Friday 14 May 2010

Libertarian diasporas

Will Wilkinson asks why so few American libertarians fond of Tiebout ever have exercised their exit option; I waved a friendly hello from New Zealand which, despite its problems, I'd argue still offers greater personal freedom than does the United States.

The US beats NZ on:
  • Firearms ownership
  • Ability to do what you want with your own property if you're way out in the back woods where nobody's watching: in NZ, you'd still need Resource Consent and tourists may still have right of access to your property's rivers and streams.
  • Income taxes are higher in NZ on folks on a Professorial salary: 40% top marginal tax rate kicks in at $70,000 (including the 2% ACC PAYE Earner's Levy). A comprehensive Goods and Services Tax at 12.5% increases the overall tax burden: on the next dollar I earn, I'll get to spend $0.475 $0.533 (thanks Sam) net of GST. But, local rates are relatively low: I pay about $2100/year on our house: schools are funded out of income taxes, not local rates.
  • Smokers face greater restrictions here than in the US
We roughly tie on:
  • Ridiculous city zoning and bylaw enforcement (swimming pools, subdividing and the like)
  • Most day to day living
But NZ dominates on:
  • A less enthusiastic War on Drugs: what drug raids we have tend not (yet) to be conducted by paramilitary squads who seem to like killing corgis and terrifying the children. If California passes legalisation, rank ordering here may change.
  • Civil asset forfeiture is new here and hasn't as yet generated the horrible abuses seen in the US, though that may well change
  • Gay marriage is legal via civil union: Eleanor's birth certificate even had a tick box in case Eleanor had two mommies instead of the standard mother and father; in the former case, the lesbian partner would have counted as "Second Parent". This kind of respect would have to count for an awful lot for folks in that category.
  • Prostitution is legal and seems to have improved outcomes for sex workers. Recognition of same sex relationships and legalisation of prostitution were the two best things achieved under Helen Clark's Labour government; John Key has done nothing that comes close and seems likely to do nothing that comes close. A couple points reduction in income taxes rates, if ever enacted, counts for less in terms of aggregate liberty than these two achievements of the Clark government.
  • Ease of starting a business: nothing like the US regs that force someone wanting to open a hair braiding salon to get professional certification as a hairdresser, for example.
  • Relatively simple and hassle free income tax system; the majority of wage earners don't even need to file a return
  • Free trade, both domestic and international, is the norm: I don't need the permission of any marketing board to grow, sell, or purchase a potato or to milk a cow
  • If I wanted to, I could buy a still and start distilling my own whiskey with no fears of the Revenuers. Overall alcohol policy is far more liberal than that in the US, though that's under some current threat.
So, why haven't all the libertarians moved to New Zealand? Well, negative liberty isn't all that matters. A Senior Lecturer here at Canterbury at the top of that scale earns about $100,000 NZ, or about $72,000 US at current exchange rates. That's not all that high by US standards: entry level salaries at lots of places Stateside are higher. But it's enough to put me at the 97th percentile of earnings here. A round trip ticket that would have my family visit both sets of grandparents would cost about ten percent of my before-tax income; we don't get home often. As Susan also works, our household income would be even higher on a New Zealand decile scale, but isn't all that impressive in US terms. Cost of living here is relatively high too: fixed costs and small market problems. Think hard about how much value you put on Amazon one-click free shipping.

I can understand why libertarians placing high weight on gun rights relative to other civil liberties would stay in the US rather than moving here. Those with a broader rights-weighting system ought to prefer New Zealand; the income loss could perhaps give a way of measuring how greatly the non-movers value those freedoms. Suppose the expected income loss for someone moving here is a quarter. Can a gay couple value legal recognition of their relationship by more than a quarter of their income and still remain in the US rather than moving to New Zealand?

So, Will, why aren't you here yet?


  1. Just convirting to a libertarian (yes I finally seen the light) I am sadeneed that there is so much restriction In the US. What I would like to see is complete liberty in the US where it comes the envy of the world. Sasly the christan right and the nanny left dominate the politics in the US. I don't know of any countries that are liberterian enough. NZ well we are pretty muck like Europe big welfare state which is riving us bandrupt, and sadly the people are teething of its nipple. Then we have apartied where affermitave action (from the US style) is insulting our indigenous people andyou can't have a gun to defend yourself only if you are mentally insane. Much the same applies in Aus and I would imagne Canada too, so where is the country with the most liberty????

  2. our country is that of sheep and welfare. I don't see much positive about it except that customs seem less paranoid than those of Australia and I guess if you work at one of the Universities. I have to say though there is a lot of sex hysteria in the US.

  3. If I were planning a career as a low-earning gay prostitute, New Zealand would be a great place to live. But it isn't, so I'm pretty much stuck in the United States.

  4. I've never understood the fixation US citizens have with gun rights. The vast majority of people have no need for a firearm unless they are into hunting. Handguns especially, as they really only have one use, and that is to kill other humans. I'm ignoring the few oddballs who choose to use them for hunting, but I'd guess they are a very small minority. Fears of home invasions and the need for self defense are vastly overrated, and statistics repeatedly show that overwhelmingly most handgun deaths are "accidental" and within the family. So knowing this, why would you have one in the house? That's one liberty I'm more than happy to do without.

  5. @Lats, we'll have to have a chat about that some time. First, the stats on "within family" are actually "family and acquaintances", where acquaintances can include drug dealers you work with.

    Handguns are great fun for target shooting. You ought to try it some time.

    And, they keep the King of England from trying to take the place over again, and they also help to deter the space aliens.

  6. Oops, went off half-cocked about handguns. Don't like them much, so am a tad biased. Note to self, always check posts before sending :) I meant to say "... most handgun deaths are "accidental" and within the family or suicides." And a substantial number, but still well less than 50%, seem to be homicides.

    From the Violence Policy Centre website...
    "For every time a gun in the home is used in a self-defense homicide, a gun will be used in:
    - 1.3 unintentional deaths
    - 4.6 criminal homicides
    - 37 suicides"

    These guys seem to be an anti-gun lobby group, so am taking their figures with a grain of salt, but the fact the NRA hates them makes them ok with me :)

  7. @Lats: And the elasticity of suicide with respect to handgun availability is...? That is to say, folks who have handguns available and want to kill themselves will use that means; others will find other common household items like rope or knives. Get rid of the guns, and a pretty high fraction of folks will shift to other tools.

    Check the National Academy of Science's study of a couple years back where they concluded that John Lott's basic conclusions were basically right: increased gun ownership / right to carry laws do not increase crime (and may reduce it, though evidence on reduction is weakish).

  8. What are hunting rights like?

    If they are good...where do I sign up?

  9. Absolutely Eric, I get the whole suiciders will find any available means thing, and had considered mentioning that in my post. But handgun ownership is one area where I unashamedly allow, and in fact encourage, my personal bias to supercede any data. I simply don't like them, and see no need for the average citizen to possess one. I admit I may feel differently had I been a victim of a home invasion, but I'd be willing to bet reasonable sums of money that at 99% of handgun owners haven't been, and never will be.

  10. @Melissa: I've not here been hunting, but I've only heard good reports. Ever heard of Himalayan Thar? Somebody released them up in the Southern Alps a while back and they're now here considered a pest. Plenty of deer, but if you prefer farmed over wild, there are also plenty of pastured grass fed venison farms around too. You'd probably want to double check all this if it's critical to a location decision of course, but my impression is that big game hunting in the parks requires only a permit to carry a firearm in a park, freely available from the Department of Conservation. See here. Bird hunting has licences and seasons.

    The environmentalists here want the complete eradication of introduced species and the complete protection of native ones. They're a bit misguided as to the best means of protecting the native ones (some farming could do a lot of good, but is banned), but there's no pressure to restrict hunting of introduced species from deer to goat, rabbit to thar, wallaby to wild pig.

    You'd probably also rather like even the meat typically on offer at the butcher shop. All the lamb and the vast majority of beef is free range grass-fed pasture as best I can tell; free range options on other meats are widely available.

    Immigration New Zealand is very friendly; give them a call if interested.

  11. @Lats: I see absolutely no reason for the average citizen to possess a soccer ball either as soccer is clearly inferior to other sports; fortunately, my aesthetic preferences are not the sole determinant of policy.

  12. @Eric Point taken, but it is relatively more difficult to kill someone with a soccer ball. Undoubtedly it has happened though. As I said, this is one of the few areas wher I am subject to an irrational visceral response, handguns repulse me. I'm not overly fond of other firearms either, but accept that some folk enjoy hunting, and have every right to do so. But rifles/shotguns are less easily concealed unless sawn off, and therefore don't lend themselves as tools for criminal activity to the same degree. Lack of widespread handgun ownership here in NZ is one of the primary reasons, in my opinion, why we see a lot fewer firearm related deaths per capita than, for example, the US. Surely that is a good thing. I simply don't buy that there is, or should be, an inherent right to bear arms.

  13. @Lats: why care about whether a death was handgun related rather than the absolute number of deaths? The best evidence we have from the States shows that ability legally to carry a concealed handgun correlates with, at worst, no bad effect on crime rates and, at best, some reduction in crime.

  14. @Eric Crime rates aren't necessarily the same as gun-related death/injury though are they? I assume, but don't know for sure, that not all accidental deaths result in criminal convictions. And assuming best case, some reduction in crime, what level of crime reduction is enough to offset the harm caused by handgun accidents? Again, assuming the stats I posted above are correct (1.3 unintentional deaths per self-defense death) then handguns would appear to have a net negative effect on safety.
    And assuming one goal of policy is to reduce harm, it doesn't seem illogical to assess the various causes of harm and to take reasonable steps to minimise said harm. Here I think we take a reasonable approach to firearms control, allowing ownership by licenced individuals for appropriate recreational use. Sure, criminally inclined folk who want to use a firearm are probably not likely to apply for a licence, but the relative rarity of handguns in the general populace does mean they are less likely to be available on the black market too. The concealability and portability of handguns adds to their criminal appeal, and I for one am glad they are relatively tightly controlled here.

  15. @Lats: Yes, let's ban anything that may have risk of accidental death. Henceforth, all cars shall be made of NERF and drive 15 kph except for ambulances which will henceforth be jet-propelled hovercraft able to zoom over top of traffic.

    Harm-minimization is a poor optimand when individuals have goals other than just health maximization. We do trade off fun and other things against health all the time, and we all have different ideas of what counts as fun.

  16. Actually I wasn't suggesting a blanket ban on handguns, I am pretty happy with the current model here in NZ. Although to be fair I would be more than happy if all the handguns in the world were crushed and turned into something non-lethal. But that is just my personal bias, and I know it will never happen. I never have been a gun nazi, and don't understand the mindset, and I accept we all have different priorities, but naturally I am right on this issue ;)
    Currently in NZ those who are true enthusiasts can, with a little effort, apply for and receive an endorsement on their firearms licence that allows them to purchase a handgun. No problem, and if you are serious about going target shooting in a club, all power to you. I simply fail to see that the potential benefits in owning a handgun in other circumstances outweigh the potential harm.