculate it though? I don’t know. I think of something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we need a hierarchy of liberty/freedom that focuses on the fundamentals. I’ve never read an argument suggesting this, but why not prioritize in the order of life, liberty, and then property. So it’s not just a list, it’s a list of goals in order of importance.

      1. And I think it would get to your goal of not simply viewing the value of a human life as a monetary amount.

  2. A more straightforward way of putting it is that for every $7M (the VSL) we reduce the economy, we are basically killing one person. Sadly, few people are capable of grasping such an abstract idea.

  3. Would you feel differently if the country with the lower tax rate destroyed not human beings, but something truly commodifiable? Say, $70 million a year in randomly selected houses or automobiles. Otherwise your reluctance to embrace the “greater freedom” in the lower-tax country is nothing more than your recognition that a human life is not truly commodifiable, regardless of how it is statistically valued.

    1. Well, that’s it exactly, I think. I do have a problem with human beings’ being commodified in that sense – measuring the value of a human (right to) life solely in terms of what one would pay for it.

      1. I thought you were also measuring the human value of greater freedom of the not sacrificed humans, (and especially since some nuts could argue those who were sacrificed were now totally free)

        Doing so, multiplying all humans time freedom, would now lead to a larger amount of freedom and so our problem is not so much with the humans’ rights but really with the individual human rights… and that gets to be thorny unless, perhaps, the sacrifice is voluntarily… for instance by auctioning out the rights to be sacrificed, awarding these to those who charge the least.

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