Tuesday 9 April 2013

Living Free

Frances Woolley says we should ignore the aggregate indices of economic freedom and look instead to whether people experience freedom. She points to the World Values Survey question asking whether people think they have freedom of choice and control over the way their lives turn out.

The survey question asks:
V46.- Some people feel they have completely free choice and control over their lives, while other people feel that what they do has no real effect on what happens to them. Please use this scale where 1 means "none at all" and 10 means "a great deal" to indicate how much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out.
Results? I've pulled them into a Google spreadsheet; I'm rather sure I don't believe the numbers. Colombia ranks about the highest on the table, with 52% giving an answer of 9 or 10. 42% of Mexicans give an answer of 10. If we rank by medians, here are some of the values (so long as I haven't messed up taking the median on ordinal data):
  • Mexico: 9.2
  • Colombia: 9.0
  • New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Argentina, Trinidad: 8.3
  • USA, Canada, S. Africa, Australia, Brazil, Romania, Uruguay, Jordan, Andorra, Guatemala: 8.2
  • China, Finland, Switzerland, Slovenia, Turkey, Ghana, 8.1
  • Zambia, Malaysia: 7.0
  • VietNam, Iran: 6.9
  • Germany: 6.8
  • Netherlands, Serbia 6.7
  • Rwanda: 6.0
  • Ethiopia, Mali, Hong Kong, Egypt: 5.9
  • India: 5.5
  • Burkina Faso, Iraq 5.0
  • Morocco: 4.9
I can kinda understand having fairly nominally unfree countries right at the top if it's cheap to buy off the police: worst would then be the meddling countries that enforce things. But Iran beating Hong Kong? Finland matching China? 

I sympathise with Frances when she writes:
This is why I start fuming when people start talking about freedom. It's how people live their lives that matters, not abstract ideology.
But I still expect that the Human Freedom Index provides a better proxy for experienced freedom than the WVS measure. It's pretty easy to imagine someone agreeing that they have a great deal of control over their lives because they know what things to avoid doing if they don't want to have the police shoot them.


  1. Eric - I enjoyed this post, I'm still unconvinced. I agree the Human Freedom Index is a better measure than the Economic Freedom Index. But it still focuses on freedom within the public sphere, and more specifically the relationship between individual citizens and government: " freedom of speech, religion, individual economic choice, and association and assembly. "

    For many people - especially women - freedom in the domestic sphere matters more. Freedom to control reproduction and sexuality, freedom to decide what is in one's own or one's family's best interests, protections that make it possible to choose how to balance work and family.

    Things like norms and culture are much harder to measure than legal codes, but they are no less, indeed arguably more, important.

    And any index of freedom that doesn't include the right to use access birth control doesn't tell me anything about women's freedom.

  2. Agree entirely, Frances. The question is which one is better proxy for some true underlying measure of freedom: the one that says women in Finland experience as much freedom as those in China, or the one that says Finland is more free? I vote for the latter.

  3. I agree that the constraints of norms and culture matter, but I have a problem with even trying to include them in a measure, not because they are hard to measure (which they are) but because they are hard to define. What is the boundary between not being able to act in a particular way because of external constraints, and not being able to act in a particular way because of self-imposed constraints due to preferences derived in part from social norms and culture? And if crossing that boundary, at what point has one gone from trying to measure freedom to imposing one's own values on others.

    For instance, in Quebec after the discovery of the contraceptive pill but before the quiet revolution, it was often impossible for women to get access to the pill as doctors would simply refuse to prescribe it. This was a clear non-governmental restriction on freedom. But there are other examples where access is not restricted in this way, but due to cultural or religious proscriptions on contraception women feel compelled not to avail themselves of it. Is this a restriction on freedom?

    Is a vegetarian subject to restrictions on freedom if cultural influences persuade him that he should not eat meat, even though it is available?

  4. The anarchist society where the civil society norm encourages the lynching and burning of heretics is less free than any welfare state, yes. Brad Taylor and I had a bit of fun arguing that a move to market-anarchy could, for plausible configurations of preferences, lead to a less free society.

  5. you should not print this garbage Eric, rubbish is beneath you

  6. I think it's worth pointing out the ways that the WVS measure likely fails to capture what we're wanting.

  7. Slightly off topic but I thought I'd try proving that Kiwis should mostly move to Australia. Obviously I mean that tongue in cheek and I'm cherry picking. Although plenty of them seem to take the advice. Anyway details here:-


  8. Thanks for that. A few points.

    1. Richer is more free, ceteris paribus. Advantage Oz.
    2. Taxes paid count as a bad, so advantage Oz for some income levels. But:
    3. It matters what the state does with the money. I'm happier having a bit more of my money taken and none of it be used to keep people in internment camps or to blow up people in foreign countries than to have a bit less of it taken but more of that which is taken be used to blow people up and keep them in internment camps. The Oz police seem more thuggish than the NZ version; I'd sooner pay more for less thuggery. And Oz airports are too close to US norms for my liking; NZ remains sane on that front. I'd sooner pay more, and have less of it used to make my life hell at the airport.
    4. Civil liberties matter more to me at current margins than does the tax burden. I think NZ does better on that front, but it depends on the bundle of freedoms you value. Your Scipione scares the heck outta me.

  9. Just convince the NZ government to match the Aussie tax brackets and then you can have it all. Obviously you could have an even better tax rate than Australia but trans Tasman rivalry is a good starting point.

  10. You guys do better on the average rates at *some* levels, but your effective marginal tax schedule has some worse messes in it than ours does. Play with this OECD tax wedge tool here-embedded: http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.co.nz/2013/03/tax-wedges.html