A couple weeks back the Mercatus Freedom In The 50 States Index came out and there was much bemusement to be had by most. Matthew Yglesias may be wrong on dragons but he was right, I think, that the exercise holds promise chiefly as a solution to a coalition-building problem: how to “simultaneously preserve libertarianism as a distinct brand and also preserve libertarianism’s strong alliance with social conservatism.” Regular old freedom-loving folk, by contrast, will tend to be left cold.
I thought I would add a footnote to this, and give the CT commentariat an opportunity to weigh in. It might seem that the footnote to add is one of the woolly ones, from Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”:
Negative liberty is something the extent of which, in a given case, it is difficult to estimate. It might, prima facie, seem to depend simply on the power to choose between at any rate two alternatives. Nevertheless, not all choices are equally free, or free at all. If in a totalitarian State I betray my friend under threat of torture, perhaps even if I act from fear of losing my job, I can reasonably say that I did not act freely. Nevertheless, I did, of course, make a choice, and could, at any rate in theory, have chosen to be killed or tortured or imprisoned. The mere existence of alternatives is not, therefore, enough to make my action free (although it may be voluntary in the normal sense of the word). The extent of my freedom seems to depend on (a) how many possibilities are open to me (although the method of counting these can never be more than impressionistic; possibilities of action are not discrete entities like apples, which can be exhaustively enumerated); (b) how easy or difficult each of these possibilities is to actualize; (c) how important in my plan of life, given my character and circumstances, these possibilities are when compared with each other; (d) how far they are closed and opened by deliberate human acts; (e) what value not merely the agent, but the general sentiment of the society in which he lives, puts on the various possibilities. All these magnitudes must be ‘integrated’, and a conclusion, necessarily never precise, or indisputable, drawn from this process. It may well be that there are many incommensurable kinds and degrees of freedom, and that they cannot be drawn up on any single scale of magnitude. Moreover, in the case of societies, we are faced by such (logically absurd) questions as ‘Would arrangement X increase the liberty of Mr. A more than it would that of Messrs. B, C and D between them, added together?’ The same difficulties arise in applying utilitarian criteria. Nevertheless, provided that we do not demand precise measurement, we can give valid reasons for saying that the average subject of the King of Sweden is, on the whole, a good deal freer today  than the average citizen of Spain or Albania. Total patterns of life must be compared directly as wholes, although the method by which we make the comparison, and the truth of the conclusions, are difficult or impossible to demonstrate. But the vagueness of the concepts, and the multiplicity of the criteria involved, are attributes of the subject-matter itself, not of our imperfect methods of measurement, or of incapacity for precise thought.
The 50-state index might be thought an inadvertent proof-by-example of Berlin’s point that you can’t tot up negative freedoms in this way. (The problem is the subject itself, not our counting methods, however painstaking.) But, if you read the fine print on the box, the problem is odder. From a post by Jason Sorens, one of the authors, about “what the freedom index considers and why”:
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.
Including freedom from threats to freedom originating from outside government, rather notably. Private regimes of power and all that.
That is, the freedom index is not, as one might have suspected from the name and the results, a failed attempt to index freedom. It is not an attempt to index freedom at all – not in an ordinary sense, or even in a classical liberal sense. The freedom index is an attempt to index the degree of, or degree of burdensomeness of, government regulation. This leads to fresh sets of imponderables, akin to those Berlin raises. You can’t just count the number of laws passed and assume the jurisdiction that passes least governs lightest. You have to judge the results holistically, and in a more fine-grained manner. Which laws are the ‘good’ one, i.e. non-threatening to freedom – perhaps even freedom enhancing? But, at a more basic level, the problem isn’t that degree of regulation, or its burdensomeness, can’t be quantified. It’s that the value of this measure, as a proxy measure of negative freedom, is hardly self-evident.