An Incomplete Definition of "Freedom"

A report ranking each state's "freedom" shows it is an insufficient metric to make comparisons.

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How free really is the land of the free? The libertarian Mercatus Institute took a stab at that question in its recently released report entitled, "Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom." The report finds North Dakota to be the most free state in the Union, while California and New York fall to the bottom of the pack.

The report has raised a few eyebrows because of its overtly libertarian perspective. What sort of metric leads to the conclusion that California and New York are lacking in freedom? A report that assigns 28.6 percent of its weight to the state's tax burden, 11 percent to the state's "liability system" (referring to tort abuse) and 6.6 percent to whether or not that state has any sort of gun control (among many other measures).

The authors of the report claim they came up with these weights "according to the estimated costs that government restrictions on freedom impose on their victims," so it is unsurprising that taxes take on the heaviest weight. The report has elements worth commending (it shines on a light on onerous restrictions in areas such as occupational licensing and rent control laws), but when those measurements are combined with other degrees of "freedom," the end picture appears very confused. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

For example, a ban on driving while using a cell phone counts as a negative point against freedom. The report argues that "not every measure that enhances public safety is morally justifiable—consider random searches of pedestrians." (It is likely no coincidence that some of the states with the report's "best" ranking on transport are in the more sparsely populated states in the west.)

This lack of concern for public safety is present in other parts of the report, notably in the section on gun control. The report is upfront that it is only measuring the economic costs of accessing guns, not the statistics that arguably matter the most when related to guns, such as crime rates or gun accidents: 

The index does not assess the positive or negative externalities associated with gun ownership—say, for crime rates. It considers only the direct costs of gun laws to gun owners and dealers as evidenced in sales, price, and ownership figures, as well as original analysis about how concealed-carry restrictions and costs are associated with the number of people who seek permits in each state.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

This is a forthright, but also galling admission about what the report is interested in. Actual citizens of many states are likely to be more concerned about whether or not guns are ending up in the hands of individuals who are likely to commit crimes. Consider a recent report from Slate about how the Tuscon shooter, Jared Loughner, was able to arm himself despite being deemed mentally unhealthy and a risk to himself and others around him:

College officials stipulated that before returning to campus, he would have to "obtain a mental health clearance indicating [that], in the opinion of a mental health professional, his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others." The officials advised Loughner's parents, with whom he was living, to remove any firearms he might use. So Loughner's dad took away the shotgun his son had bought from a local store in 2008. As compensation, the father gave his son money to cover part of what the gun had cost.

What did Loughner do with the money? He went back to the same store and bought a Glock pistol. The clerks at the store had no idea anything crucial about Loughner had changed. They made him sign the same form (ATF Form 4473) and go through the same background check, with the same result: He passed.

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It is with grim irony that Arizona is ranked "1st" when it comes to having the most "freedom" when it comes to gun laws.

To be sure, requiring stricter scrutiny of medical records could infringe on the ease of purchasing a gun, but society is likely to be in favor of that trade-off. The fact that society needs to make trade-offs like that all the time suggests that "freedom" on its own is an insufficient metric to use when comparing states.

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