Thursday 20 January 2011

Libertarian migration [updated]

Ilya Somin correctly notes that broad immigration patterns favour free places over less free ones.
Eric Crampton is right that New Zealand may be freer than the United States right now, and that few libertarians value the difference enough to move there. But I don’t think that proves that libertarianism is just “cheap talk.” The difference in economic freedom between New Zealand (82.3 on the Heritage scale) and the United States (77.8) is relatively small. Moreover, it has often been smaller still in past years, and could easily shrink again in the future. The difference in noneconomic freedom is probably also minor, and in some areas (especially freedom of speech and gun control) may cut in favor of the US.

The real test of whether libertarians (or anyone else) are willing to move to secure greater freedom is the pattern of migration when people have a choice between jurisdictions where the difference in freedom is substantial. Here, there is plenty of evidence that people tend to “vote with their feet” for societies with greater economic freedom.
I will quibble with Ilya on personal freedoms: campaign finance is restrictive, but we have nothing like the thousands of pages of FEC regulations. South Park and HBO series air, unedited, on broadcast. Gun laws here are more restrictive than the best US states but less restrictive than the worst. And I put a whole lot of weight on that there's zero chance here that the armed offenders squad (our SWAT team) will bust down my door in a wrong-address no-knock raid and point guns at my kids, or that I'd be shot by the cops for goofing around on my lawn with a water hose. But folks put different weights on different aspects of personal freedom. The police state stuff weighs heavily for me, less for others.

I'm not particularly puzzled by that folks in general don't move to New Zealand: we're poorer, it's an expensive place to live, and it's awfully far from family. I'm a bit surprised that more US libertarians - the really high demanders - don't move. But the costs aren't trivial.

But why do so many American libertarians choose to live in less-free states?

I took a quick flip through the contributors to Block's libertarian autobiographies. When I could match a contributor to a US state of residence through a Google search, I did. Of the 56 I think I've placed correctly, ten lived in California (Mercatus score -0.413), eight in Virginia (0.275), six in New York (-0.784), six in Texas (0.346), four in Arizona (0.279), four in Alabama (0.092), and others elsewhere. The median freedom score enjoyed by this set of libertarians is 0.019. None seemed to live in the four most-free states: New Hampshire (0.432), Colorado (0.421), South Dakota (0.392), and Idaho (0.356). Lots lived in the least free state: New York.

The median (I'm sticking with medians in the likely case I miscategorized some of the 56) libertarian lives in a state like North Carolina (0.019) while the median American lives in a state like Delaware (-0.008). At least the difference is in the right direction; I'd feared that the median libertarian would be in a less free state than the median American because of the number of academic jobs in the Cal State and New York systems.

Unless already living in one of the most free states, it's hard to imagine anything a libertarian can do to increase the level of freedom he enjoys that is more effective than moving.

Some bottom lines:
  • Libertarians regularly choose to be less free than they could be in exchange for better job opportunities, more income, better amenities, or a host of other gross substitutes. But it's not like we didn't already know that.
  • There is nothing wrong with being a pluralist and putting weight on a whole bundle of things besides liberty.
  • Rights-based libertarians who take a hard line, or at least it's been my experience in various barroom arguments, will say that where efficiency and liberty diverge, we have to pick liberty.* I tend to think that blackboard economics has overestimated the extent to which we can increase efficiency by treading on liberty, but there surely are some policies that fit the bill. I'm just not sure it squares well to claim always to prefer liberty to efficiency while, for example, living in New York rather than commuting in from New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
  • Walter Block's list has some of the most committed libertarians. If many of them choose to live in New York and California and none choose to live in New Hampshire (Free State promises aside), the potential for "Going Galt" just might be overstated. Fortunately, Seasteading's initial business model, as I understand it, will rely more on temporary visits, medical tourists, and specialized research rather than on a bunch of libertarians actually being willing to make a high cost move.
  • A very good counterargument is that freedom is heterogeneous and that you're living in California because access to medical marijuana dispensaries outweighs the other nonsense.
  • If you've moved to a less free state because it has better amenities/job opportunities, and then complain about the regulations and policies, how different is that from moving next to a pig barn (because the land prices are cheap) and then complaining about the smell? In the latter case, it might be worth your while to go and chat with the neighbors to see if you could pool your money to pay the pig farmer to reduce emissions - just like it might be worth your while in the former case to point out the real world costs of the regulations and policies and hope you can help coordinate folks around a change most will prefer. But if the neighbors say that the smell doesn't bother them, why spend so much time being angry about the stench instead of just moving? And if the difference in price between the stench-house and one a ways farther down the road was $5000, and you chose the stench-house, we can probably put some bounds on how offensive the smell really is.
I agree with Ilya that it's important to look at overall migration patterns. Those do demonstrate an average preference for liberty among those making the moves, though there will be some confounding.

It's just surprising that seemingly few ideological libertarians are the ones making the move, and why I found Walter Block's choice of title, "I Chose Freedom", a bit fun. "I Would Have Chosen Liberty But The Academic Job Market Was Thin The Year I Went Out and The Weather Here Is Nice And Who Wants To Live In Flyover Country Anyway" would be cumbersome.

*I'm a pluralist: if the efficiency gains are big enough relative to the loss of freedom, I'll sign on. How could I not? If I put that much value on freedom, I'd be out living in the bush somewhere instead of South Brighton where the swimming pool inspectors hassle me.

Update: Ilya comments further; I'd like to make a couple of clarifications. First, I left DC folks out of the measures entirely: DC isn't ranked in the Mercatus study (or maybe I missed it), and it's too hard without home addresses to tell if DC folks live there (horribly anti-free place), in Virginia (decent), or Maryland (also horrible). If we put the DC folks back in as DC, the median would move a bit, but not much. That's the nice thing about the median - it's robust to my screwing a few things up. The difference between "libertarian-chosen" and the American median is trivial. The median American lives in a state two spots worse in terms of freedom than the median libertarian (by the measure above). If we put the two DC folks in as being in DC, it would be a one state rank order difference. That's trivial in a small sample.

I'd mentioned a couple of pro-freedom things about NZ. What impressed me most when I interviewed here? First, the safety nuts hadn't taken over. Cavestream had one minor warning sign. Back in the States, there would have been someone with a rifle ready to kill (for his own good) anybody who tried doing it without five permits and a guide. All kinds of crazy dangerous roads had no safety rails. I wouldn't mind safety barriers on our dodgy roads, but it was a signal of a place where the safety nuts were kept in line. Second, political discourse seemed far more free. On an evening news programme, a sitting MP told the interviewer to "stop shooting rapid fire questions at her like some 15 year old premature ejaculator." A bit more fun than C-SPAN.


  1. You forgot one argument - you can often have a bigger impact on maximizing freedom by moving to places that are less free. In two ways:

    I moved from Florida (22nd on the list) to California (47th) at a substantial loss of liberty to myself in exchange for the promise of increasing overall freedom for everyone else (and in the future, myself) by coming to work for The Seasteading Institute ;)

    Similarly someone concerned with maximizing freedom may decide to move from a very free country to a very unfree one, as thats where you could do the most good. For academics, this could mean moving from a freedom-loving school to a place where their students tend to be less pro-liberty, and thus they can have a bigger impact (which is entirely plausible).

  2. This is a fun topic and you have some good ideas, I think you are missing something big, which is a substantial anti correlation between freedom and other desirable amenities. The tax level in Manhattan and California is largely because people really want to live there and so demand is relatively inelastic to tax and regulatory burdens. The regulators (stationary bandits) are taxing away the extra desirability - in a competitive market, leaving all states identical (modulo preferences). High tax sunny California with Silicon Valley or free, frigid, empty New Hampshire.

  3. I'll take New Hampshire any day over California. No amount of sun or Silicon Valley will change the fact that its a shit-hole (much like the people who vote for its stupid policies) that businesses are increasingly moving away from.

  4. I think probably Max Marty above is talking bulldust. I say he probably moved to California for the pay packet. Now thats what I call liberalisation.

  5. @Max: You're making a positive expected value bet.

    @Patri: That only argues against migration in the case where high demanders for liberty put greater value on amenities than do low demanders. Possible.

    @Anon: Have visited California, haven't visited NH; can imagine living in California, but I'm more the pluralist trade-off kinda guy.

    @PeterQuixote: I'd be surprised if Seasteading were a high-paying venture at this point.

  6. I've taken some "you should always choose liberty over efficiency" claims as deontological claims about what sort of policies are right or wrong to create. If so, then they're not all necessarily saying liberty gives better consequences or that they don't prefer living with those consequences (or that consequences might be orthogonal or negatively correlated for non-causal reasons). So couldn't it be coherent to say, "politicians should always choose the more libertarian option when liberty & efficiency conflict" and still take that job in the less libertarian locale?

    I realize this sounds like a stretch. But suppose I care very strongly about knockless warrants but I am quite certain that they'll never burst in on my house. No matter how strong my policy preferences are, I wouldn't be willing to sacrifice much of my living standard to live in a state without those travesties of justice. (I think this is still a meaningful definition of "preference," but I'm not sure how strongly I can defend that claim.)

  7. No-knock warrants and low probability events are what have me put non-zero weight on prospect theory :>

  8. "Steve" here.

    "Rights-based libertarians who take a hard line, or at least it's been my experience in various barroom arguments, will say that where efficiency and liberty diverge, we have to pick liberty. I tend to think that blackboard economics has overestimated the extent to which we can increase efficiency by treading on liberty, but there surely are some policies that fit the bill. I'm just not sure it squares well to claim always to prefer liberty to efficiency while, for example, living in New York rather than commuting in from New Jersey or Pennsylvania."

    There is no inconsistency. I think the appearance of inconsistency is down to equivocations in your argument. Your argument is equivocating between moral absolutes (the idea that we have a moral obligation to respect the liberty of others regardless of the consequences) and infinitely strong preferences (a preference for enjoying personal liberty so strong that we would not trade it for anything else). You meanwhile equivocate between active and passive roles - the person who says that respecting the rights of others is a moral absolute is giving moral instruction to a person who is contemplating whether to violate the rights of another person. The instruction is that one must not violate rights under any circumstances. The person who says that he would not trade his own enjoyment of personal liberty for anything else is speaking from the point of view the person whose rights are being (or not being) respected.

    It is entirely consistent, for instance, for a person to (a) refuse steadfastly ever to violate anyone else's rights, and (b) willingly expose himself to some possibility of the violation of his own rights. Here's how someone might do the second *as a result* of doing the first: it is late at night, there is an empty home (family on vacation, no alarm, no nosy neighbors) where a person could safely break in to get some shelter for the night, but he refuses to violate their property rights, and so chooses instead to walk through dark streets to his own home even though that is at the risk of being mugged.

  9. I'm still fairly young, so I haven't moved states on my own accord. I get to blame my parents for Illinois, though I myself moved to Chicago to be closer to work. I would cite Patri Friedman/Mancur Olson on why lots of nice places to live also have unlibertarian governments. I could also mention John Quiggin/James Scott on why freedom of the state may be only a fleeting condition predicated on a frontier.

  10. Sorry, that should be "freedom from the state".

  11. “Gun laws here are more restrictive than the best US states but less restrictive than the worst.”

    I'm certainly not an expert on New Zealand's gun laws, but you must be joking!

    It's my understanding that possession of firearms is a privilege which is strictly licensed by the New Zealand government. Citizens wishing to possess firearms must demonstrate an acceptable “need.” And self-defense is not recognized as one of the acceptable purposes for possessing firearms. Furthermore, there are a wide variety of restrictions on the types and quantities of firearms that most individuals may possess, and handguns are effectively banned. And it goes without saying that carrying a firearm for self-defense in public (openly or concealed) is pretty much out of the question.

    Nowhere in the U.S. are our gun laws more restrictive than New Zealand's. And in the handful of jurisdictions which have attempted to institute similar regimes, litigation is underway to overturn any unconstitutional restrictions.

  12. @Glen: When I left the States, it was impossible to get a shotgun in D.C.; you had to get a permit which the police refused to issue. Has that changed? Open or concealed carry here is illegal, yes. But it seems pretty easy for folks to get hunting rifles and shotguns. I haven't as yet, but I could get one as a permanent resident. I couldn't do that in Virginia, because rights are only (almost) enjoyed by citizens in the States, not by guests.

    @TGGP: No particular disagreement. Of course all measures of freedom are relative. I'd expect the high demanders to pick the ones that are relatively better.

    @"Steve": You don't find it odd that the most active libertarians aren't particularly more likely to choose to live in freer states? I don't think we need infinitely strong preferences for liberty to have libertarians not living in New York or DC. In your example, the walker has revealed a strong preference for respecting property rights. Isn't something also revealed by somebody choosing New York over Arizona?