More On Libertarianism and Migration

New Zealand economist Eric Crampton has responded to my post commenting on his query about why so few libertarians move to New Zealand despite the fact that New Zealand is (slightly) freer than the United States. I actually agree with much of what he says in this post, which makes several good points. But I do have several reservations.

Eric disagrees somewhat with my claim that the difference in freedom between New Zealand and the US is fairly marginal. The points he makes are valid, but none strike me as upsetting the bottom-line conclusion. Most of them are very minor differences. For example, in an age where almost everyone has cable, I don’t think it matters very much that, in New Zealand, “South Park and HBO series air, unedited, on broadcast [TV].” Moreover, each such point can be countered by an offsetting marginal edge for the US (e.g. – New Zealand has hate speech laws). The one really substantial New Zealand advantage Eric cites is their much less aggressive prosecution of the War on Drugs. However, this difference has little effect on the lives of most committed libertarians, since the vast majority of them are middle class professionals. The War on Drugs inflicts most of its harm on the poor, especially inner city minorities. Libertarians, of course, would like to eliminate the War on Drugs even if it doesn’t affect them much personally; but moving to New Zealand won’t do much to achieve that goal. Ultimately, Eric doesn’t seem to disagree much with my conclusion that the very small differences in freedom between the US and New Zealand are outweighed by the high costs of moving.

Eric also has an interesting analysis of the residency patterns of 56 of the libertarian activists who wrote autobiographies for Walter Block’s recent book I Chose Liberty:

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… 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.

The Mercatus score Eric refers to is this study, which rates the freedom levels of all the states, weighing economic and social freedom equally.

Eric is certainly right to suggest that most of these libertarians seem willing to trade off some degree of freedom for other goals in deciding which state to live in. As Eric recognizes, there is nothing unusual or hypocritical about that. Commitment to libertarianism or any other ideology doesn’t require people to make that the sole factor in choosing where they live. How many principled left-wing academics turn down good jobs at Texas universities on the grounds that Texas is a “red” state with very conservative policies?

That said, I think Eric’s data does in fact show a significant preference in the sample for living in freer states, though of course it’s hard to say how representative these 56 cases are.

It’s important to remember that most of these 56 libertarians are either academics or policy intellectuals. In the US, people in these professions are heavily concentrated in New York, California, and Washington, DC – three of the least libertarian jurisdictions. That makes it fairly striking that the median libertarian in this sample actually lives in a state with a higher than average freedom rating. If you compare these libertarian intellectuals to nonlibertarians with similar professional backgrounds, the difference between the two groups is likely to be very great, and at least partly explicable by the libertarians’ greater preference for living in more libertarian states. On that score, it’s worth noting that eight people in the sample live in Virginia, while virtually none live in Maryland or Washington, DC. Virginia is by far the most libertarian of the three Beltway jurisdictions, and it seems to be the home of choice for libertarians whose professional commitments require them to live near the capital (which is a common location for academics and public policy experts). For what it’s worth, this is a large part of the reason why I chose to live in Virginia rather than DC or Maryland myself.

Finally, libertarians, like other people, can disapprove of government policies that restrict freedom in ways that don’t affect them much personally. The vast majority of the libertarians in the Block sample are upper middle class academics or intellectuals. Many of New York’s or California’s most egregious restrictions on freedom don’t restrict activities that people in their class and profession are likely to engage in. It makes sense for libertarians (and others) to move in order to avoid restrictions on freedoms that they personally wish to exercise. But it’s much less logical to move away from restrictions that mostly affect other people. Such a move won’t do much to increase freedom for either the mover himself or those left behind. For example, I strongly disapprove of Virginia’s participation in the War on Drugs and its ban on gay marriage. But since I don’t want to use banned drugs or enter into a single-sex marriage myself, leaving Virginia would not increase my freedom, nor would it increase the likelihood of forcing Virginia to change.