Live equal or die

In an earlier post I discussed the amazing number of categories in which Denmark led the world.

1.  Most liberal (or idealistic) values

2.  Most free market economy

3.  Most equal income distribution

4.  Happiest

That raises the question of whether there is a “Denmark of America.”  Probably not, but there is one state that comes pretty close.

Let’s start with the fact that by most measures the Nordic countries have the most liberal cultures in the world.  So Denmark is representative of the entire region.  In the US one good indicator of liberal values is attitudes toward gay marriage.  Of the 6 states that have legalized it, or are in the process of doing so, 5 are in New England.  Only heavily catholic Rhode Island has held back.  Let’s say New England is the most Nordic-like part of the U.S., at least in cultural terms.

Even by Nordic standards, however, Denmark has an unusually free market economy.  Is there any New England state that stands out in this regard with respect to the US?  George Mason University just published a ranking of Freedom by States, in which New Hampshire came in number one overall, and number two in the subcategory of economic freedom.  Here is where the Denmark comparison breaks down a bit.  Denmark is number one only if one averages the 8 (out of 10) Heritage Institute economic freedom categories that exclude size of government, whereas New Hampshire receives its high ranking in large part because of its very low overall tax burden.

So does this mean the comparison is silly?  Is Denmark a left-wing egalitarian paradise, and is New Hampshire is a stingy, right-wing state full of savage inequalities?  Not quite, it turns out that New Hampshire is one of the most egalitarian states, trailing only Utah and Wyoming in terms of state gini coefficient.  However the gini coefficient is not the best way to measure egalitarianism.  As John Rawls pointed out, increased inequality would certainly be acceptable if it improved the well-being of the worst off.  So how do the worst off do in New Hampshire?  It turns out that if we define the worst off as the bottom 20% (the only data I could find) then New Hampshire has the “richest poor” of any state in the union.  Thus all income groups in New Hampshire are better off than in Utah and Wyoming, indeed quite a bit better off.

At this point one might ask if state comparisons are fair, after all New Hampshire has less ethnic diversity than most other states.  But of course the same is true of the Nordic countries, and that doesn’t stop left-wingers from touting their egalitarianism.  On closer examination I think that Denmark and New Hampshire both look pretty equal, even taking ethnicity into account.  There are quite a few countries with relatively homogeneous populations, and yet none are as equal as Denmark.  And there are quite a few states with demographics similar to New Hampshire, and yet none seem to have reduced poverty as effectively.

Once you start messing around with cross sectional data, it’s hard to stop.  I was disappointed to see that New Hampshire came in only 13th in state happiness rankings.  So the Denmark comparison breaks down there.  But before big government liberals get too excited about New Hampshire’s so-so happiness ranking, note that the two happiest states are Utah and Wyoming (I guess Dick Cheney must not be typical.)

[Utah was number one, while Wyoming actually trailed Hawaii by a tad for the number two spot.  But given the weather differential in January between Maui and Laramie, I put in a mental "weather dummy" and bumped Wyoming up one spot.  It just didn't seem fair otherwise.]

Of course these happiness rankings are self-reported, based on polls, and thus any state claiming to be happiest must expect a bit of teasing.  Will Wilkinson supplies some here.  But at least Will had the good taste not to bring up this embarrassing correlation.

Even in the dark days of this economic crisis, I hold out hope that some sort of “third way” can be found between the statist Democratic Party and the rapidly imploding Republican Party.  Brink Lindsey’s liberaltarianism is one such possible path.  If we choose to go that way, there will be one state that got there first.  The only problem would be fitting a left/right hybrid philosophy onto their license plate.   “Adopt the egalitarian neoliberal economic model or die?”  How about something more inspiring like “Utilitarianism!”  Now I am beginning to see why there are so few pragmatic libertarians—it’s not the most inspiring ideology.

The other way to go is to just give up on producing neat, tidy, prosperous societies like Denmark and New Hampshire, and go for excitement:

“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance; in Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”–Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles in The Third Man.)



15 Responses to “Live equal or die”

  1. Gravatar of dispatches from TJICistan » Blog Archive » move north or die dispatches from TJICistan » Blog Archive » move north or die
    25. May 2009 at 05:18

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  2. Gravatar of Alex Alex
    25. May 2009 at 12:53

    Worth noting is that Sweden with the lowest income GINI has higher wealth GINI than the US i.e. Sweden has a much higher wealth inequality than the US and as a consequence no change in the top 10 % in Sweden i.e. old wealth and privileges has been preserved because of the high taxation and extremely unfriendly small business and entrepreneur climate.

    It is also worth noting that in the US the government is responsible for only 30 % of all spending. i.e private spending on welfare is not accounted for.

    In Sweden and Denmark 90 % of welfare spending is by Public Spending.

    Read this most interesting article that opens your eyes as regards to the perceptions and in most times myth concerning the US and Europe in general and in comparison to Sweden in particular.

    A narrower Atlantic

    Despite America’s move to the left under Obama, it’s still assumed that Europe and America are fundamentally different—in their economies, societies and values. But this is a myth

  3. Gravatar of johnleemk johnleemk
    25. May 2009 at 15:19

    “Now I am beginning to see why there are so few pragmatic libertarians—it’s not the most inspiring ideology.”

    I’m reluctant to concur, but it’s true I suspect. Most liberals are reluctant to concede that there are tradeoffs to achieving our objectives in maximising utility, and insist on very neat, direct, but unfortunately all-too-flawed solutions. Most conservatives are more pragmatic but don’t share liberal utilitarian values. Most vulgar libertarians (i.e. the Ron Paul type) seem to combine the worst of both worlds — they seem pragmatic enough but they insist that not to worry, everything will be fine once we go back to the US Constitution, abolish the Fed, and restore freedom to our shores.

    I really do wonder how liberaltarianism seems to have successfully thrived in so many other democracies.

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. May 2009 at 17:43

    Alex, Thanks, That is a good article. I agree that there are many misconceptions about differences between America and Europe. I’m not surprised by the crime victimization data. I know people who have never been victimized by crime in their entire lief, and have their pocket picked a few days after arriving in Europe. Both continets have lots of pluses and minuses.

    Johnleemk, I consider Ron Paul a dogmatic libertarian. I like the guy in some ways–he’s (was?) a congressman from a conservative Houston district who favors drug legalization, that takes some independence.

    But he’s not a pragmatist, and I don’t think he has plausible solutions for complex economic problems. (On the other hand our so-called “experts” don’t seem to be doing much better right now.

    Regarding liberals, I prefer the distinction between “commonsense” and “economistic” views. A lot of liberal programs seemed to be commonsense solutions at the time–i.e. get rid of slums with public housing; but didn’t pay enough attention to complex incentive effects.

  5. Gravatar of Redland Jack Redland Jack
    26. May 2009 at 09:35

    I’m just not sure how feasible it is for the libertarians and Democrats (I hesitate to use the word ‘liberal’, since I think it obscures, rather than illuminates) to combine in any meaningful way.

    Insofar as libertarians believe that governments enforce their edicts at the point of a gun (and that such coercion is wrong), it is difficult to see how the two groups could ever reach any meaningful consensus on economic issues.

    On non-economic issues, it is possible that libertarians could convince Democrats on issues like legalizing drugs (and they already agree on many similar issues), but I don’t ever see the two groups joining on something like anti-discrimination laws.

    I’m also disinclined to believe that utilitarianism and ‘the egalitarian neoliberal economic model’ are synonymous, but I could certainly be mistaken (and it could be the best politically feasible result).

  6. Gravatar of Don the libertarian Democrat Don the libertarian Democrat
    26. May 2009 at 11:22

    I am libertarian and a Democrat. Almost every position I hold was once argued by Milton Friedman or Hayek. Most of my current view of the crisis is derived from Irving Fisher and the Old Chicago School View of the Great Depression during the Great Depression. I would say that Burke, a Whig, is my model for practicing politics. My favorite economist for most of my life was Jevons. I’m a big fan of Keynes as well. Philosophically, I have no problem combining Nozick and Rawls, or Hayek and Gewirth, or any of a number of thinkers I draw inspiration from. Oddly, when I discussed my views with Nozick, he had no problem understanding me and, maybe to humor me, admitted that he had moved closer to Rawls over the years as well.

    I enjoy being a Democrat more than being a Republican or Libertarian, which I’ve been in the past. I feel no stranger than Burke felt being a Whig. Of course, you have to hold that politics and political theory are different, as are economics and political economy. I’d say that I developed this view from Smith and Burke, except that I’m afraid that Gavin Kennedy is going to write me up for misreading Adam Smith.

    It was actually the Kos debate that led me to become a libertarian Democrat. What’s odd is that when I post on the Daily Kos, I can’t say that I sense a lot of respect for libertarian Democrats. Of course, there are plenty of people who like to say that it’s impossible to be a libertarian Democrat. These people rarely debate issues or policies with me.

    I have to admit that, although I read a lot of blogging about combining liberalism and libertarianism, I just can’t get excited by the topic. It bores me for some reason. I often wish I hadn’t taken the blogging name of Don the libertarian Democrat. When I started my blog, I simply hoped that a few similar minded people would find me. I’ve made a few great contacts from my blogging, including the terrific blogger Nick Rowe, but none of them are libertarian Democrats.

    I don’t see that my position is particularly hard to understand. If you can understand why Milton Friedman argued for a guaranteed income, and Hayek argued for a robust social safety net at one time, then you can, philosophically, at least, understand where I’m coming from. Rawls and Gewirth can both be easily fit into such a libertarianism.

    Anyway, I enjoy your blog very much. Good luck finding a political home. I can’t say that I feel the most paradigmatic Democrat on earth, but I don’t feel alienated or left out either.

  7. Gravatar of DWAnderson DWAnderson
    26. May 2009 at 13:28

    I like the quotation from The Third Man!

  8. Gravatar of johnleemk johnleemk
    26. May 2009 at 15:28

    Redland Jack:

    I think you’ve hit on a major problem, which is that “libertarian” lumps in utilitarians who believe more liberty is generally good with hardline Rothbardians like Ron Paul who believe more government is always bad. There is of course a spectrum in between; Bryan Caplan strikes me as a good example of someone who Rothbard resonates with, and yet who often writes like a pragmatic libertarian. But I suspect the biggest issue here is that the pragmatic libertarians are those who simply think more liberty is usually a good thing but not an end in itself, while the dogmatic libertarians are those who consider liberty and utility as synonymous, or outright reject the idea that we should ever prioritise utility over liberty.


    In American terms I consider myself a libertarian Democrat, so I feel your pain. I do find the idea of liberaltarianism exciting, though, because I think it gives pragmatic libertarians a chance to distinguish ourselves from the crazy kookiness of the more dogmatic libertarians.

    I don’t share Rawls’s philosophy, but I love his idea of the veil of ignorance — it’s a fantastic thought experiment. Personally I believe if you think hard enough about it, you will realise the utilitarian position is the only reasonable one.

  9. Gravatar of johnleemk johnleemk
    26. May 2009 at 15:40

    Oh, another thing on pragmatic libertarianism I’d like to throw out there: I wonder how many other libertarians’ definition of liberty encompasses positive liberty as well. My understanding of government is that it exists to enhance liberty. This sounds crazy to the typical libertarian, but government exists to protect our property rights and guarantee basic liberties like freedom of speech. These in themselves are not negative liberties — they are positive liberties! Unless you take Rothbard’s optimistic view of anarchy — and I cannot fathom why we would be so optimistic, especially considering Bryan Caplan’s work in the studying democracy and the like — your view of liberty should have a role for the government.

    And taking this one step further, I believe liberty is about being able to do things. The more you are able to do, the more free you are. It’s not enough to look at freedom of speech and property rights and say, “Okay, we are liberated!” As silly as The War on Poverty was, it was still a much better idea than The War on Drugs, because poverty reduces liberty. You can’t buy as much as you would otherwise, you can’t learn as much as you would otherwise, and you can’t live life as fully as you would otherwise.

    The orthodox libertarian position is that markets are the best mechanism for lifting people out of poverty and enhancing economic liberty. But this really assumes away the cycle of poverty, which is real enough. When you’re unemployed and you run out of money, it’s really hard to get back on your feet. Perhaps charity is enough to address the issue, but we don’t have any empirical evidence to prove this. And what really strikes me as indefensible is the denial of education, healthcare and basic economic needs to children. Maybe their parents made bad decisions, and deserve their fate — but children have done nothing to merit such treatment.

    None of this rules out libertarian policy solutions like healthcare and education vouchers. But what this does rule out is the neat, orthodox libertarian assumption that simply increasing negative liberty will make more people better off. It is of course absolutely true that on average, a welfare state does reduce liberty. But I would say it also increases some aspects of liberty at the same time. You can’t reject or accept a welfare state outright without first weighing the costs and benefits. Orthodox American liberals only look at the benefits; orthodox American libertarians only look at the costs.

  10. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    26. May 2009 at 20:30

    These in themselves are not negative liberties — they are positive liberties!
    No, owning a press gives you positive freedom. Not being hoarse is positive freedom. That nobody can prevent you from speaking out is negative freedom.

    cannot fathom why we would be so optimistic, especially considering Bryan Caplan’s work in the studying democracy and the like — your view of liberty should have a role for the government.
    Caplan is an anarchist, but a neoclassical with some appreciation for utilitarianism like David Friedman (it should be noted that Rothbard’s hero Mises was a minarchist utilitarian). I’m open to anarchy, but I agree with Randall Holcombe that government is inevitable.

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. May 2009 at 05:11

    Redland Jack, I distinguish between dogmatic libertarians (such as the Libertarian Party, and many of their members) and pragmatic libertarians (such as Reason, the Cato Institute, Chicago economists, etc.) I believe people like Brink Lindsey are mostly trying to unite pragmatic libertarians with liberals. Pragmatic libertarians believe high taxes are unwise for utilitarian reasons. Dogmatic libertarians believe high taxes are theft. I’m sure this partitioning grossly oversimplifies, but it’s how I see the issue.

    Don the Libertarian Democrat, Those are interesting thoughts—I’ll try to check out you blog. BTW, I agree about Nick Rowe.

    DWAnderson, Thanks.

    Johnleemk, Exactly my view. I do think Rawls was wrong about the maximin principle, which is inferior to utilitarianism. And I agree with you that the “behind the veil” idea is great. When I was a child, one of us would get to cut the cake in half, the other would choose. It is a deep-seated view of fairness.

    Johnleemk#2, Again, I agree. My problem with dogmatic libertarianism is that it seems akin to religious faith. Why should the blind forces that created the universe (or God?) have shaped it is such a way that the optimal view of government is exactly what the dogmatic libertarians (or bleeding-heart liberals) would prefer. The optimal role is whatever it is. It’s not our job to simply assume that role, it’s our job to discover it. I happen to think that Singapore’s low tax welfare state is slightly superior to Denmark’s high tax welfare state. But I certainly don’t think the high tax rates in Denmark are theft; when people earn high incomes it is partly hard work, but it’s to a great extent due to the fact that they were born where they were, rather than in the Stone Age, or in present day rural Bangladesh, where equally hard work wouldn’t result in high income. Every single person commenting on this blog already won a lottery just by virtue of where they were born, and/or the genetic characteristics they inherited.

    TGGP, I think Johnleemk may be referring to the distinction between the government censuring someone, and a bully censuring someone. The government can refrain from stopping me from publishing a paper—which is granting me negative liberty, not interfering. Or the government can take affirmative action to stop private bullies from shutting down a newspaper they don’t like. You have lumped both of those as negative liberty, and perhaps you are right. Elsewhere Johnleemk uses the “empowering” concept of positive liberty, which is exactly the distinction you draw. I’m not philosopher, so I don’t know which definition makes the most sense.

  12. Gravatar of gary chinn gary chinn
    22. June 2009 at 16:29

    re: the Harry Lime quote

    Actually, the liberal regime we all broadly agree on has it’s deficiencies….

    both Hobbes and Locke issued warnings about the poor fate the arts will suffer under their new regimes. Regimes rather uninspiringly based on the low, common, but reasonable denominator. Regimes that produce ‘useful’, safe and comfortable lives.

    I can’t recall the citations in their texts, or Rousseau’s famous remarks. However, Tocqueville’s refinements of Rousseau’s criticism are easy to find:

    from Chapter 9 of “Democracy In America”:

    “The spirit of gain is always eager, and the human mind, constantly diverted from the pleasures of imagination and the labors of the intellect, is there swayed by no impulse but the pursuit of wealth.”

    from Chapter :

    “All men who live in democratic times more or less contract the ways of thinking of the manufacturing and trading classes; their minds take a serious, deliberate, and positive turn; they are apt to relinquish the ideal in order to pursue some visible and proximate object which appears to be the natural and necessary aim of their desires. Thus the principle of equality does not destroy the imagination, but lowers its flight to the level of the earth.

    No men are less addicted to reverie than the citizens of a democracy, and few of them are ever known to give way to those idle and solitary meditations which commonly precede and produce the great emotions of the heart. It is true they attach great importance to procuring for themselves that sort of deep, regular, and quiet affection which constitutes the charm and safeguard of life, but they are not apt to run after those violent and capricious sources of excitement which disturb and abridge it.”

    from Chapter 11:

    “IT would be to waste the time of my readers and my own if I strove to demonstrate how the general mediocrity of fortunes, the absence of superfluous wealth, the universal desire for comfort, and the constant efforts by which everyone attempts to procure it make the taste for the useful predominate over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man. Democratic nations, among whom all these things exist, will therefore cultivate the arts that serve to render life easy in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.”

    “Among a democratic population all the intellectual faculties of the workman are directed to these two objects: he strives to invent methods that may enable him not only to work better, but more quickly and more cheaply; or if he cannot succeed in that, to diminish the intrinsic quality of the thing he makes, without rendering it wholly unfit for the use for which it is intended. When none but the wealthy had watches, they were almost all very good ones; few are now made that are worth much, but everybody has one in his pocket. Thus the democratic principle not only tends to direct the human mind to the useful arts, but it induces the artisan to produce with great rapidity many imperfect commodities, and the consumer to content himself with these commodities.”

    [utilitarian pursuits diminish the inspiration and influence of the theoretical, the spiritual and the divine] “The social condition and the institutions of democracy impart, moreover, certain peculiar tendencies to all the imitative arts, which it is easy to point out. They frequently withdraw them from the delineation of the soul to fix them exclusively on that of the body, and they substitute the representation of motion and sensation for that of sentiment and thought; in a word, they put the real in the place of the ideal.”

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. June 2009 at 06:43

    gary, Some very interesting quotes. Just to play the devil’s advocate, I think Locke and Hobbes may have underestimated the growth prospects of democracies. It’s not a zero sum game. So under democratic systems you can have plenty of growth producing enough wealth and leisure to support the arts. As far back as Venice, capitalist societies often produced the greatest art. I think Tyler Cowen may have written on this issue.

    A few 100 years ago society was dominated by aristocrats, and I think they would be contemptuous of our modern society, which tries to make things comfortable for everyone and tries to ban any heroic pursuits that might be dangerous of unfair. I’m not really taking sides, just offering observations. But I did like the quotations you provided, and hope to read more of that stuff someday.

  14. Gravatar of Current Current
    23. June 2009 at 07:23

    Regarding the arts…. I’m reminded of something Ludvig Von Mises pointed out somewhere. Had it not being for the industrial revolution most people would not have been able to travel from their home villages or towns. The great art of the past would have gone mostly unappreciated by all but a few. It is due to capitalism that the great books of the past can be widely read.

  15. Gravatar of TheMoneyIllusion » Where is America’s Denmark? TheMoneyIllusion » Where is America’s Denmark?
    9. June 2013 at 06:07

    [...]  In an earlier post I argued that New Hampshire was the Denmark of America.  I changed my mind. But on cultural attitudes I suppose it is a better [...]

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