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Freedom and Population

July 20, 2011
Roscoe, N.Y.

"Hell is other people" says a character in Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit. Well, maybe sometimes. But most of the time our lives are enriched by other people, whether it be in a friendship, or a romance, or a family, or a classroom, or a party. Our lives are also enriched by people who we know only through the novels they've written, or the music they've composed, or the art they've created. In a very real sense, life is other people, and our relationship with them.

If there were no other people around besides oneself, there would be no need for language, no need for manners, no need for morals, and certainly no need for government and laws. In this sense, being stranded on a desert island is the freest existence imaginable.

On the other hand, the more people living in a particular area, the more possibility there is of bumping into one another, and possibly experiencing conflicts. Over the past couple thousand years, civilized people have attempted to lessen the impact of these conflicts by instituting government and laws. As the United States Declaration of Independence indicates, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" to ensure our "unalienable Rights," which include "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

A few days ago I took issue with a ranking of US states by "freedom" because I felt that the definition of freedom used in this study focused too much on so-called economic freedoms, too much on alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, and virtually nothing on those aspects of life that aid in personal growth and what John Stuart Mill in his reformulation of utilitarianism called "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being." (In other words, the ranking has an extreme Libertarian bias.) I thank everyone who contributed to this discussion, including those who called me a "typical liberal elitist douche" and "stereotypical NYC/SF fart sniffer."

As I pondered the differences of "freedom" by state, I wondered if it had anything to do with population density. Obviously there's a big difference between the types of laws required for a 23-square-mile island with one inhabitant, and a 23-square-mile island with 1.6 million inhabitants (of which I am one most of the year).

The downloadable Excel spreadsheet I created lists the 2009 freedom rankings for the 50 states (which I got from this page), population of the 50 states, land area, and a calculated density, which I crossed-checked here. (Numbers don't match exactly but they're good enough — as they say — for government work.)

Then I did a scatter plot of the freedom index vs. the logarithm of the population density and here it is:

The horizontal axis is the freedom index from "less freedom" on the left to "more freedom" on the right. The vertical axis is the logarithm of the population density.

Obviously we usually like scatter plots to show a clear linear clustering, and this one does not. However, it definitely shows a rough correlation between higher population densities and "less freedom," as the (Excel supplied) trend line indicates.

Yes, we have lots of laws in New York City, and some of them are really oppressive, such as when you really need to drive your car 80 miles per hour down 5th Avenue. But other laws are sometimes actually for our own protection in an environment where cars travelling 80 miles per hour on 5th Avenue can be somewhat hazardous.


Comments:

I'm spanish. And I tend to think there has to be a balance between personal freedom and social protection.

I'll try to explain.

I'm not free to drive 200 km/h down a street. No one has that right. And it's good

I'm not free to buy any weapon and go shooting people. No one can. So I can walk down the street with a feeling of safety.

What is good for one, is good for everyone.

I don't understand that people feel safer by having a gun in their homes.

I happily renounce to certain freedoms in order to feel safer.

Luis de Santiago, Wed, 20 Jul 2011 17:11:39 -0400

The thing that amazes me is how language like what you quoted is absent from political discourse. I sometimes feel as if it was reserved for a different generation and time. If you search youtube for episodes of the old Mike Wallace interview show you see him talking with Ayn Rand, Erich Fromm, and Aldus Huxley about the very concepts and assumptions that underpin our system. All too often the political "philosophy" you hear from people and politicians is limited to the crass, base, and juvenile.

— Josh, Wed, 20 Jul 2011 17:18:31 -0400

"As I pondered the differences of "freedom" by state, I wondered if it had anything to do with population density. Obviously there's a big difference between the types of laws required for a 23-square-mile island with one inhabitant, and a 23-square-mile island with 1.6 million inhabitants"

Yes obviously. That's why cities add more laws to those that govern an entire state. Since you have superb museums and libraries, you feel more free in your city than you would upstate. But you know why your dense city needs more laws, with an effect that some people feel is less free.

— partly free, Wed, 20 Jul 2011 22:48:38 -0400

The moral of the story is as you've proven: higher population requires more regulation and laws. Whether you believe these regulations provide some level of protection they still limit your freedom even when we can all agree that the law makes sense.

However this does not mean that the definition of freedom changes, whether its coming from a libertarian source, a liberal source, or what have you.

2. exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc.

3. the power to determine action without restraint.

(A number of online dictionaries prove that we can all agree, or at least the definers of the English language can all agree, on what the word freedom means.)

So if you were to rank the states by population there will be a clear cut most populous state and a clear cut least populous state. Same for taxes, species of trees, or anything for that matter. The study that has set the stage for your last two posts is based on the definition of freedom.

You've correlated "least free" as a terribly negative thing, but it really is personal preference. I'd wager most NYC residents appreciate the fact that there are laws that should prevent, and in the event of violation, punish a person for going 80 MPH on 5th Avenue. Some certainly don't - particularly those that have been punished for such an infraction. The fact that NY (and NYC) is the least free probably means that the residents are also the most [or feel the most] protected and businesses the most regulated (for better or for worse). And that protection comes at a cost - higher taxes and a loss of freedom. Its really that simple and boils down to a matter of choice.

I believe that personal freedom is paramount. I don't like bureaucracies interfering with my day to day life. I do not want harm to come to me or my family, nor do I want to cause harm to anyone else. I don't need a politician or law making body to regulate away my personal freedom in order to accomplish this very simple thing (while some people do, or feel more protected when this is done). Whether its the right to own a gun, marry whomever I choose, do with my body what I will, or any number of other freedoms if they do not infringe on the rights of others then I believe no one has any business trying to regulate my private life or my choices. I grew up in NY and now I live in VA. I would never move back to NY because I do believe that the state government interferes with private life too much.

Also the weather in NY is _terrible_.

Charles Feduke, Wed, 20 Jul 2011 23:04:49 -0400

Bah I just went back and read some of the replies to the previous post and all of my points were made in the back and forth. I guess if I'm going to add anything worthwhile it is: I think your article illustrates the relationship between higher population density equals more rules because the likelihood of people doing the wrong thing increases as anonymity increases. Therefore, less free. You get to choose where you live.

Charles Feduke, Wed, 20 Jul 2011 23:23:03 -0400

I think your snark about "marrying a 12 year old" increased the probability of your being called a "typical liberal elitist douche" by several orders of magnitude.

I really hope that this study doesn't give you a negative impression of the Mercatus Center. I have listened to several podcasts of the people there on www.econtalk.org. I think you would find them pretty reasonable people even if you don't agree with their point of view.

My personal view is that in a free society people vote with their feet. According to the census data, New York had one of the lowest growth rate in the past decade. Maybe New Yorkers are finding "freedom" in other places.

David, Thu, 21 Jul 2011 00:35:15 -0400

> My personal view is that in a free society people vote with their feet. According to the census data, New York had one of the lowest growth rate in the past decade. Maybe New Yorkers are finding "freedom" in other places.

By counting "feet", your point is exactly negated. See the plot above.

[Is the webmaster still publishing emails that are entered in the "Submit comment:" textboxes? I made the mistake of entering my email for the purposes of comment review, and was very disappointed to find my email address published on the page. If the email address will be published, say "(will be published)" instead of the oblique "(optional)". If it will not be published, say "(optional, for comment review correspondence only, will not be published)". I guess it was my own mistake to assume that something intelligent would be done with the email address I entered.]

Manuel Moe G, Thu, 21 Jul 2011 13:25:55 -0400

If by "webmaster," you mean me (Charles Petzold), let me clarify that anything that's entered in the Comment box that's not spam gets published to the page eventually. The published comment is "signed" with whatever is entered in the Name box, with a hyperlink to whatever is entered in the "URL or Email" box. — Charles

Quoting our gracious host:

> anything that's entered in the Comment box that's not spam gets published to the page eventually. The published comment is "signed" with whatever is entered in the Name box, with a hyperlink to whatever is entered in the "URL or Email" box.

I am not familiar with this definition of the word "(optional)". I will redline my dictionary immediately.

Heaven forbid you clutter your page with that single explanatory paragraph in your "Submit comment:" section.

I am not blaming you. I am blaming myself for my charitable assumptions about how email addresses would be treated on a programmer's blog.

Manuel Moe G, Thu, 21 Jul 2011 15:04:37 -0400

The word "optional" means you have a choice: You can enter something into that field or not. It's your choice. — Charles

@Manuel Moe

The plot above does not measure population changes. The census data does.

http://2010.census.gov/2010census/data/apportionment-pop-text.php

Also the maligned study shows a net domestic migration of -8.9%.

Please update your dictionary accordingly.

http://mercatus.org/freedom-50-states-2011/NY

David, Thu, 21 Jul 2011 17:00:27 -0400

I found this line in "Cognitive Surplus" by Clay Shirky and considered it relevant to the discourse (or perhaps more relevant to the previous post and less so here):

"Neither perfect individual freedom nor perfect social control is optimal (...), so it falls to us to manage the tension between individual freedom and social value, a trade-off that follows the by-now-familiar pattern of having no solution, just different optimizations that create different kinds of value, and different kinds of problems that need to be managed." (p.176)

And Mr. Petzold will be happy to know that this came from the dead tree edition of the book, not the electronic one.

Charles Feduke, Fri, 22 Jul 2011 02:55:04 -0400

@Manuel - I, too, was surprised to see my email address there for all (spam-bots) to see when I first posted a comment on Charles's blog. However, a polite email to Charles got it immediately removed. I suspect a sarcastic and slightly insulting rant won't.

@Charles - For all his ranting, Manuel has a point: >99% of all sites/blogs I've seen don't publish contributors' email addresses without a clear statement to that effect. You may want to consider changing "(optional)" to "(optional; will be published)" just to avoid future confusion, annoying emails and sarcastic rants...

— Philip the Duck, Fri, 22 Jul 2011 09:45:31 -0400

Done. — Charles

It seems to me your definition of freedom is really based on other freedoms, more fundamental freedoms. The right to go to a movie isn't a fundamental right, but freedom of speech is. And consenting adults making contracts between themselves seems pretty important too.

— edbarbar, Sat, 23 Jul 2011 21:27:39 -0400


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