What love for freedom?

Chris Dillow blogs about the effect of freedom on happiness:

Does freedom make us happy? Two things I’ve seen today suggest not. First, a cross-country study of the link between economic freedom and well-being concludes:

“Economic freedom is significantly negatively related to life satisfaction if controlled for the influence of income per capita, unemployment, social trust, life expectancy and aging.”

Of course, controlling for income is a big control. The raw correlation between freedom and happiness is positive. The message is that economic freedom make us happy insofar as it makes us rich, but it has no intrinsic value for well-being.

It reminds me of something Gary Brecher wrote about in the context of modern, asymmetric warfare and why people fight:

People are superstitious tribalists. Democracy comes about 37th, if that. Nobody wants to face that fact: we’re tribal critters. We’ll die for the tribe. More to the point, we’ll kill for it. We don’t care about democracy. And I’m not just talking here about people in tropical hellholes like Somalia, I mean your town, your street. Most Americans are just like me: old-school nationalists. We want America to be Roman, to kick ass. The rest is for Quakers.

Those two things seem to go to the same point: pursuit of freedom is not a serious goal for most individuals. That really makes you wonder how such enormous decisions as going to war are justified on the basis of defending freedom and democracy. It’s far to big a topic to cover in a blog post and I have no expertise in the subject, but it does make me immediately think of Robin Hanson’s ideas about signalling status. Take a description of his position on health care and substitute in ‘democracy’ for ‘health care’:

And every single data point that passes by in the [freedom] debate does nothing but strengthen the position that Robin Hanson articulated: [freedom] altruism is a permutation of our evolutionary drive to “show we care”; or rather, make infrequent, and very large expenditures to show our loyalty to an alliance. The frequency has gotten greater as our society has gotten richer, but the underlying motive is still linked to our evolutionary roots.

Doesn’t that sound kinda plausible? I’m looking forward to learning plenty as the political scientists bring some real knowledge to bear here 😛

  • This is seriously flawed in so many ways.
    To some of us the pursuit of happiness is only possible if we have our freedom, and we don’t have it in the West anymore: indeed, we’re closer to a Soviet styled society than a free one. But before we even get into that, some questions:
     
    1) You link freedom to democracy: why? Democracies are precisely what are destroying freedom in our modern western police states: they are a tyranny of the majority.
     
    2) You then conflate, in the last quotation, freedom with altruism: WTF? Why? Western countries that have gone down the road to serfdom of forced state altruism in our welfare states have destroyed freedom by destroying the voluntary society (and destroyed compassion with it, which can only be voluntary), and making us all live behind an IRon Drape.
     
    I wish economics degree carried a philosophy component. You utilitarians just ‘don’t get it’. Trying to link the pursuit of happiness to whether a war is justified or not, it not relevant to the only important issue involved: morality. Of all people, economists should be better versed in matters of causation than this.
     
    (If you want to see what my viewpoint is, click through to my blog and read the byline in italics, with work commitments I doubt if I’ll make it back to this post today. Also read my post on Rousseau and the social contract, because from this post I’m pretty sure you’ll be on the slavers side of that one also).

  • … um, rereading you, I’m a little confused, and my previous post is not quite on all fours, but what you are missing in what you are doing, is morality.
     
    The message is that economic freedom make us happy insofar as it makes us rich, but it has no intrinsic value for well-being.


    That’s where you are lost: freedom is an issue of morality. What do you actually mean by that (utilitarian) ‘well-being’? I put it to you, it’s meaningless. ‘Well-being’ to a masochist is something completely different to well-being for me, for which it would mean the degree to which I am free to pursue my happiness with interference by the state.

    • I think you’re saying that what’s true for the average person isn’t necessarily true for any individual. That’s certainly a problem with interpreting any large study, but it does suggest that there are people who don’t act as if they value their freedom. They may claim to, but they don’t act that way. The problem is how to resolve that tension and ideas of signalling occurred to me. I could be completely wrongheaded about this, though, and I confess that I really don’t understand your comments about morality so perhaps I am.

      • 🙂 I’m simply saying the pursuit of happiness, freedom: they’re moral issues, and economists don’t tend to get this because you work on meaningless utilitarian principles which effectively makes you all socialists (to one degree or other).
         
        … but it does suggest that there are people who don’t act as if they value their freedom. They may claim to, but they don’t act that way. The problem is how to resolve that tension and ideas of signalling occurred to me.


        Well that’s the nub of it. Here’s the moral question you’re missing:


        If a society consists of 101 people, and your theorising proved that the well-being of 100 of those people could be increased by enslaving the remaining 1, then your answer is, do it. Right?

        • I certainly don’t claim to be a philosopher but I’m aware that there are plenty of excellent, utilitarian, moral philosophers. Given that, I find it odd that you characterise their work as ‘meaningless’ but no doubt you are exaggerating for dramatic effect.

          Regarding your thought experiment, I believe it would largely depend upon the loss of utility to the enslaved person. My understanding is that many utilitarian philosophers assume that loss to be great enough that it would not be morally right to enslave the person under most circumstances.

  • My understanding is that many utilitarian philosophers assume that loss to be great enough that it would not be morally right to enslave the person under most circumstances.
     
    Why not? What criteria are you using to measure ‘loss of utility’. For the first time you mention morality, but do you have any appropriate framework in which to apply it? How can you, you don’t know what is meant by it? What does an economist mean by ‘morality’ from the point of view of utilitarianism?
    Utilitarian principles are worse than meaningless: that was a badly chosen word. They are evil, because they lead to a tyranny of the majority, justifying persecution and oftentimes atrocity, in the name of the common good. Utilitarianism is the pursuit of the blood soaked common good, ultimately. It’s the seed for the welfare state. The minute a society pursues the common good, over protecting the smallest minority in it, the individual, and concerns itself with nothing other than that, then you have simply created the slave state. And in fact, that is just what the West has now created, a series of slave states, where producers/individuals are forced to live behind the IRon Drape of a totalitarian taxing legislation against which we have no privacy, and certainly no freedom. It’s Rousseau’s social contract turned on its head into a prison, an increasingly violent one, rather than a civilised free society. And witnessing your problems understanding even some of the basic concepts indicates, perhaps, why the West, and the hope that was classical liberalism, founded on laissez-faire markets – which are just the expression of the complex web of needs and desires of all the individuals in a society being transacted – has now been all but destroyed.
     
    Because why destroyed? Your difficulty as an economist grasping the moral concept that a state should exist only to protect the individual citizen; that’s why. It makes freedom lovers like myself very fearful: because you guys are consulting and advising politicians, and they have no grasp of moral issues either. 
     
     
     

    • Oh, this last post was in reply to your last post, James. Sorry. I didn’t hit the reply button.

    • The post merely accepts the fact that individuals may have preferences over things that restrict strict economic freedom – it makes more sense to accept this, and make sure we look at trade-offs clearly, instead of rallying against any perceived slight on freedom as an unabashed evil.

      Remember, the only person that is truly free is completely alone and without possessions – most people would have a better quality of life in some middle ground.

      • Remember, the only person that is truly free is completely alone and without possessions – most people would have a better quality of life in some middle ground.
         
        No, Matt, this is where it goes wrong. To fall back onto the cliche, you are saying that I am ‘part of the village’, thus there are trade offs, and yes of course I am part of the village. But implementing utilitarian principles always changes this to a very different position: that is, ,the village owns me. It doesn’t, and that is a state of slavery. And even Rousseau in his Social Contract stated clearly no man would logically trade his freedom for slavery.
         
        Tell me how you determine what this muddled ‘middle ground’ is?

        • ” But implementing utilitarian principles always changes this to a very different position: that is, ,the village owns me. It doesn’t, and that is a state of slavery. And even Rousseau in his Social Contract stated clearly no man would logically trade his freedom for slavery.”

          The village is not a choice making object, the individual is.  But undeniably, individuals may be willing to give up some choice on the basis of how it works within a group.

          “Tell me how you determine what this muddled ‘middle ground’ is?”

          I don’t need to determine what the optimal middle ground is to prove the point that a trade-off exists – I just need to illustrate that choosing an extreme of “complete freedom” and “complete slavery” can be improved upon.  In truth, the choice isn’t as stark as “freedom” vs “slavery”, and painting it solely in those terms over simplifies the issues people face.

          When it comes to discussing optimality, as an economist and a utilitarian I prefer mechanisms where people can reveal true value – I tend to favour the market, and the use of democracy as a mechanism for co-operation and an imperfect way of determining social value.

          I freely admit that democracy leads to a tyranny of the majority – but I would rather have a tyranny of the majority tempered by the free admission of trade-offs, than the counterfactual which is a tyranny of the minority 😉

        • … the counterfactual which is a tyranny of the minority.


          But in a society which constitutionally protects the rights of the individual, and polices the non-initiation of force principle, then a tyranny of the minority is not possible 🙂
           
          Do you think our current tyranny of the majorities are working:
          Economically?
          Philosophically / morally?
          If you have no privacy from the state, how are you not living in a state closer to a police state than civilised? And does this worry you?
           
          Why is talking to economists such a cold blooded affair? (Rhetorical 🙂 )

        • I’ve no idea if you even still looking at this thread, Matt, but I’ve put ‘frosty’ economists in my last blog post: <a href=”http://lifebehindtheirondrape.blogspot.co.nz/2012/06/death-of-classical-liberalism-part-i.html”>Death of Classical Liberalism: Part I.</a>   😉

        • Whoops: your site doesn’t take html url tag links. Link above was:
           
          http://lifebehindtheirondrape.blogspot.co.nz/2012/06/death-of-classical-liberalism-part-i.html

        • Hi Mark,

          Sorry, I barely have time to post at the moment, so haven’t had much chance to look at the thread.  I will remember to have a look another time 😉

          What can I say, the Euro crisis keeps me away from blogging – another failure of the Eurozone IMO

  • If people put much weight on freedom as an intrinsic value, the world would look very different. Democracy isn’t all that bad at giving the median voter what the median voter wants. I looked at this a bit in my dissertation – changes in voter preferences for economic freedom predict changes in Freedom rankings. It’s just that folks don’t really care that much about freedom. 

    If American Pacifists cared about their pacifism, they’d emigrate to a place where a fifth of their tax contributions weren’t being used to blow up people in Afghanistan. 

    If American Libertarians cared about living free, they’d emigrate to places offering the best bundle of freedoms as they see it. A whole lot of self-professed libertarians live in New York City and in California – both of which are heavily regulated and come with massive impositions on personal freedoms, but which also provide a lot of other really desirable amenities. 

    Even folks who claim to love freedom don’t really show it.  

    • Any idea why people spend so much time professing to care about it, Eric? It’s not a field I really know anything about, but I find it curious that a goal that dominates political discourse isn’t valued highly by individuals.

      • Could be partially down to a difference between reported and revealed preferences.

        Also, the article was specifically discussing a type of freedom – when people are discussing the value they place on freedom they may be talking about a different type/concept.

        • Measurement error isn’t a very sexy explanation, Matt 😉

        • Reported vs revealed isn’t measurement error; it’s notional vs effective demand.

        • I was referring to a potential discrepancy between the concept of freedom discussed and the one measured.

          I don’t find the idea of reported/revealed particularly illuminating because it just prompts the question of why they’re different. And then you’re back to possible signalling.

        • Measurement error is likely to be a major issue here – as economic freedom and broad freedom are intrinsically very different.

          And I think explaining why reported/revealed preferences are different is illuminating for the reason you are stating it is not – you then have to explain why that exists, and try to understand why the catch word of “freedom” is used as a focal point for people.