The Pareto curve of freedom

Inspired by the discussion of my fable, and specifically a comment of Ronald de Wolf, today I decided to do some amateur political science. Specifically, I created a scatterplot that ranks 156 of the world’s countries (those for which data was available) along two axes:

  1. Their “political freedom”, as rated by Freedom House‘s 2008 Freedom in the World survey. This is a 0-to-100 scale, which includes 60 points for various civil liberties (such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion) and 40 points for various political rights (such as transparent elections). (Note that I used the raw scores, rather than the less informative 1-to-7 rankings.)
  2. Their “economic freedom”, as rated by the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal‘s 2008 Index of Economic Freedom. This is also a 0-to-100 scale, which ranks the sorts of things libertarians and laissez-faire economists love: free trade, deregulation, privatization, low taxes and tariffs, low or nonexistent minimum wage, etc.

The motivation was simple. Among educated people, political freedom is universally acknowledged as both good and important, whereas economic freedom (as defined by Heritage and the Wall Street Journal) is not. Indeed, a huge fraction of the disagreement between liberals and conservatives—at least over economics—seems to boil down to a single question: Is economic freedom (again, as defined by Heritage/WSJ) the friend or enemy of political freedom?

On one side of this question, we have Milton Friedman:

Historical evidence speaks with a single voice on the relation between political freedom and a free market.  I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a large measure of political freedom that has not also used something comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity. (From Capitalism and Freedom, quoted by Wu and Davis)

On the other side we have anti-globalization activists like Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine), who say that “economic freedom” simply means the freedom of multinational corporations to exploit the public, and as such is incompatible with political freedom.  Klein argues that free-market economic policies almost never win democratically, and hence the ruling elites have had to force these policies on unwilling populations using strong-arm tactics of the World Bank and IMF, cynical exploitation of wars, hurricanes, and other disasters, and (when all else fails) state-sponsored torture and murder.

My modest goal was to use the available cross-country data to test these two hypotheses. But before we get to that, a few caveats.

Caveat #1: I know full well that the questions I’m talking about have already been studied in great detail by professional political scientists. Google Scholar turned up Lundström 2005 doing a correlational study between the Freedom House index and various components of the Economic Freedom of the World index (which is similar to the Heritage index), as well as Wu and Davis 1999, Wu and Davis 2005, Berggren 2003, Carbone 2007, and lots more. (Though see also Doucouliagos 2005 for evidence of publication bias in this area.) So why bother to reinvent the wheel?  A few answers:

  • This project was really just a way to procrastinate.
  • I like making charts.
  • My methods were somewhat different from those in the published literature. Rather than using the accepted methodology of the social sciences—which consists of reducing all questions to chi-squared significance tests—I felt free to use my own Doofus Methodology, which consists of staring at graphs and seeing if something pops out at me. After careful deliberation, I decided on the latter methodology for three reasons. First, ultimately I only care about correlations that are strong enough to be obvious to the naked eye.  Second, I might actually know something about some of the countries in question—they’re not just interchangeable data points—and given how informal this study was anyway, I saw no reason to jettison that knowledge.  Third, as we’ll see, when we’re asking about the best forms of government, doing regression analysis on all the countries that happen to exist today can be seriously misleading.  To put it bluntly, the majority of countries are so abysmal in terms of both economic freedom and political freedom, that trying to gain insight from them into a hypothesized tradeoff between the two freedoms is like studying a remedial class of second-graders to find out whether algebraic or geometric insight is more important for winning the Fields Medal.  It’s the outlier countries, the Singapores and Icelands, that should interest us at least as much as the pack.

Caveat #2: The problems with the Freedom House and Heritage surveys—and for that matter, any surveys that try to rank countries on some linear scale of “freedom”—are evident. Indeed, reading the survey methodologies, I found plenty of things to complain about, as I’m sure you would as well. Nevertheless, both surveys struck me as (1) having reasonably consistent methodologies, (2) being reasonably well-accepted by social scientists, and (3) giving results that agree pretty well with intuition, for most of the countries I know something about.  So lacking a better alternative, I decided to go along with these indices.  Just to double-check, I also looked at the Freedom House index versus the Economic Freedom of the World index, and the plot was extremely similar to the one versus the Heritage index.

Caveat #3: A major limitation of my scatterplot is that it only looks at the world of 2008, and disregards a vast wealth of historical examples (Chile under Pinochet, the US under Reagan…).  Future research by amateur procrastinating bloggers should clearly take the available historical data into account as well.

Granting all of this, what can we potentially learn?

1. Political and economic freedom are correlated. Any doofus could have predicted this, and lo and behold, it’s apparent from even a glance at the data. Looking at the countries in question, it seems clear that part of this correlation is due to both freedoms being correlated with economic development, i.e. “having your national shit together.”  In a country like Denmark, you can criticize the government and start a business. In a country like North Korea, you can neither criticize the government nor start a business, at least without being shot.  The studies I linked to above claim some evidence that this obvious correlation has a causal component, as follows: by and large, economic freedom helps make countries richer, and being richer helps make them more politically free.  Assuming that claim is correct, score one for Milton Friedman.

2. A wide range of economic freedom levels is compatible with a “near-maximal” level of political freedom. Let’s look only at the countries on the far right of the scatterplot—those with “US-or-above” levels of political freedom (Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, US, and Uruguay). Here the correlation between economic and political freedom seems to disappear entirely, or even become slightly negative. The economic freedom scores of these countries range from 64.3 to 82.4, which is almost half of the total spread across all countries on earth (excepting a few dictatorships like North Korea, Cuba, and Zimbabwe). More to the point, this list includes countries commonly regarded as “socialist” in contemporary political debate (like the Scandinavian countries), and countries regarded as “capitalist” (like Australia, Chile, and the US).  Thus, the idea that countries that already have a high level of political freedom, would increase their political freedom even more by lowering taxes, privatizing industries, etc., does not seem to be borne out by this dataset.

3. There might be a “Pareto curve of freedom”: that is, a basic tension between economic and political freedom that prevents them from being maximized simultaneously. I’ll admit that the evidence on this point is inconclusive.  Firstly, there aren’t enough data points; secondly, the lack of any example of a country maximizing both freedoms is obviously not an impossibility proof.  A true believer in Ayn Rand’s utopia, like a true believer in Marxism, could always disregard any empirical finding by saying that the right experiment has never been tried yet, and would self-evidently succeed if it were.

However, if we do construct the “Pareto curve of freedom” for the Freedom House/Heritage data, what we find is this:

  • Iceland, with economic freedom score of 76.5 and political freedom score of 100
  • Canada, with economic freedom score of 80.2 and political freedom score of 99
  • Ireland, with economic freedom score of 82.4 and political freedom score of 97
  • Singapore, with economic freedom score of 87.4 and political freedom score of 49

(The US is conspicuously not on the Pareto curve, though wounded patriots can console themselves that it’s the only country of anywhere near its population size that comes close.)

Note that Hong Kong is not in this dataset, since as part of China, it isn’t ranked separately by Freedom House. However, Heritage gives Hong Kong an economic freedom score of 90.3, which is the highest in the world (Singapore is #2). The political freedom score for China itself is a dismal 18. So, if we assigned Hong Kong the point (18,90.3), that would be a fifth point on the Pareto curve.

To check the robustness of the Pareto curve, I recalculated it using the Economic Freedom in the World index in place of the Heritage index.   The result was basically similar: clustered on the right we find Finland, Iceland, and Luxembourg maximizing political freedom, then Canada, then Switzerland, then New Zealand, and then, as before, Singapore way off on its own maximizing economic freedom.

To confirm the hypothesis of a tradeoff between economic freedom and political freedom, what we’d need in the dataset are “more Singapores”—or better yet, some countries that interpolated between the Western democracies and Singapore.  Conversely, to disprove the tradeoff hypothesis, all it would take is a single country that dominated the rest of the world on both axes, with the political freedom of Scandinavia and the economic freedom of Singapore.  I find it interesting that no such country seems to exist, not even a small city-state or island.

Incidentally, the tradeoff idea is not necessarily rejected by libertarians.  Friedman himself stressed that “political freedom, once established, has a tendency to destroy economic freedom.”  To put it bluntly, if poor people can vote, one of the main things they vote for is to redistribute money to themselves.  There are then three possibilities: either redistribution takes place (and economic freedom as defined by Heritage and the Wall Street Journal goes down), or the poor majority is violently suppressed (and political freedom goes down), or the government is overthrown.  Amusingly, Friedman and Klein seem to be in complete agreement on this central point: it’s just that one of them laments it while the other relishes it.

In summary, I conjecture that the relationship between economic freedom and political freedom is similar to that between jogging and health.  In general, we expect people to be healthier the more they jog, with at least part of the relationship being causal. But it doesn’t follow that jogging 20 hours per day is healthier than jogging one hour; indeed the former might even be detrimental.

Of course, people could accept all this (even find it plunkingly obvious), and still vehemently disagree about the quantitative aspect: exactly how far out is the Pareto curve?  How much jogging is too much?  As usual, it’s the complexity-theoretic questions that are the interesting ones.  The tragedy is that you never even get to those questions if you’re too hung up on computability.

85 Responses to “The Pareto curve of freedom”

  1. Sid Says:

    I’m no expert on history but would the United States or Britain of the 19th or very early 20th century qualify as countries with large amount of political freedom and an extreme amount of economic freedom where the poor weren’t being suppressed and weren’t just voting to redistribute money to themselves?

  2. Scott Says:

    I’m no expert either, but I’m sure many people would dispute the “poor not being suppressed” part.

    More interestingly, even if you did see late-19th-century America as a libertarian utopia, you might still believe that such a situation is inherently unstable—e.g., that with a 30-year half-life, Aynions necessarily decay into either FDRticles or Leninos.

  3. William Says:

    Sid: I’m not expert either, but I wouldn’t say that 19th century United States and Britain had a large amount of political freedom. For example, a quick look at
    reveals that as late as 1884, 40% of men in the UK were disenfranchised. The article on union busting is pretty good too.

  4. John Sidles Says:

    Scott, does your surge of interest in morality, equity, and justice indicate that you’re contemplating changing careers like Michael Nielsen just did?

    I am asking as someone who—like you and Michael—is keenly interested in social issues, and physics, and mathematics. For me, quantum system engineering provides a habitat where these interests overlap … yet there are other paths too.

    Come to think, it probably would be a very bad thing if everyone followed the same path … no doubt the same is true for nations too.

    Which leads me to ask, isn’t it logically possible that the present-day “Pareto distribution of freedom” is nearly optimal? … not that I believe it, but it *is* logically possible.

  5. michael vassar Says:

    Wouldn’t even trivial regression to the mean explain this? It seems a bit like positing a Pareto curve of mathematical ability vs. IQ. Positive correlations can exist but be unequal to 1 without this resulting from any causal trade-off between the correlated factors. Of course, if you are hiring someone, you will have to make trade-offs between hiring someone with maximum math ability and maximum IQ. Likewise, if deciding where to live.

    In this case there are also serious issues to be had with the measurement tools, even more so than with IQ and math ability.

    Minor example. Uzbekistan is getting totally slandered in terms of freedom.

  6. Sean Carroll Says:

    I’m sure that the first conclusion (correlation) is both obvious and true, but I have a potentially serious worry about the methodology, even granting the doofosity thereof. Namely: are we sure that the Freedom House and Heritage measures are intrinsically uncorrelated? I.e., I can certainly imagine that they each measure 20 different variables that contribute to political and economic freedom respectively, but that 5 of those variables are common to the two analyses. (I remember at least one published paper that crowed about finding a correlation between x and x cosθ.)

  7. cody Says:

    Ha ha, I like the, “Aynions necessarily decay into either FDRticles or Leninos.”

    Scott, I suspect, (but have to check anyway), that Friedman laments and Klein relishes?

  8. Levi Says:

    An interesting extension of this would be to add other metrics–such as GDP, wealth distribution, and standard of living–to the mix. Are the most economically free countries the ones with the highest standard of living and the highest GDP? Does economic freedom correlate strongly with strong imbalance of wealth distribution? How does political freedom correlate with the wealth measurements?

  9. John Sidles Says:

    So far, the phenomenologists are dominant — no one is considering Allee effects, for example (‘Allee effect’ being a very useful idea to know).

    It might well be the case that a global monoculture of economical and political systems is far from optimal, in which case arguing about which system is ‘best’ makes about as much sense as arguing about which mammal is ‘best,’ or which brand of mathematics is ‘best.’

    Not that folks don’t wrangle about all these questions.

  10. Scott Says:

    Michael: It’s a great question, and a large part of why I held back from claiming anything definite there.

    It seems to me that the crux of the matter is not the number of Pareto points, but simply the observed absence of any points very close to the top right corner. (A Pareto curve like the observed one is just a byproduct of that fact, together with the existence of Scandinavia et al. and Singapore.) In particular, if we assume the points were sampled independently from some distribution D with the observed covariance between x and y, then the absence of Randian utopias gives us some useful information about D. I.e., D probably doesn’t assign too much probability mass to the top right region, despite being capable of throwing out occasional Singapores and Hong Kongs.

    The key question, of course, is just how strong a constraint we get (i.e. given reasonable assumptions about D, is the absence of Randian utopias statistically significant or not?). I didn’t try to calculate an answer to that question, and it would be extremely interesting to do so. Any volunteers? 🙂

  11. Mark Says:


    Oh yes, there was loads of political freedom in the 19th century and early 20th century… if you were a white male.

  12. Scott Says:

    Sean: You can read about the measures here and here. Indeed they seem to share a couple variables, including property rights and absence of government corruption. You could say that makes the existence of a correlation even less surprising than it would otherwise be (if that’s even possible). But you could also argue that such a problem is unavoidable, since “political freedom” and “economic freedom” really do overlap not just in their extensions but also in their definitions. In either case, I saw the correlation as something just to note and move on—one of my main goals in this “research” was to avoid entering the crowing-about-completely-obvious-correlations business.

    Whether economic freedom has a positive causal effect on economic growth, which in turn has a positive causal effect on political freedom, are more interesting (but vastly more complicated) questions about which my scatterplot says nothing. The survey articles I linked to claim there’s significant evidence for these effects, which is something I’m happy to concede for the sake of argument. But it would be interesting to read the actual studies and see if they’re beset with similar circularity problems.

  13. Douglas Knight Says:

    Here’s another metric: corruption, one of the pieces of the economic freedom index. It seems like a pretty good proxy for economic freedom, without much danger of sponsor manipulation (at least if you use business perceptions, rather than expert perceptions). Moreover, it’s about the facts on the ground, rather than the laws on the books.

    I’m surprised that the economic freedom index spreads out the Scandinavian countries so much.

  14. Scott Says:

    does your surge of interest in morality, equity, and justice indicate that you’re contemplating changing careers like Michael Nielsen just did?

    No, it just indicates I’m finding more and more ways to procrastinate.

  15. alex Says:

    Point 3 seems to make much out of small differences in the political freedom index. The argument depends on the fact that the political freedom score of Ireland is less than that of Canada which is in turn less than that of Iceland, but the numbers are 97,99,100. Its hard to argue that such small differences actually matter. How would the argument run? The voters of Iceland with a score of 100 manage to successfully redistribute wealth, while the voters of Ireland with a score of 97 cannot do so?

    Another point: it’s somewhat problematic to claim that the absence of a country maximizing both variables is evidence for any proposition. You want whatever conclusions you draw to be robust to the deletion of a single country – the whole point of cross-country comparisons is to look for patterns that are not so strongly dependent on local conditions in one country.

    In this case, for example, if you remove Singapore, a case can be made that Ireland is pretty close to maximizing both axes.

  16. Scott Says:

    alex: It’s a good point; indeed I don’t make much of the small differences in political freedom index among Ireland, Canada, and Iceland. As I mentioned in the post, what we’d really want are some countries interpolating between Singapore and Western democracies. Absent that, I think the best one can say is that the tradeoff hypothesis isn’t disconfirmed by the data.

    On the other hand, the absence of any Randian utopias really does seem to me like a useful piece of evidence. For notice that the conclusion one is tempted to draw here is robust to the deletion of a single country; it’s just not robust to the addition of a single country! 🙂 (In other words, it’s falsifiable.)

    Someone pointing to a particular country and saying “see! look what’s possible!” is open to the objection that what works in that country might not work anywhere else. On the other hand, someone pointing to a goal that hasn’t been achieved in any of the world’s diverse countries might have a reasonable case that the goal will be hard to achieve in more than a few of them.

    (If you assign a homework problem that one student gets, you shouldn’t conclude that it wasn’t too hard; if you assign a problem that no student gets, you should conclude that it was too hard.)

  17. wolfgang Says:


    >> the idea that countries that already have a high level of political freedom, would increase their political freedom even more

    I would think once you reach a high level of political freedom it is difficult to i) improve on it and ii) measure any improvements.
    Once you have freedom of speech, free elections, etc. how can you improve on that? One can be either free or not free, but how can one be more free? I suspect that at this point you begin to measure cultural differences.
    Speaking of cultural differences, e.g. the freedom to own guns is highly valued in the US, but not in Europe. Would you say Europe is much less free than the US because of the restrictive gun laws?

    Therefore I think your analysis should be taken with a grain of salt at the edges of the data sample imho.

  18. wolfgang Says:

    By the way, one empirical data point. I lived for the past 6 1/2 years in The Bahamas, a country which has no income tax and no sales tax. They do have a property tax (limited on the updside), import duties and various fees (e.g. for work permits). There is freedom of speech, a British legal system and free elections, it is very easy to open a business (at least for Bahamians).
    In other words as close to the Friedman / libertarian paradise as you can get in the real world. And it is no coincidence that there is a large hedge fund and off-shore banking community. And there are great beaches, sun shine and palm trees.

    So why do I leave this country and move to Europe?
    Because there is more to life than just low taxes and economic freedom.
    The educational and healthcare system, corruption, crime rate are reasons to leave, but also the incredible inequality and everything that comes with it. (e.g. there are no bookstores a la Borders, because there simply are not enough people who would or could buy books).
    Within 5 minutes driving you can get from a billionaires villa to slums with incredibly poor people.

    It is a great place for tourism but many people who come to live here for a longer time, leave after a few years.

  19. Jan Says:

    What I find interesting in this graph is that there also seems to be a lower bound on economic freedom which is a monotone increasing function of political freedom. Consider the curve defined roughly by Norway, Portugal, Poland, Croatia, Guyana, … , Iran, Turkmenistan, with only very few extreme examples lying below it, mostly dictatorships on the left margin of the scale. Any comment on that effect?

  20. Ronald de Wolf Says:

    Scott, thanks for taking my comment so seriously! Here are some further comments.

    1) I think we should disregard the outliers Singapore and Hong Kong. Both are small, have a very fortunate geographical location, and an exceptional history. I don’t think other countries can (or should) try to imitate them.

    2) The positive correlation between political freedom and economic performance (not quite the same as economic freedom) might be brought out more clearly if you used the global competitiveness ranking of
    The US are number 1, but the rest of the top 10 is dominated by the usual crowd of Northwest-European welfare states.

    3) I was surprised to read

    …countries commonly regarded as “socialist” in contemporary political debate (like the Scandinavian countries), and countries regarded as “capitalist” (like Australia, Chile, and the US).

    This is a weird use of the word “socialist”, akin to the weirdly distorted use of “liberal” in the US these days. The Scandinavians have free-market economies where companies are privately owned, albeit with a higher level of taxation and redistribution than usual (which enables them to have good education, health care etc.). You can call them social-democratic if you want, but “socialist” means something quite different, I think. Also, post-Pinochet Chile has been run quite successfully by a centre-left coalition for the past 15 years or so, and now seems closer to the Scandinavian camp than to the US.

  21. Chris Granade Says:

    wolfgang: Based on your anecdote, I’d like to see the incorporation of a third variable into this analysis that measures quality-of-life. I’d suspect that even if you had a Randian utopia in the sense of high economic and political freedoms coexisting, it would still be a lousy place to live.

  22. Brew Says:

    1) Anything published by the Heritage Foundation should be looked at with a cautious eye. They have been perverted so much from their classical conservative roots to become a neocon war advertiser…

    2) Singapore is a very interesting country. A sham democracy ruled by one family, one of the highest execution rates in the world, yet an economic powerhouse.

  23. Shonzilla Says:

    Interesting plot… I must have seen it somewhere already.

    When such fuzzy output variables like economic freedom and/vs. political freedom are being plotted/compared/presented, I always reach for my gun a question asking what are the input variables. After all, with a slightly different choice of input variables slightly different values might turn out.

    I would use all sorts of questions very correlated to my view of economic freedom like:
    “is it possible for a citizen to donate her/his money to ANY organization?” or “how many regulations/restrictions are there when private investments are concerned?”
    “what percentage of the population can/had reached retirement without mortgage?”
    With this in mind, this plot is a good starting point and a good meme for intellectual discussions. 😉

    I would like to see Pareto curve of freedom compared/correlated to Gini coefficient curve. I suspect it would debunk even more myths and open even more questions that curve of freedom has.

    Anyway, Scott, I believe anyone reading this far will be interested in Ted Rosling’s presentation at TED. It will be one of the most exciting video clips you have seen – trust me!


  24. John Sidles Says:

    Scott says: The absence of any Randian utopias really does seem to me like a useful piece of evidence.

    That is a very good point that points to an interesting (but rhetorical) question: Are there any utopias of any kind in the real world?

    Despite what we like to believe—and despite the assumptions of game theory and market theory—many aspects of human cognition and social behavior are poorly adapted to simplistic utopian schemes.

    That is why the nearest we humans are likely to approach utopia is via “messy” social systems that incorporate plenty of checks, balances, and compromises.

    Certainly the historical record supports this point of view.

  25. Scott Says:

    What I find interesting in this graph is that there also seems to be a lower bound on economic freedom which is a monotone increasing function of political freedom.

    Jan: Yes, it’s a good point, and is just the sort of informal observation I was hoping people would make. One can say: the range of economic freedom levels compatible with a given level of political freedom is large, but not too large—and that range shifts steadily upward with political freedom. Some of this effect is surely just an artifact of political and economic freedom measuring some of the same things (see Sean’s comment above), but were that the sole explanation, it seems like we’d expect to find more outliers (?).

  26. Scott Says:

    Ronald: Thanks for pointing me to the Heritage index, and thereby enabling a full day of procrastination! 🙂

    I probably should have said “quasi-socialist” in reference to the Scandinavian countries. That’s certainly how they’re seen in the US (both by those holding them up as examples to emulate, and those treating them as cautionary tales). I don’t know enough about modern Chile to say where it fits in; I can only comment that its economic freedom score places it much closer to the US than to any Scandinavian country.

  27. Jack in Danville Says:

    1) Google has a very cool data display widget that can animate the time evolution of data series. Both these surveys may go back as far as the ‘70s. That would address caveat #3.The widget also idicates population size.

    2) Note to Ronald de Wolf: good inspiration, but the only Scandinavian country in the upper-right most cluster is Denmark. Finland is not Scandinavian, although geographers sometimes do lump that country in. The language is not even Indo-European. You can always compare the U.S. and Norway, for instance, but not every comparison is meaningful. That makes the population observable of the Google widget all the more useful.

    3) Special recognition goes out to The PRC, Russia, Jimmy Carter, and Madeline Albright (I know I’ve forgotten a few) for helping to keep North Korea barely economically viable. Kudos also to all the academics, entertainers, and the NY Times whose unflagging support for Cuba, as we know it, has made Cuba, as we know it, possible.

    4) Gee, there does appear to be some sort of correlation between property rights and political rights, probably a coincidence.

    Those were just quick thoughts. I can be dissuaded.

  28. wolfgang Says:

    > I’d suspect that even if you had a Randian utopia in the sense of high economic and political freedoms coexisting, it would still be a lousy place to live.

    If you have libertarian freedom and the Randian utopia you also get quite a bit of inequality. This is inevitable in my opinion.
    Now, a libertarian or Randian would not find anything wrong with that; But in the real world extreme inequality has severe downsides, even for the wealthy part of the population.

    In my opinion this is what the discussion should really be about: How much inequality is beneficial (because it motivates people) and when is it too much?

  29. Ian Durham Says:

    This is akin to the rankings compiled by The State of World Liberty Project except the latter included an index of press freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders and used two economic freedom indicators instead of one.

  30. Chris Granade Says:

    wolfgang: Inequality is a part of it, sure, but there’s more than that. If everyone is “free” to start a business, but that business will go bankrupt in a month because the economy is so poor, that’s a fairly negative trait. Likewise, if the murder rate is so high that even though the government won’t step in and kill you for saying something objectionable to them, some crazy will be glad to do so, then that wouldn’t be a good place to live either.

    What about the development of the arts and sciences in a Randian utopia? Would a Randian utopia (again, supposing one exists for the sake of argument) be doomed to never further fundamental research and to never create a rich shared culture?

  31. Devin Smith Says:

    The Heritage Economic index is… troubling. Their methodology (having read all of it) strikes me as somewhat arbitrary and with a pretty serious agenda.

    Furthermore, a couple of their variables (out of 10) are pretty strongly anti-correlated with the rest: notably, ‘government size’ (i.e. expenditures) and ‘fiscal freedom’ (an average of the top marginal tax rates for individuals and corporations, and total tax revenues as a fraction of GDP). The government size bin in particular is…. worrysome. Looking over the list, I think the first country I’d want to live in ranks 99th on that critereon.

    This is part of the reason their data is so compressed to the middle, of course. Some places that don’t have their shit together in any way, shape, or form have no government at all, which gets them top marks on that freedom score. Similarly, the great majority of the ‘developed’ world ranks near zero on that scale: even the US is in the ‘bottom’ 20.

    I’d also take umbrage with them using the top marginal tax rate as the 2/3rds of theindicator of ‘fiscal freedom’.

    The commenter above that said that the organisation is ‘neo-conservative’ certainly doesn’t seem off-base to me.

  32. Scott Says:

    Wolfgang: Thanks very much for the data point about the Bahamas! (I’ve never been there, or for matter to anywhere in the Caribbean—something I hope to remedy.)

    Would you say Europe is much less free than the US because of the restrictive gun laws?

    Personally, no. I see guns as a separate issue from either political freedom or economic freedom, though I’m sure others would strongly disagree.

    But your bringing up guns reminded me of something. I wrote that there are three possible ways a democracy can respond to poor people:

    either redistribution takes place (and economic freedom as defined by Heritage and the Wall Street Journal goes down), or the poor majority is violently suppressed (and political freedom goes down), or the government is overthrown.

    However, since 1980 or so the Republicans have perfected a fourth approach: namely, convincing the poor to vote against their own economic interest by riling them up about unrelated issues (God, guns, & gays). Note that it’s possible that if we looked further back in history we’d find many other examples of this approach; I don’t have a definite opinion about that. Certainly wars have been used for this purpose for much of history.

    The good news, from my perspective, is that the fourth approach isn’t permanently reliable; people sometimes wise up to it. Indeed, depending on who wins in November, the GG&G strategy will have suffered either a small setback or (one hopes) a large one.

  33. Scott Says:

    Devin: I agree that Heritage had a definite agenda in compiling its index, and I too find large parts of that agenda troubling. That’s why I tried make clear that, in calling whatever it is the index measures “economic freedom,” I wasn’t expressing my value judgment. I was simply expressing that the index seemed like a reasonable measure of that which Wall Street Journal editors celebrate (for better or worse).

  34. Scott Says:

    Special recognition goes out to The PRC, Russia, Jimmy Carter, and Madeline Albright (I know I’ve forgotten a few) for helping to keep North Korea barely economically viable.

    Jack: There’s also a contrary argument, that by embargoing North Korea as much as we do, we inadvertently help Kim Jong-il by depriving his victims of any information about the outside world not mediated by him. The USSR and its satellite states might offer some evidence on this point: apparently, they could survive even a nuclear threat much more easily than a few years of glasnost. I don’t know nearly enough to venture a strong opinion as to which view is right.

  35. Scott Says:

    An amusing side note: my main interest as an undergrad was in experimental AI research (NLP, genetic algorithms, clustering, SAT-solvers…). However, I quickly discovered that no matter what experiment I did and what results I got, other people’s reaction would be: but did you consider this possible source of error? did you try that parameter range? isn’t part of the correlation you’re seeing just an artifact of foo and bar? At no point would I ever feel like I’d established anything definite.

    So, to everyone to wrote in with methodological concerns: thanks so much for reminding me why I became a theorist! 🙂

  36. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    Re: beta test of career shift. Analogous to Herman Kahn. At Caltech, everyone assumed that he was on the fast track to a Physics Nobel Prize, but he decided that geopolitical and economico-military problems were inherently more complex and interesting, hence his heading RAND, writing “On Thermonuclear war” and “Thinking the Unthinkable”, advising the Joint Chiefs, founding the Hudson Institute, and the like. By the way, he had the highest score ever seen on the USA’s standard militray IQ test, roughly equivalent to a 240 IQ.

    As a professor, you are part of the education industry is a portion of the Knowledge Industry which, since somewhere after 1950, accounts
    directly or indirectly for half the employees in the USA. Herman Kahn (“The Year 2000”) referred to this as
    the major part of Quarternary employment (primary = logging, mining, farming, fishing and such that get
    raw resources; secondary being sawmills, refining, milling and canning, and other consumer products; tertiary being the infrastructure of that consumer culture, with transportation, marketing, and the like). Quaternary also includes government and science
    and the arts.

    Another part of the Knowledge Industry is books, magazines, newspapers, film, and television. Two words: “media consolidation.” Or “Rupert Murdoch.”

    As to Utopia maximizing freedom and economic opportunity, I’d hate to have another of my Science Fiction comments modded-out. But Science Fiction is very much about the search for Utopia and warning of Dystopia. See “Economics of Abundance” in this literary genre. Or my paper on the subject in the NKS conference of (2?) years ago, which did that in detail, while considering Wolfra,’s question as to whether one could enumerate all economic systems.

  37. alex Says:

    On the issue of whether lack of a country maximizing both axes is evidence of anything:

    How about some thought experiments.

    1. Imagine that there, in fact, such a country existed. You happily draw whatever conclusion you will from that, but when you wake up the next morning, you find out that a coup in Djibouti has brought a dictator to power; and that this dictator has lowered his tax rate to 0%, thereby catapulting himself to the top of the economic freedom index. Is your conclusion ruined?

    To make this sweeter, let’s suppose that this dictator has multiple personality disorder. On Mon, Wed, Fri, his personality is a Marxist one and he issues edicts raising his taxes to over 50%. Tuesday and Thursday he is an extreme libertarian, lowering his taxes to 0%. Let’s further suppose that the economic freedom index is actually updated daily.

    So what would your conclusion be? Would your belief in your point 3 change depending on the day of the week?

    2. Suppose each country has a developement level D, and its position on your graph is D*(1,1)+N, where N is bivariate gaussian, with both components independent of each other, and with the same variance. In this case, point 3 is clearly false, but if the variance of N is not small, I don’t think you would be likely to find a country that maximizes both axes.

  38. Abhishek Says:

    Nice work.

    However, I admit I am puzzled by some of the rankings in the political freedom chart, most notably the high score given to Canada. I suppose that the survey did not give sufficient weight to cases like this and this. These are not rare events; infringement of free speech by various ‘human rights’ tribunals in Canada is widely documented, see for instance Ezra Levant’s blog.

    Or perhaps, the definition of free speech used by Freedom House does not include the freedom to express opinions that might offend or insult adherents of a certain community or religion. In that case, I’d say it is a flawed methodology and I’d like to see whether your Pareto curve exists when one uses another political freedom chart that is more ‘libertarian’ on social issues.

  39. Eirik Says:

    How is political freedom defined, really? I live in Sweden which, according to the chart, has near 100% political freedom. Still, if i went out now and shouted ” I hate muslims /gay people /jews /immigrants”, i would be arrested and put in prison. Not because i disturb the order, but because it is illegal to express and spread this opinion. Maybe I’m too liberal, but I think political freedom really should extend beyond politically correct freedom. The laws against hate speech in Sweden is kind of making the political balance lean to the left. The extreme right is gagged and can’t balance the extreme left, which is free to speak.

    Bureaucracy and corruption is probably the reasons causing some countries to have less Economic freedom. In countries with more political freedom, the press tend to expose and extinguish this. I think that is what is causing the trend.

  40. Scott Says:

    Alex: Let’s consider your D*(1,1)+N model in more detail. I agree that for reasonable values of the variance and the number of samples n, you won’t be especially likely to find a country that maximizes both axes (it would be fun to prove a rigorous bound here—anyone?). However, your D*(1,1)+N model does not do a great job of explaining the observed country distribution, for the simple reason that it strongly predicts the existence of countries closer to the top right corner as well more countries closer to the bottom left. (In other words, the slope is too large.)

    We could change your model to (say) D*(1,0.3)+0.45+N, in which case it would do better. But it still wouldn’t do a particularly good job, since the variance on the left end of the graph is much greater than the variance on the right end. (In other words, politically unfree countries have a much larger range of economic freedom levels than politically free ones.)

    So—still at the handwaving level where we don’t actually compute anything!—it seems an accurate model will have to look more like D*(1,0.3)+0.45+N*(1-D/200) (i.e., with the Gaussian noise gradually attenuated as we move to the right). But in that case, Randian utopias (say, with both freedom scores above 90) will again be extremely unlikely: not because a Pareto tradeoff is built explicitly into the model, but because the decrease in the Gaussian’s variance as we move to the right makes it less likely that some country will “hit the jackpot” and maximize both freedoms simultaneously.

    No matter how you slice it, then, I doubt any reasonable probabilistic model that assigns a large weight to Randian utopias can do a good job of explaining the observed distribution of points.

    Now as for this hypothetical coup in Djibouti … what can we say?

    1. Economic freedom means more than no taxes; it means the country being safe for investment, etc., which is much less likely in dictatorships.

    2. A country that was “only economically free on Tuesdays and Thursdays” wouldn’t be economically free. It doesn’t matter if the index is updated daily—it should still reflect the long-term reality.

    So in your scenario, I’d probably conclude that Djibouti was just one more country (admittedly an exceedingly strange one) somewhere near the bottom left of the graph. A country in the top right corner would of course have a very different character. Or maybe I didn’t understand what you were getting at.

  41. Scott Says:

    Abhishek and Eirek: I wondered about that too. You can read Freedom House’s report on Canada here and the report on Sweden here; they prominently discuss the recent free speech cases. See also here for the country subscores. Strangely, Canada was docked one point for “Rule of Law,” but no points for “Freedom of Expression and Belief,” while Sweden wasn’t docked for anything. Personally, I might’ve deducted 2 or 3 points for “hate speech” laws: criminalizing something so ill-defined strikes me as incredibly dangerous, and it’s sad to see it happen in some of the most enlightened countries on earth.

  42. Abhishek Says:

    Thanks for the links Scott. I had a look at the subscores. What stood out immediately to me was the remarkably high number of full scores awarded on the “freedom of expression and belief” category. The (other) civil liberty related topics had more realistic scores.

    Now, I realise that free speech has made enourmous progress over the last hundred years. But so have things like ‘personal autonomy’. I agree with you that Freedom House should have docked two or three points for hate-speech laws. That they chose not to, despite noting their presence, reduces my confidence in their scoring system.

  43. alex Says:

    “your D*(1,1)+N model does not do a great job of explaining the observed country distribution”

    Agreed. I never meant it to explain the real data. I only meant it as a thought experiment, meant to argue against your claim “the absence of any Randian utopias really does seem to me like a useful piece of evidence” [for a tradeoff between political and economic freedom] – in brackets are words I am putting in your mouth. I am pointing out that in this hypothetical scenario, your argument would lead to a false conclusion.

    Now as for the coup in Djibouti – I can modify the scenario to answer both your objections. First, lets suppose that the dictator is committed to private property in both his socialist and libertarian personas – weird but not inconceivable – and the only thing thats different is, say, tax rate goes from 0 to 99%. Further, suppose that with a tax rate at 0% the country is like Singapore – in the middle of the x-axis and way at the top of the y-axis – and with the tax rate at 99% the country is somewhere that doesn’t maximize any of the axes. This covers your first point. Second, suppose the dictator changes personas once in a “long time” – say 5 years. This covers your second point. Remember that these indices are based only on recent data, and do not try to predict the future.

    The natural conclusion is that every 5 years, on a regular schedule, your degree of belief in point 3 changes.

    What I am trying to get at is that this criterion – a country that maximizes both axes – is extremely sensitive to what has happened in one country – Singapore. If Singapore was not in the data set, you might have instead concluded that Ireland comes as close as can be reasonable expected to maximizing both axes. So you see, your conclusions is not robust relative to either adding a country or deleting one.

  44. Joe Shipman Says:

    Scott, you are usually very fair to political opinions you don’t agree with. However, your statement “since 1980 or so the Republicans have perfected a fourth approach: namely, convincing the poor to vote against their own economic interest by riling them up about unrelated issues (God, guns, & gays).” is so comprehensively wrong that it’s hard to know where to begin criticizing it. I’ll start with 4 points:
    1) The poor people in this country generally vote Democratic
    2) Voters often have political interests that are not economic
    3) “God, guns, and gays” is a liberal scare phrase, which has very little to do with the actual determinants of people’s votes. (I speak with some authority here; for 5 years I was the director of election polling for SurveyUSA and was both the most prolific and [by some measures] the most accurate pollster in the country.)
    4) The group of voters in this country who i) believe in God ii) believe they should be allowed to own guns iii) believe marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples iv) are neither stupid nor bigoted is much, much larger than you appear to suppose.

  45. Scott Says:

    Alex: Well, it’s not just Singapore; it’s also Hong Kong (which isn’t in the dataset but should be). Still, it’s fair to ask: how strongly does the “argument from nonexistence of Randian utopias” hinge on the existence of Singapore and Hong Kong?

    Or—and this is my best understanding of what you were trying to ask—if Singapore and Hong Kong drifted in and out of existence every five years, would my belief about Randian utopias fluctuate on the same timescale? Here the answer is a definite no. As I said before, there’s nothing sacred about my use of 2008 data: it would’ve been better to include historical data as well, and if I ever pursue this project further that’s what I’ll do. But note that even with the current data only, we still snag Singapore and Hong Kong. Were we to throw in earlier data, the number of economically-free-but-politically-unfree-countries might increase and certainly wouldn’t decrease. On the other hand, I take it as a fact that there’s never once been a Randian utopia, since otherwise we would have heard about it!

    (Again, by “Randian utopia” I mean, say, x≥90 and y≥90. As per comment 11, note that if we use a modern, non-white-male-only definition of “political freedom,” then anything before the 20th century is presumably ruled out.)

    But getting back to the original question: suppose for the sake of argument that neither Singapore, nor Hong Kong, nor late-19th-century America, nor any other economically near-utopian but (by modern standards) politically unfree society had ever existed. Would the empirical case for a tradeoff between economic and political freedom then collapse? Here I have to agree with you that it would. If we lacked a single example of a laissez-faire economy, people could always point out that it had never been tried, so who knows what the relation is to democracy?

    I’ll also concede that, even if you throw in Singapore, Hong Kong, late-19th-century America, and (for good measure) maybe Pinochet’s Chile, it’s still a pretty scrawny list of examples, and a Randian true believer could give a reasonable argument in each case for why the lack of (modern) political freedoms shouldn’t tell us anything more general. On the other side, the communists could make a similar (though quantitatively weaker) argument: sure it didn’t deliver as promised in Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, or the Eastern Bloc countries, but those were hardly independent examples, and in any case there are separate explanations for each one. Clearly more data is needed!

    One wishes the necessary data were a little cheaper to collect…

  46. Joe Shipman Says:

    One other point — do you really believe that electing Carter in 1980 or Mondale in 1984 would have been better for the USA *economically* than electing Reagan? Or are you just making a point about people voting against their economic self-interest? If the latter, you shouldn’t assume that voters are so short-sighted that they will vote for a candidate who is better for “the poor” as a matter of self-interest — Americans are so used to economic mobility that even poor ones tend to regard *general* prosperity as good for them individually, because they reasonably expect to move into the middle class eventually.

  47. Vishal Says:

    Pardon me for saying this, but I find it hard to believe that USA should be ahead of India (and some other countries) on the ‘political freedom’ scale, especially considering the fact that even until recently (about two weeks ago) the Indian government had been running with the support of leftist parties, a clear testament to the existence of the diversity of political thought in India, whereas in the US a presidential candidate like Obama (who is supposedly ‘leftist’) has to dash to the ‘center’ – his support for the new FISA bill and his courtship with the evangelicals isn’t distant memory yet – to prove to the country that he is not even left-leaning, leave alone leftist.

    During a conversation with a computer science professor (who is originally from another country but is a US citizen now), I remarked that it is unfortunate that there are, practically speaking, just two parties in the US. He smiled at me and retorted, “You mean one party with two wings!”

    Anyway, I don’t mean to sound too skeptical here.

  48. Gilad Says:

    The topic Scott raises regarding the Republican party “tricking the poor” into voting for them (regardless of it’s correctness) has analogues in political freedom and economical freedom measurements – if everyone in the country’s being brainwashed to take mortgages on their houses/ buy new shoes every month/ watch “American idol”/ kill all the Jews – how free are they?

    I know that where I live (Israel) the system is set up so that private customers pay huge commissions to banks for daily transactions. The country isn’t really large enough for a free market to solve this problem. I’m guessing that regulatory measures would decrease the measure of the country’s “economical freedom”, because the government would have forced economic behavior. However, I’m sure that the current economic behavior is, in essence, forced by 3-4 banks (whose owners I don’t elect).

    As for the free speech / hate speech issue, if we had a few more limitations on free speech where I live gay people would have a much easier time, say, in Jerusalem. This is just an example – speech can be very violent without causing physical harm, and even without calling directly for violence it may cause an atmosphere where violence is possible.

  49. Chris Granade Says:

    @Joe Shipman: Your points (iii) and (iv) are completely contradictory. Wanting to deny citizens the human right to marry freely is an inherently biogoted position. You cannot simultaneously advocate denying human rights to a whole swath of people based on a few choice quotes from a single holy book and have any claim to be unbigoted.

    If my words sound harsh and forceful, then good. There has seldom been a more clear-cut case in this country of the wholesale denial of human rights (a few come to mind– less than a dozen though). Moreover, the issue is entirely manufactured! No one cares about gay marriage unless the Republicans are in trouble. Really, it’s the most obvious of Scott’s three examples.

  50. Chris Granade Says:

    @Joe Shipman: Reaganomics (trickle-down economics) was a disatrous set of policies for the lower- and middle-class voters. That they (we) were coerced into supporting such policies by GGG arguments is a brilliant example of convincing people to vote against their self-interest. Of course Carter would’ve done a better job economicly. He did run on the platform of stealing from the poor to give to the rich!

  51. Anders Sandberg Says:

    A while ago I played around with this kind of index, putting some of my results in these posts:

    I found that the Fraser Institute and Heritage Foundation economic indices were highly correlated and that there are some odd correlations between sub-factors. My favorite political-economic outlier is Surinam, which at least at the time was unusually free and socialist.

    Plotting Freedom House data over time shows some interesting events such as decolonization and the fall of the east block. It also looked like wealthy political systems are more stable than others, regardless of freedom.

  52. Scott Says:

    Vishal: You can read the India report here and the country subscores here. It looks like India did well in “Electoral Process” and “Political Pluralism and Participation,” but was hit hard in “Rule of Law.” Even granting that, I agree with you that something is fishy: e.g., why does the US score 2 points higher than India for “Political Pluralism and Participation”?

  53. Scott Says:

    Joe, I can concede all four of your points, and it’s still the case that
    (1) the Republicans do become intensely concerned about gay marriage, flag-burning, etc. in years congruent to 0 mod 4, and
    (2) while these issues might only sway a minority of voters, it’s still been enough to swing a lot of elections.

    As for whether we’d have been better off economically with Carter or Mondale: I’m not sure but I’m inclined to think so. I don’t think either of them could have gotten away with Reagan’s massive, drunken-sailor deficit spending, which is a huge part of our problem today.

  54. Vishal Says:

    Scott: Thanks for responding. I may have gone a little aboard with my somewhat “critical” comment made earlier. Please accept my apologies. Indeed, my interpretation of ‘political freedom’ was a somewhat narrow one.

  55. Vishal Says:

    oops! aboard=overboard

  56. Joe Shipman Says:


    (1) Flag-burning is a completely fake issue that never had any real electoral importance. There have been a few fringe Republicans who have tried to make it an issue when they were in desperate straits, just as desperate Democrats sometimes seize on phony issues, but it never decided any important race. Gay marriage has been an electoral issue ONLY (and I have the stats to back it up) in states which simultaneously with a Presidential election, had a referendum prohibiting same-sex marriage, and those referendums almost all passed overwhelmingly and increased Republican turnout, with negative consequences for Democrats. But individual voters do NOT vote for a Republican and against a Democrat because of gay marriage, it’s only a turnout effect on who votes at all. (By the way, I would like to address Chris Granade in passing here — I have no problem with laws granting equivalent rights to gay couples that married couples get, but the insistence on redefining the WORD marriage from what it had always meant is creepily Orwellian; this blog is not the place for a philosophical/political/moral debate on marriage, but I insist that one may disagree with you on this without being a bigot, and that the 60%+ majorities who approved over 20 state ballot questions on marriage contain a very large number of non-bigots.)
    (2) Reagan, UNLIKE G.W. Bush who waited 6 years to veto any spending, was not responsible for the deficits, the Democratic congress was. (All spending bills originate in the House which was under very firm Democrat control in the 80’s.) “Reaganomics” undeniably increased government REVENUES well beyond the rate of inflation because of economic growth, and if the Democrats had simply kept spending in line with inflation or at most 1% above inflation the deficit would have disappeared, as it did in the 90’s when both President Clinton and the Republican class of ’94 acted responsibly (though the Republicans eventually got captured by the special interests and were deservedly booted out in ’06).

  57. alex Says:

    Hi, Scott

    Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    I do think that this argument,

    “…suppose for the sake of argument that neither Singapore, nor Hong Kong, nor late-19th-century America, nor any other economically near-utopian but (by modern standards) politically unfree society had ever existed. Would the empirical case for a tradeoff between economic and political freedom then collapse? Here I have to agree with you that it would. If we lacked a single example of a laissez-faire economy, people could always point out that it had never been tried, so who knows what the relation is to democracy?”

    is either not right, or I simply misunderstood what you mean “the tradeoff between economic and political freedom.” I thought you meant this as a tradeoff faced by each developed country. If so, you really cannot draw any conclusions that so strongly rely on the existence of four or five political regimes in the last hundred and fifty years – this is far too sensitive to outliers.

    On the other hand, perhaps you understand this statement as meaning something like ” a society thats really economically free is not likely to be really politically free,” – i.e. a statement that only applies to countries at the far extremes. If so, then your argument is fine – you look at the really economically free countries and conclude that the record is 0/4.

    To go to the communist analogy: the communist’s record is 0/5. On the other hand, if someone wished to use this fact to argue for a general correlation between government spending and political violence – holding in all countries – I’d point out its bad practice to make inferences about a large number of countries based on such a small number of examples.

  58. Ted Diesel Says:

    I’ve a few comments to add here:

    Scott wrote: “A true believer in Ayn Rand’s utopia […] could always disregard any empirical finding by saying that the right experiment has never been tried yet, and would self-evidently succeed if it were.”

    I can assure you that serious students of Rand are aware of the need for theoretical conclusions to be grounded in the real world. Leonard Peikoff, her most prominent student, has hammered this point home in his courses, perhaps most notably “Understanding Objectivism” and “Objectivism Through Induction.” In the former course he uses Leibniz’s theory of monads as an arch-example of the wrong methodology: starting from alleged self-evidencies and deductively constructing castles in the air—with the later potential for dogmatically declaring that any empirical evidence to the contrary must be illusory.

    To be sure, an fan of Ayn Rand can latch onto some of her statements and definitions, treat them as axioms, and philosophize while ignoring relevant evidence. But to show that Rand herself (or her present-day followers) did this would require engaging her arguments at a deeper level, since so much Objectivist literature counsels an opposite approach to dealing with ideas.

    No knowledgeable Objectivist would declare that the superiority of laissez-faire capitalism is “self-evident.” It is not self-evident, and treating it as such invites disaster in practice.

    As you later write: “More interestingly, even if you did see late-19th-century America as a libertarian utopia, you might still believe that such a situation is inherently unstable…”

    On the Objectivist view, as I understand it, the situation was indeed unstable in the long run. But it was not unstable due to some inherent incompatibility between “political” and “economic” rights. Rather, the intellectual trend of the day was moving against the ideas that ground individual rights as implemented (imperfectly) by the founders of the United States. (The Objectivist view is that philosophy is the primary mover of history, and this position is articulated and defended in Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels.) A good constitution and a system of checks and balances can retard a descent into statism, but it is in the long run impotent against a changing worldview that leaves individual rights without moral justification and invites reinterpretation of existing laws.

    Thus, for example, if people take religion seriously enough, we will hear more arguments that the Bill of Rights provides for “freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion,” with dangerous consequences.

  59. Scott Says:

    i.e. a statement that only applies to countries at the far extremes.

    Alex, that’s precisely it. It’s the far extremes of political and economic freedom that interest me, since what I really want to know is whether or not a “libertarian utopia” (e.g., x,y≥97) is compatible with actual human nature. My strong suspicion is that it isn’t. I think of modern democracies as having gotten closer than any societies before them, only to have run up against some hard constraint—i.e., problems that can only be solved by “coercion,” a “paternalistic nanny state,” “spending other people’s money,” and every other libertarian epithet, but that if left unsolved will cause either the society’s destruction or else a huge decrease in political freedom. The Depression is of course the standard example, but Naomi Klein argues in her book that there are more recent ones as well.

    The trouble is, we have no clear idea of the size and shape of this constraint. I think of it as a blob in a darkened room that seems to repel anything that gets too close to it, but too few societies in history have actually gotten close enough to the blob to map its contours. So, my idea was just to try and collect what little data we do have about the blob in visual form.

    Now, even if we could map out the blob, I agree that it would tell us little about most countries existing today. China, Syria, and Libya don’t need to be told the shape of the blob; they need to be told what corner of the room it’s in! 🙂 As I mentioned, the correlation between political and economic freedom for most countries is (not surprisingly) a positive one. If you’re experiencing genuine tension between the two, that might be a good sign; it might mean you’ve gotten close enough to the blob that the blob is pushing back on you. I apologize for not being clearer about this.

  60. Scott Says:

    Ted: Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I’m glad to learn that “serious students of Rand are aware of the need for theoretical conclusions to be grounded in the real world”; I only wish the same were truer of Rand herself. When I see her (for example) denouncing relativity and quantum mechanics as mysticism, or the civil rights movement as irrationalist, or the notion that smoking causes cancer as a collectivist myth, what it looks like to me is an extremely intelligent writer who simply can’t be bothered to ascertain facts, or to correct herself when facts are pointed out—someone whose worldview became, after a certain age, immune from further confrontation with reality. Nathaniel Branden, who of course was more steeped in her philosophy than anyone and is still sympathetic to a lot of it, wrote with a lot of insight about this particular aspect of her thinking.

    Now, assuming you’re right about the Objectivist account of late-19th-century America, my biggest problem is just that I don’t see philosophy as “the primary mover of history.” (Maybe it moves the books, but it’s too small a truck for the furniture. 🙂 ) Saying, for example, that some form of government failed because the intellectual currents of the time were against it seems too elastic to me, a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card. It begs the question, why were the intellectual currents against it? Is it possible that they’ll always be against it, because of some unchangeable part of human nature?

  61. Ted Diesel Says:


    Let me first address the troubling positions you attribute to Rand in your latest comment.

    1. That she “denounced relativity and quantum mechanics as mysticism.”

    I think I’m going to need a citation for this (even an approximate one could help, since I am pretty familiar with her writings). I suspect it is at best an oversimplification of her actual views on modern physics, and I’m not sure that she ever went on the record in print about the subject.

    2. That she denounced “the civil rights movement as irrationalist.”

    Surely this is not an objective summary of her actual view, as Rand wrote powerfully against racism.

    The element of truth in the statement above, as far as I know, would be (1) her denunciation of those who supported racial quotas (which amount to an attempt to fight racism with… more racism), and (2) her opposition to what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the grounds that it outlawed discrimination in privately owned places like restaurants. See her September 1963 article “Racism” (included in The Virtue of Selfishness): “Just as we have to protect a communist’s freedom of speech, even though his doctrines are evil, so we have to protect a racist’s right to the use and disposal of his own property.”

    3. That she denounced “the notion that smoking causes cancer as a collectivist myth.”

    Leonard Peikoff, who knew Ayn Rand for something like 30 years, recently answered a question about Rand’s smoking on his website. (See “If Ayn Rand were still alive, would she smoke?”—The answer is presently in text form on the main page.) In short, she rejected a 1950’s-era warning of a smoking-cancer link in part because it was based solely on correlations, and she quit smoking in 1975 after learning of further studies establishing a causal link. (She died in 1982.)

    I’m not sure why she would have called the link a collectivist myth at any stage, however, so I would appreciate an exact citation.

    I’ll address your view of her (later?) methodology in a separate comment.

  62. Ted Diesel Says:

    Scott: Now, regarding your suspicion that Rand “is an extremely intelligent writer who simply can’t be bothered to […] correct herself when facts are pointed out.” I was not terribly surprised to see that reading Nathaniel Branden’s work has led you to this view.

    Let me encourage you to treat Branden’s account of Rand with some degree of skepticism. First, you’re probably aware that Rand publicly denounced Nathaniel Branden and put a disclaimer to the effect that (1) he was no longer associated with her and (2) she no longer considered him a spokesman for her philosophy, in subsequent editions of her anthologies including his essays. Thus, to salvage his own reputation, he has a motivation to portray her as someone who was out of touch with reality and was always denouncing things for no good reason. This fact alone doesn’t mean his writings distort the truth, but there are further reasons to support such a conclusion (and a similar conclusion about his ex-wife Barbara’s account of Rand).

    As for specific differing accounts of Rand, you might try Facets of Ayn Rand by two longtime personal friends. There are also audio reminiscences, one of which includes the Aristotle scholar Allan Gotthelf.

    If you really want to dive into the details and figure out who’s got the real scoop, I recommend checking out James Valliant’s recent book attacking the Brandens’ accounts. It might change your mind. (See a review by Diana Hsieh, an Objectivist philosophy student.)

    Stepping back from the Branden controversy, I would encourage you to use primary sources wherever possible in determining Rand’s views, since her ideas are often misrepresented. For example, see reviews of a recent book on Rand’s ethics here and also at the following address:

    to get an idea of the mistaken interpretations floating around. Her ideas are controversial enough when they’re stated accurately!

  63. Vishal Says:


    I hope you don’t mind if I interject my comment while Scott and you debate on some of the finer points about Ayn Rand’s philosophy. In particular, I would like to object to the following statement of yours that I found in your last comment.

    …her opposition to what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the grounds that it outlawed discrimination in privately owned places like restaurants…

    From a ‘cold’ intellectual perspective the above statement may sound alright, but that would entail on one’s part to divorce oneself from reality. Racism, in its current form (and especially in the past), demonstrates an asymmetry in regard to the effect it has on the helpless victim, who more often than not belongs to a minority group/community. In other words, racism as practiced by the white person – pardon me for using this stereotype for I only intend to use it for the sake of making my argument clear – has a far more debilitating effect on the black person than it has on the former when practiced by the latter. If it is okay to practice racism in private restaurants, then it can certainly be argued that it is equally alright for private companies (say, Google or Microsoft) to practice racism at their workplace. Heck, one could even argue that private universities should be allowed to practice racism on their campuses. The fact that private companies or universities don’t do that nowadays (or at least, we hope they don’t) may have certainly got to do with reasons other than moral ones, but the ‘moral’ argument against “private racism” should overwhelm any argument supporting it.

    This moral argument, by the way, against the practice of “private racism” is not just based on some intrinsic moral position one may/should hold; it also relies on acknowledging the fact that such a practice (by a group) leads to severe and unwanted consequences for the ‘victim’. For instance, historically whites have always been more highly educated than blacks in this country, and one of the consequences of that we see today is that among a sizable population of black students in the US, there is the perception that getting college education is tantamount to ‘acting white’ (a phrase, I am sure, you have heard yourself.)

    One may offer an even better (read simpler) example to explain this further. We know that there is enough data to suggest that using a cellphone while driving leads to unwanted accidents that are completely avoidable. Hence it makes sense for the government to pass laws that prohibit the use of cellphones (unless an individual uses an earpiece!) while driving at all times and in all places (public or private) because the victim (say, a pedestrian) of an accident should not have to worry about allowing the driver of the vehicle to exercise his right to use a cellphone at all times and in all places while driving!

    To conclude, it may seem alright to allow “private racism” (for the sake of maintaining one’s free speech rights), but when practiced collectively it leads to rather dangerous consequences for victims, to say the least. In other words, it is impossible to practice private racism in isolation without actually harming the victim(s).

  64. alex Says:

    Scott, my personal hunch is not that a blob in the corner of a dark room repels everyone who goes near it, but that it takes a very special kind of person to want to go into the corner in the first place.

    For instance, dictators are better than democratic governments at enacting radical reforms of any kind – and this includes radical free market reforms. I’d also guess that democratic governments will not adopt policies which give long-term gains but create short-term discontent (e.g. ending subsidies).

  65. Scott Says:

    Ted: That “Racism” essay in The Virtue of Selfishness is exactly the one that I was thinking of. Yes, I understood Rand’s libertarian argument against the Civil Rights Act; what struck me about it was the empirical obtuseness of thinking that blacks could merely be turned away from all the restaurants, hotels, and other private businesses (if the proprietors so chose, as of course they did at the time), and nevertheless be treated with perfect fairness by the police and legal system. The situation sounded to me like a cartoon fantasy. Were the southern whites rational enough to think, “yes, we despise blacks, but we must never initiate the use of force nor employ the power of the state (which we happen to control) against them, and must instead express our spite through purely voluntary means,” then they would also be rational enough not to despise blacks in the first place. This is not an isolated example; rather, it gets to the core of my difficulty with Rand’s whole moral philosophy.

    I didn’t know Rand quit smoking in 1975—good for her! (And also ironic, given how smoking was such a central metaphor for freedom in her novels, and how she’d apparently demand to know of disciples, “how is it that you don’t smoke?”)

    As for relativity and QM: while Nathaniel Branden wrote about Rand’s rejection of large parts of modern science in Judgment Day, I also don’t know if she ever discussed that in print. Alert readers: can anyone track down a reference to Rand discussing any post-Newtonian scientific theory? (If she never did, that itself strikes me as a telling fact.)

    A quick Google search did turn up this from the Ayn Rand Institute’s website:

      Today, physicists suppose that a particle can travel many different paths simultaneously, or travel backwards in time, or randomly pop into and out of existence from nothingness. They enjoy treating the entire universe as a “fluctuation of the vacuum,” or as an insignificant member of an infinite ensemble of universes, or even as a hologram. …. In short, the recent literature on physics makes one nostalgic for anything as reasonable as a witch trial.

    Whether this represents Rand’s view or not, will you agree that her supporters should be pretty embarrassed, much as they would be if were advocating flat-eartherism?

    I also found these comments from Peikoff, which throw Gödel’s Theorem’s into the mix as well. (Again I’d be grateful for some more references.)

    This is one subject in which I find myself in almost-total agreement with Eliezer Yudkowsky:

      “Study science, not just me!” is probably the most important piece of advice Ayn Rand should’ve given her followers and didn’t.
  66. Bram Cohen Says:

    Scott, you might be interested in this essay on what went down in Ayn Rand’s life and how her cult ended. Basically she had an affair with her main protoge, which caused no trouble whatsoever, because everyone accepted that they had this affair because they were the two smartest people in the world. He had other affairs later, after theirs ended, which were accepted for similar reasons. The thing which finally did her in, which caused the foundations of her whole worldview to come crashing down, was when many years later he had an affair with a woman who was beautiful but stupid. That caused her to completely flip out and her cult to fall apart at the seams.

    Personally, I find Ayn Rand’s writing unreadable due to technical considerations (that is, it sucks) and her ideas don’t ever rise above the level of philosibabble. Thankfully people who aren’t socially stunted nerds with a slanted world view don’t take her seriously either.

  67. Scott Says:

    Bram: Yes, I’ve seen that essay, and I know Rand’s biography well.

    Like many nerds, I fell in love with her philosophy around age 14. Much like if you’re at the bottom left of my scatterplot (or even near the middle), more free-market capitalism might be exactly what you need, if you’re in the USSR or an American high school, then Rand’s philosophy can be an enthralling contrast to everything you see all around you. Certainly Rand made a hundred times more sense than my high-school English teacher. Even then, though, I could see problems: I wrote a term paper which analyzed the rape scene in The Fountainhead as an irrational blot on an otherwise supremely rational novel. (My teacher hated the paper, as she hated pretty much everything I said or did.) Later, after I escaped high school and started learning some actual math and science, Rand’s philosophy seemed not so much wrong to me as just irrelevant. Finally I could go back and read the accounts of Murray Rothbard, Nathaniel Branden, etc., treating them as fascinating psychological case studies of how people who think very much like I do could get sucked into a cult of personality. There but for the grace of Math go I.

  68. Douglas Knight Says:

    When it comes to Canadian speech, I find hate speech laws much less disturbing than the child pornography laws, which cover advocating political change. I doubt that Canadian hate speech laws are restricting political freedom, but maybe that happens in Europe.

    As far as I can tell from the methodology page, the Freedom House country reports have nothing to do with the scores. They’re probably intended more as caveats than as explanations.

  69. Ted Diesel Says:


    Regarding the Civil Rights Act, you write: “What struck me […] was the empirical obtuseness of thinking that blacks could merely be turned away from all the restaurants, hotels, and other private businesses (if the proprietors so chose, as of course they did at the time), and nevertheless be treated with perfect fairness by the police and legal system.”

    But it was precisely the police and legal system that were to enforce the non-discrimination policies. Making sure that racist police officers or judges actually carried out any non-discrimination laws was, of course, an issue. But how was this issue to be mitigated by extending the scope of the non-discrimination laws to the private realm?

    That’s basically to say that I don’t see your grounds for such a negative assessment of Rand’s thinking in this case. I’m far from an expert on the civil rights movement, though, so I’m content to leave the issue here. If you see this as symptomatic of an across-the-board problem with her ethics, however, I might be willing to pursue that line with you.

    Later, you write: “Can anyone track down a reference to Rand discussing any post-Newtonian scientific theory?”

    See the second edition of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The Appendix contains extemporaneous remarks Rand made during 1969–1971 in workshops on her theory of concepts, edited by an associate. I have to note that she did not approve their (posthumous) editing and publication, so this doesn’t have the same weight as something she published or approved while she was alive. (I understand that audio recordings of the workshops are available via the Ayn Rand Archives.)

    In the sequence on scientific methodology beginning on p.301, she objects to the methodology used to justify the deinal of the existence of ether (i.e., she objects on philosophical grounds). I’m not confident in my ability to fairly summarize her reasons, so I’ll leave it to you to read the sequence if you’re sufficiently interested.

    You then acknowledge that Nathaniel Branden is your (sole?) source for her views on relativity and quantum mechanics. As I indicated above, I am skeptical about the fairness of his statement of Rand’s positions.

    Your final bits pertain to the work of Leonard Peikoff and David Harriman, and I’ll take these up later.

  70. Daniel Barnes Says:

    Hi Scott,

    You write:
    >Whether this represents Rand’s view or not, will you agree that her supporters should be pretty embarrassed, much as they would be if were advocating flat-eartherism?

    There are indeed “flat-earther” views emanating from leading Objectivist organisations. For example
    here. As a site critical of Rand we haven’t really examined these views closely yet, chiefly because the ARI restricts its very peculiar views on modern science largely to expensive audio lecture-only releases, thus making it rather difficult to quote and criticize. We can only speculate as to the reasons for this policy. We do know, however, that Rand regarded her role as philosopher as literally dictating the terms to scientists. She makes this clear in her “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” where she says that philosophers will instruct scientists as to what their words should properly mean (!). Scientists, sadly, do not seem to have a similarly critical power over philosophers…;-) Given that Objectivism has an intellectual methodology that is basically something out of the Middle Ages, it’s perhaps not surprising they struggle with modern scientific views.

  71. Douglas Knight Says:

    I wanted to correct my comment from the previous thread that Sachs’s name is more associated with “shock therapy” than Friedman’s. I still think that’s basically true, but I now think that Friedman coined the term in the context of Chile. But he probably meant something different. I think he was saying that abrupt changes are necessary to demonstrate credibility in fighting inflation. That is not to say that Chile’s rapid-fire privatizations are so different from the shocks that Sachs implemented, but I don’t think they were part of the slogan that Friedman was using, except in that they were part of cutting the government budget, so it could credibly claim that it didn’t need to print money.

  72. Ted Diesel Says:


    Let me first set some context for you: I’m not an expert on physics, and I know what you do for a living. But I am a Ph.D. student in a technical field at a major program, and so I have some idea of what it is like for an expert to converse with a non-expert. (I’m also not an expert on Objectivism or on David Harriman’s work, by the way. I am answering your question as an individual.)

    I confess that I’m not a fan of the article you linked to, and reading it does make me kind of uneasy. But I will not agree—given my present knowledge—that “[Ayn Rand’s] supporters should be pretty embarrassed, much as they would be if were advocating flat-eartherism.”

    First, I wonder if we might do away with the comparison to “flat-eartherism.” It seems to me that anybody could turn on NASA TV, watch some live video from orbit, and settle that particular issue. There is no excuse for even a layman in modern times to hold to a flat-earth position.

    But would you really classify as akin to a flat-earth position Harriman’s dismissal of claims “that a particle can travel many different paths simultaneously, or travel backwards in time, or randomly pop into and out of existence from nothingness”? At the very least, I should think that clear demonstrations of these kinds of phenomena are not near to hand.

    From my non-expert’s position, I would guess that Harriman sees the claims I just quoted as self-contradictory. To say that a particle can travel many paths at the same time seems to be like saying a tennis ball can be on two trajectories at once—so it’s travelling along Path A, and it’s also not doing so at the same time (because it’s on Path B). I suppose a stream of water can travel many paths simultaneously in some sense, but I’m not sure that the concept “particle” is supposed to subsume this other kind of entity. I’ve heard that some modern physicists are (or were) actually fine with contradictions in their models, in quantum mechanics specifically. Do they even go so far as to say that things in reality can have some property and also not have it at the same time? (Could you clarify your position on the law of non-contradiction?)

    Now I am somewhat aware that physicists might actually speak of particles as doing exactly the types of things that Harriman claims particles cannot do. I would not be surprised if some of these same physicists have thought in such terms even in the act of enabling real technological progress for which I should be grateful. But isn’t it still possible that the interpretation of some modern physical theories could stand some adjustment, while acknowledging that the associated equations are successful in practice? Could it be that, for example, instead of using the concept “particle” we need to form some other, new concept for these supposed “many paths” situations? Or do we really need to resort to saying that things are going “backwards in time” to explain what we see?

    It is not obvious precisely what scientific claims can be ruled out on philosophic grounds, and David Harriman is not transformed into some infallible being by virtue of Objectivism. This, in combination with my non-expertise in physics, is part of why the article you linked makes me nervous. I don’t know whether he’s nailed it, so I worry that scientists will dismiss what Objectivism has to offer more broadly if he fell short of the mark somewhere. (The various rumors circulating about Ayn Rand don’t help to motivate scientists put on the defensive, either.) Within my own context as a technically-minded non-physicist, I take David Harriman seriously—because of all I have seen of his work, and because of what I have seen from certain other Objectivists.

    Just for the record, one can learn more about Harriman’s reasoning in his 2003 lecture “The Crisis in Physics—and Its Cause.” To access it, register at the Ayn Rand Institute’s site, go to the Registered User Page, click on the “ARI Lecture Series” link on the right side, and scroll down the list of lectures to 2003. More recently, he has published articles in The Objective Standard: see their science and technology section. Or you can wait for his book—I think it will be titled The Inductive Method in Physics—to come out in the next couple of years (some of his recent articles are billed as chapters from this upcoming book).

  73. Ted Diesel Says:


    I noticed that you mentioned Murray Rothbard as another of your sources that negatively influenced your evaluation of Rand as a thinker (and as a person).

    Please recall that I mentioned a book by one James Valliant disputing the Brandens’ accounts of Rand. It happens that Valliant was at some point a student of Rothbard. In the referenced book (p.399–400), Valliant states: “When I asked him about it in 1982, Professor Rothbard himself told me that his ‘Sociology of the Ayn Rand cult’ [essay] was ‘highly fictionalized.’ For example, no one was ever ‘excommunicated’ from Rand’s circle for not liking the music of Rachmaninoff as Rand did. Rothbard was himself explicitly aware of the dishonesty of his attack.”

    Let me reiterate that sharply differing accounts of Rand are available: see e.g. here and here.

  74. David Says:

    If you were ever interested in taking this a step further. Ken Arrow and subsequently Amartya Sen looked at this from a first principles point of view, and were very qualitative about it. It would be interesting to quantify, see it quantified by a numbers expert, not a ‘political theory’ expert.

  75. crf Says:

    Could you plot either, or both (3-D plot), political and economic freedom along with per capita carbon dioxide emissions in these various countries?

    Probably many consider enconomic and political freedom useful to measure because they are thought to be critical in allowing a society to successfully solve problems. Since reducing GHG emissions is a very critical problem to solve, it would be neat to track this situation, country by country, over the past years (animate your 3-D plot), and watch the situation as the future slowly unfolds.

    Hopefully, you can find political and economic freedom data for past years too.

  76. Johan Richter Says:

    I think Soviet, china and so on says rather less than is commonly assumed about the compatability between democracy and commando economies than is often assumed. The key thing is that Lenin et al all planned for combining a socialistic economy with dictatorship from the start, they did not create a planned economy that gradually turned into a dictatorship.

    I would say the same for the Ayn Rands. Pinochet, and other advocates of economic freedom combined with political unfreeness planned it that way from the start.

    For Scott’s theory to gain support we really would need a country that actually tries to implement a Randian utopia, only have the people revolt and then end up like either Sweden or Chile under Pinochet. As far as I know that hasn’t happened.

  77. cody Says:

    Ted, regardless of how the conclusions implied by quantum mechanics seem to conflict with our intuitive understanding of reality, the mathematical theory is superbly successful.

    Have we have failed to find a coherent intuitive description?

    Does some more `intuitively acceptable’ principle lie underneath QM in a deeper physical theory?

    Or is it just that the universe, at its most fundamental level, works in a way completely foreign to our macroscopically developed understanding of how things work?

    Nobody knows yet. (Though after struggling for 80 years to resolve the former, and suspecting that the middle option will not magically resolve these phenomena, we tend to suspect the latter.)
    But we do know, (with more certainty than you can really say almost anything else about the universe), that current quantum physics theories make predictions that are orders of magnitude ahead of the rest of science—and those same theories imply the very odd, non-intuitive, seemingly-contradictory descriptions that we so often complain about!

    So complain all you want about the ridiculousness of the claims of quantum physics, (everyone else does). That ridiculousness can never outweigh the evidence provided by the billions of dollars worth of experiments we have so meticulously performed.

    Also, to anyone: something I’ve been wondering lately, (triggered by this lecture by Kevin Kelly about the next 5,000 days of the web), is how could anyone have so much faith in a given economic or political model, when technology is so rapidly altering the way the world works? As Kelly mentions in the beginning of his lecture, 20 years ago, the world wide web and its plethora of free services would have been pretty unbelievable.

    How can we have confidence that our theories of economics or politics will make any sense in light of the internet?

  78. mitchell porter Says:

    Cody, the critics of quantum theory are generally objecting to the conceptual framework, not the mathematics. But as Ted puts it, “It is not obvious precisely what scientific claims can be ruled out on philosophic grounds”. I would be with Harriman in scorning the notion of objectively uncertain fundamental properties, for example, but against him if he seeks to rule out temporal zigzag or multiverse hypotheses apriori. In criticising quantum metaphysics, you have to distinguish between claims which really are elementary nonsense, and claims which are genuine ontological innovations, and I don’t see him doing that correctly.

  79. cody Says:

    mitchell, I understand that the criticism is to the conceptual, what I am saying is that the validity of the theory cannot be judged by its conceptual framework the way it can be judged by empirical evidence, which very strongly supports it.

    About criticizing quantum metaphysics, above I tried to emphasize that no one likes quantum metaphysics, and of course it might be wrong, but 80+ years of trying to resolve what we intuitively feel contradicts reality has not been very fruitful.

    To go beyond saying that, “It is not obvious…”, wouldn’t you think that scientific claims can never be ruled out on philosophic grounds? Shouldn’t empirical evidence always trump philosophic preferences? Of course this does not apply to criticizing the metaphysics, but if the math implies the metaphysics, and we can’t find a better explanation, shouldn’t that overpower our philosophic intuition?

    Would you continue to reject the notion of “objectively uncertain fundamental properties”, even if all the evidence of many repeated experiments seems to imply that is how the universe work? And how would you justify that rejection?

  80. Michael Bacon Says:

    ” . . . the critics of quantum theory are generally objecting to the conceptual framework, not the mathematics.”

    I think that it’s incumbent on the critics of the “conceptual” conclusions that naturally fall out of the mathematics of quantum theory to come up with conceptual conclusions the are equally applicable.

  81. John Sidles Says:

    IMHO, it’s a good idea for students to keep in mind that the classical physics of the past, just like the quantum physics of the present, was encumbered with a problematic metaphysics of “absolute space and time.”

    This metaphysics was expressed in Newton’s famous statements that “Absolute, True, and Mathematical Time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to any thing external” and “Absolute Space, in its own nature, without regard to any thing external, remains always similar and immovable.”

    Abandoning this problematic Newtonian metaphysics only became possible after the invention and widespread embrace by scientists of new mathematical tools, in particular the coordinate-free (Riemannian) descriptions of classical state-space geometry.

    Now that everyone is familiar with at least the basic ideas of (coordinate-free) Riemannian state-space dynamics, Newtonian metaphysics has been abandoned.

    Similarly today, it is becoming clear that some (not all) of the problematic metaphysical aspects of quantum mechanics can be eased by moving to coordinate-free descriptions of quantum dynamics.

    The point being that from a mathematical point of view, it is definitely *not* the case that quantum dynamics requires a (linear) Hilbert space, any more than Newtonian dynamics requires a (linear) Cartesian space.

    And from a science and engineering point of view, abandoning problematic metaphysics in favor of stronger mathematics has often proved to be a good idea.

    Of course, coordinate-free quantum mechanics is definitely *not* free of metaphysical questions. One of the biggest questions is, why do quantum state-spaces have so many dimensions?

  82. Eric Baum Says:

    You wrote: Among educated people, political freedom is universally acknowledged as both good and important, whereas economic freedom (as defined by Heritage and the Wall Street Journal) is not.
    I think you have an implicit bias that if a large majority of academics believe something, that is evidence it is true, but there is no logical reason to believe that, and my experience tends to indicate the opposite. A possible reason why this occurs (assuming it does) is that the majority are just herd following, whereas the minority only sticks it out because of some rational argumentation. Interestingly, this seems to hold also in the limit, as the minority gets small. (Of course, there are plenty of questions, such as whether 2 + 2 = 4, which are not controversial at all, where there really is rational argument that has persuaded everybody, but for questions where one might expect controversy, a smaller number of holdouts might even signal more likelihood of correctness.) For example, back in the day I used to occasionally watch “The McLaughlin Report” on TV. He had a panel of pundits divided equally between left and right, to generate controversy, and at the end of every show he would put them on the spot by asking them to predict something specific. Since these were predictions, ground truth eventually became available and what was striking was, on the rare occasions when they all agreed, they were sure to be way wrong. For example, I recall him asking his panel, as the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, how long their puppet government would stay in power. The pundits were unanimous it would be a few weeks at most, but in fact, if memory serves, it was years.

  83. mitchell porter Says:

    cody asks: Would you continue to reject the notion of “objectively uncertain fundamental properties”, even if all the evidence of many repeated experiments seems to imply that is how the universe work? And how would you justify that rejection?

    First let me be clear about the meaning, in case there is misunderstanding: I wasn’t talking about nondeterministic dynamics. I was talking about the idea that, e.g., something can have a position without having a definite position. That is simply a logical contradiction, or a meaningless statement if one prefers, and there is no possibility of empirical evidence for such a thing.

    As someone is likely to bring it up, let me also deal in advance with the objection that a fuzzily defined object like a cloud can have a position in the sky without having an exact position. That is a different case entirely, as the fuzziness derives merely from the failure to specify exactly which water droplets are part of the cloud. This is not at all what the “objective uncertainty” interpretation of a quantum wavefunction is about; even for a putatively elementary object like an electron, for which there is no such ambiguity about parts, the latter is all about insisting that the electron is not anywhere in particular, it just has a fractional tendency to possibly be in many places at once, without actually being in any one of them.

    That is nonsense, and even if we had no other ways of thinking about quantum mechanics available, this is a case in which logic alone should still dictate that the picture being offered is nonsense and a replacement must be sought. And of course there are many alternative pictures which are not apriori nonsensical, and which therefore have to be evaluated in other ways, e.g. are they capable of giving us quantum mechanics in quantitative detail, and not just a handwaving impressionistic resemblance.

    So to sum up, in reality our experiments do not imply that such objective uncertainty exists; and it is impossible for them to imply it because it is not a hypothesis, it is a pseudo-hypothesis, a gap in one’s network of hypotheses about reality that has been plugged with rhetoric; and I reject it because it is not a real hypothesis. It is just as if someone were to propose that the answer to all empirical questions is that nothing actually exists and so there are no facts to be determined. In that case (to use the Objectivist language) what is being denied is that existence exists; in the former case, what is being denied is that identity exists, that to be is to be something.

    And one more restatement for the sake of clarity: this is all competely different from saying that something does not have a particular property at all. The contradiction lies in saying that an inherently quantitative property can be possessed, without that property taking on a definite value. If you’re a “wavefunction realist” or a “state-vector realist”, you’re not even talking in terms of a particle in space any more, so this criticism doesn’t apply.

  84. Jack in Danville Says:

    Hey Scott!

    I see this thread is still alive, so I’ll answer your response about N Korea. What goes on there is literally unbelievable. Therefore I can’t reasonably expect you (or anyone) to be persuaded by anything I write. My best piece of evidence is to direct you to nighttime satellite pictures of East Asia. You will find the entire country of N. Korea dark except the capital, Pyongyang. I learned what was going on there 30 years ago from a former Air Force intelligence officer. I asked him why none of this stuff made it to our press. His answer was just “protecting intelligence sources”. His attitude was “we have a job to do and educating the public isn’t part of it”.

    There was a series on CNN about a year ago based on video footage smuggled out, and there have been reports attributed to Chinese border guards about what happens to the refugees caught and handed over to the North Korean military. All unbelievable, but at least the western press occasionally reports it.

    The comparison to the old situation in East Europe doesn’t hold. (Yeah, I know, that’s unbelievable too.) Keeping the regime afloat in no way causes the people to learn anything at all about the rest of the world, and I hate to compare that belief to one once held by Donald Rumsfeld, but didn’t he once maintain something to the effect “If we do this (topple Saddam by fource), a miracle will occur (the people will rejoice and build a new society)”? The belief “If we deal with the regime in North Korea the people will learn the truth about us and our intentions” parses in a similar fashion.

    I truly believe President Clinton was on track to maintain a hard line at a time when the regime may well have collapsed, but when President Carter embarrassed him by calling for “negotiations”, and if I remember correctly independently traveling to meet with the leaders, Clinton did the easy political thing (which he usually did) by getting the North Koreans to agree to terms (which they broke) in exchange for oil (which contributed to keeping the regime viable).

  85. TGGP Says:

    I would prefer the Cato/Fraser index of economic freedom at

    Milton Friedman actually he concluded (thanks in part to Singapore) that he was wrong about the two kinds of freedom. He said instead that there are three kinds: economic, social and political. He didn’t explicitly discuss this, but it occurs to me that under complete anarchy you could only have the first two. There would be no political freedom because there would be no politics. The Friesean Institute takes that approach: