Measuring Freedom & Government Intervention

Measuring Freedom & Government Intervention

We explicitly ground our conception of freedom on an individual-rights framework. In our view, individuals should be allowed to dispose of their lives, liberties, and properties as they see fit, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.1 This understanding of freedom follows from the natural-rights liberal thought of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Robert Nozick, but it is also consistent with the rights-generating rule-utilitarianism of Herbert Spencer and others.2 In the context of the modern state, this philosophy engenders a set of normative policy prescriptions that political theorist Norman Barry characterizes as follows:

[A] belief in the efficiency and morality 
of unhampered markets, the system of 
private property, and individual rights—

[A] belief in the efficiency and morality of unhampered markets, the system of private property, and individual rights—and a deep distrust of taxation, egalitarianism, compulsory welfare, and the power of the state.3

In essence, what this study attempts to measure is the extent to which state and local public policies conform to this ideal regime of maximum, equal individual freedom.4 For us, the fundamental problem with state intervention in consensual acts is that it violates persons’ rights. To paraphrase Nozick, in a free society government permits and protects both capitalist and noncapitalist acts between consenting adults.5 Should individuals desire to “tie their own hands” and require themselves to participate in social insurance, redistributive programs, or paternalist projects, they should form communities by contract for these purposes.

We would also argue that freedom, properly understood, can be threatened as much by the weakness of the state as by overbearing state intervention. Individuals are less free the more they have reason to fear private assaults and depredations, and a useful government punishes private aggression vigorously. However, we focus on threats to individual liberty originating in the state. Therefore, we do not code the effectiveness of state governments in punishing rights violations. For instance, we do not include measures of the efficacy of state police and courts or measures of violent- and property-crime rates.6 Thus, our freedom index does not capture all aspects of freedom.

Our definition of freedom presents specific challenges on some high-profile issues. Abortion is a critical example. By one account, the fetus is a rights-bearing person, and abortion is therefore an aggressive violation of individual rights that ought to be punished by government. By another account, the fetus does not have rights, and abortion is a permissible exercise of an individual liberty, in which case government regulation of abortion would be an unjust violation of a woman’s rights. Rather than take a stand on one side or the other (or anywhere in between), we have coded the data on state abortion restrictions but have not included the policy in our overall index.

Another example is the death penalty. Some would argue that a murderer forfeits her right to life, and, therefore, state execution of a murderer does not violate a basic right to life. Others contend that the right to life can never be forfeited, or that the state should never risk taking away all the rights of innocent individuals by mistakenly executing them. State sentencing policies short of the death penalty could also be debated. We do not include the death penalty or incarceration rates in the freedom index, although we have coded the data and made them available online at


1. We recognize that children and the insane must be treated differently from competent adults and also that some rights may not be alienated even by consenting adults.

2. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974); Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals(Lewis White Beck (tr.), Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995); John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government (reprinted in David Wootton (ed.), Political Writings of John Locke, New York: Penguin, 1983); Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: Or, The Conditions Essential to Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (London: John Chapman, 1851).

3. Norman Barry, “The Concept of ‘Nature’ in Liberal Political Thought,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 8, no. 1 (1986): 16, n. 2.

4. The “equal freedom” that persons enjoy in a free society is, for us, equality of rights and equality before the law, not equality of opportunities or “positive” freedom. On “positive” freedom, see Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969). 

5. Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 163.

6.  Measuring the efficacy and justice of criminal penalties, arrest procedures, and other technical aspects of the justice system in terms of deterrence, proportionality, retribution, rehabilitation, etc. is an extremely complex endeavor deserving of a lengthy treatment on its own. See Richard A. Posner, The Economics of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).

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