economic freedom correlates with poverty

The Mercatus Center, a libertarian outfit, provides rankings of states’ “freedom,” defined as the absence of taxation, spending, and regulation by governments. So if a state spends more on education or requires more years of schooling, its people are considered less free. Writers like de Tocqueville and Mill provide classical liberal accounts in which social norms and families (not just governments) are threats to personal freedom, and mind-broadening experiences like education (even if state-funded and mandatory) can expand freedom.

But the Mercatus Center is entitled to its view, which is state-phobic.  They are eager to show that their index of freedom correlates with economic growth. What jumps out at me, instead, is the appearance of some of our most economically dynamic and important states (Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, New Jersey, and New York) at the very bottom of their freedom list.

In fact, I find a not-very-strong but negative correlation between freedom and median household income:

New Hampshire is a Mercatus utopia: high freedom, high wealth. But what about New Jersey: low freedom but rich? Or New York, an outlier on the unfree end of the spectrum, yet with above-average household income?

The graph above uses the whole Freedom Index, including items like drug laws and same-sex marriage that seem fairly remote from economics. Indeed, Mercatus found no correlation between its  “personal freedom” subscore and growth. But they also have an economic freedom index that’s all about taxation and regulation. Again, the correlation with wealth is negative–less freedom means higher household income:

My graphs do not by any means prove causation. But I suspect that more than a century of state investment in infrastructure and education is one reason for the high income (but low “freedom”) of New York and Massachusetts, whereas low state investment helps to explain the relative poverty (but high “freedom”) of states like Texas and Oklahoma.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.