What the Freedom Index Considers and Why

EXPERT COMMENTARY

What the Freedom Index Considers and Why

By Jason Sorens |
Apr 04, 2013

The recent release of the 2013 edition of Freedom in the 50 States has sparked a great deal of interest and comment among academics, students, the media, and the general public. Since the goal of our study is really to spark a conversation about freedom and state policies, William and I have been happy to see all the feedback. From the hundreds of positive comments we’ve received over the past week, it’s clear the study sparked a conversation in which many are eager to participate. In this blog post I will address some of the feedback and questions about the study we’ve received.

First, it’s important to understand how our study conceptualizes freedom. We ground our conception of freedom on an individual rights framework. In our view, individuals should be allowed to dispose of their lives, liberties, and property as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. The study is an index of how state and local public policies conform to this framework.

As is the case with any index, the “freedom index” has some limitations—-it cannot capture all aspects of freedom, such as freedom from depredations originating outside government. Nor is freedom all there is to quality of life. We thus encourage readers to use our scores in conjunction with other indicators when assessing government effectiveness, “quality of life,” or other, similar concepts. Visitors to our Web site can also personalize the rankings by choosing which aspects of freedom they value and see how the states compare against one another.

To ensure the transparency of the freedom index, which has been a critical goal for us from the start of this project, we try to answer as many readers’ questions as possible on our website. The most common questions that we have received have centered on why certain policies were included or not included in the index. Here, we address the policies readers have asked about the most.

Right-to-Work Laws

We include right-to-work laws, which formally restrain employers’ hiring decisions, as a positive for freedom, because our research indicates and facts show that these laws violate few people’s freedom, while increasing freedom for a greater number. Right-to-work laws partially mitigate the losses suffered by employers and employees coerced into collective bargaining by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). If the NLRA did not exist, we note, right-to-work laws would be a “net” infringement on freedom.

Handheld Cell Phone Use

We also include bans on handheld cell phone use while driving as a negative for freedom. Although worth only 0.04% of the index, the variable is included because handheld cell phone use does not always pose a risk to others, the evidence suggeststhat these laws do not reduce traffic accidents or fatalities, and a more effective alternative–-a ban on distracted driving–-is available (Maine has passed such a law).

Policy Issues Not in the Index

In other cases, the application of the freedom principle to policies is indeterminate because the proper application depends on contingent facts whose truth cannot yet be verified. This is the case with most abortion laws and the death penalty, as we note in greater detail in the Introduction of the study (pages 5-6). For example, one’s view on whether legal abortion maximizes or limits freedom can depend largely on beliefs that fall outside of the policy realm and the scope of this study.

There are other state laws that we code but exclude from our calculation of the index for the exact same reason, such as state and local school voucher programs, public school choice, charter school laws, and smoking bans in public places and government buildings. In short, we think reasonable arguments can be made on both sides, and the empirical evidence remains unsatisfactory about the ultimate consequences of these policies for freedom. Some readers have suggested that future editions could include some of these categories from different perspectives, making it easy for readers to include it in their personalized rankings. This is a possibility we’d like to look into.

Weighting

In the current edition, the personal freedom category is worth about 33 percent of the index, compared to 50 percent in prior editions. The reason for this is that we weight each variable according to estimates of the value of the freedom involved to those who enjoy it, based on a standardized, nationwide shift in the value of the variable. You can read more about the Weighting and the sources used to develop the weighting here. Therefore no “hard-coded” value for the weight of each dimension exists. The weight of personal freedom is simply the summed weight of all the personal freedom variables.

Moreover, we have gone to great lengths to boost the personal freedom weights above what they would otherwise be. We recognize that many of these policies, particularly those dealing with constitutional rights and those pertaining to criminal justice, have symbolic value beyond those immediately affected. Therefore, we multiply all criminal-justice policies’ weights by two and all policies abridging something considered a “fundamental right” in at least one jurisdiction by ten (this includes marriage freedom). The logic for these moves is further explored on pages 47-49 of the study. Note that the most important category in personal freedom is “victimless crimes” (adjusted incarceration and victimless crimes arrest rates), worth 10 percent of the index.

In short, we have gone a very long way to make personal freedom worth as much as seemed plausible. Some readers have expressed surprise at a noticeable, albeit imperfect, correlation between state-level ideology and freedom. That correlation challenges libertarians’ self-perception of being just as far from the right as from the left. But at the state level, the correlation should not be surprising. Conservative states are more free market than liberal states, on average, but both types of states tend to do about equally well on personal freedom.

On economic issues, our findings are fairly similar to those of other indices. One way of validating the freedom index is to compare our measurements of those states with assessments given by actual business owners and managers. To this end, I compare here our index of state economic freedom, as of 2011, with two surveys: the 2012 Thumbtack.com survey of small business owners (“regulatory friendliness” measure, which includes taxes and other public policies) and Chief Executive magazine’s 2012 survey of CEOs on state taxation and regulation. For the Thumbtack survey, I have converted letter grades into numbers, where 0=”A+” and so on, up to 11=”F.” The Chief Executive survey gives numerical scores, where higher numbers are better. Note that some states did not receive grades in the Thumbtack survey.

The correlation between economic freedom from our index and the Thumbtack measure of regulatory environment is -0.66, a very strong, negative correlation, as we should expect (since in the latter survey, higher numbers mean less small business freedom). The correlation is even tighter with the Chief Executive ratings: 0.79 (it is 0.81 over the same states available in the Thumbtack survey). Thus, our index of economic freedom correlates very highly with the way business owners themselves perceive the economic policy environment in each state. Economic freedom, as we measure it, seems to be better for both small and larger businesses.

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