Tag Archives: Economic Freedom

Economic Freedom, Economic Growth, and Freedom in the 50 States

Today, Mercatus released a new edition of William Ruger and Jason Sorens’s Freedom in the 50 States. To my knowledge, it is the most-comprehensive analysis of freedom at the state level, covering both economic freedoms and personal freedoms. The authors explain their study in this pretty awesome video:

Vero offers some interesting analysis over at The Corner.

The timing is excellent, as the World Bank recently released a new study of the impact of economic freedom on economic performance (HT to Robert Lawson). They conclude:   

Reviewing the economic performance—good and bad— of more than 100 countries over the past 30 years, this paper finds new empirical evidence supporting the idea that economic freedom and civil and political liberties are the root causes of why some countries achieve and sustain better economic outcomes. For instance, a one unit change in the initial level of economic freedom between two countries (on a scale of 1 to 10) is associated with an almost 1 percentage point differential in their average long-run economic growth rates.

To put the numbers in perspective, what if, in 1975 (the first year for which they have data), the US level of economic freedom had been 1 unit lower? This would have put us in the neighborhood of Canada or Panama at the time. Then, other things being equal, the World Bank study suggests that we’d expect today’s economy to be about 30 percent smaller than it actually is. What if we’d had 1 unit less freedom in 1945? Then we’d expect today’s economy to be about half its current size.   

 As I have mentioned elsewhere, state-level studies corroborate the international evidence on the importance of economic freedom. I hope decision makers at the state level are reading Ruger and Sorens’s new study.

What is Economic Freedom and What Can it Say About Prosperity?

My post in the NYT’s Room for Debate blog elicited a good number of comments and questions. So today I thought I might elaborate on the most-important of these questions: What exactly is economic freedom and what do we know about the way it affects prosperity?

First, its impact. The economists Chris Doucouliagos and Mehmet Ali Ulubqasoglu recently reviewed 45 studies examining the freedom-growth relationship. They concluded:

[R]egardless of the sample of countries, the measure of economic freedom and the level of aggregation, there is a solid finding of a direct positive association between economic freedom and economic growth.

Studies also find that economic freedom tends to be associated with a whole host of other factors that humans tend to value such as:

  • Higher income levels: Faria and Montesinos (2009) Dawson (1998), De Haan and Siermann (1998), De Haan and Sturm (2000), Cole (2003), Gwartney et al. (2004) and Weede (2006);
  • Lower poverty levels: Norton (2003);
  • Less volatility in the business cycle: Dawson (2010);
  • Better environmental outcomes: Norton (1998), ch. 2);


  • Fewer homicides: Stringham and Levendis (2010); and 
  • Greater levels of reported happiness: Ovaska and Takashima (2006)

But what is economic freedom?

The concept is quite old, dating back to well-before Adam Smith. For his part, he called it “a system of natural liberty” and gave us a view of what he meant by it when he wrote:

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.

This, however, is still pretty vague.

So in the last quarter-century, a number of economists have focused on defining and—importantly—measuring economic freedom. There are now a number indices of economic freedom at both the national and sub-national levels. Among academics, the most-widely cited of these is the Economic Freedom of the World index, the latest of which is authored by Professors James Gwartney, Joshua Hall, and Robert Lawson. This index grew out of a series of conferences initiated by (Nobel Laureate) Milton Friedman and the Fraser Institute’s Michael Walker in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Other attendees included economic luminaries such as “Lord Peter Bauer, Gary Becker, Douglass North, Armen Alchian, Arnold Harberger, Alvin Rabushka, Walter Block, Gordon Tullock, and Sir Alan Walters” (a number of whom have either won Nobel prizes in own their right or are likely to in the years that come). Out of these conferences, a consensus began to emerge that the four cornerstones of economic freedom were:

  • Personal choice,
  • Voluntary exchange coordinated by markets,
  • Freedom to enter and compete in markets, and
  • Protection of persons and their property from aggression by others.

From these conceptual cornerstones, the authors of the index began to gather data with an eye toward objectively measuring the degree to which the laws of different nations permit (or don’t) the exercise of economic freedom. Their index includes factors such as government consumption spending as a share of total consumption, top marginal income tax rates, the degree of judicial independence, growth in the money supply, taxes on international trade, and regulation of private sector credit (among 17 other components). The index now covers more than 140 countries, with data on many going back to 1970. And now there are literally hundreds of peer-reviewed articles that are based on this index or one of many others like it.

Since the publication of this index, a number of others have gotten in on the game. There are now indices that measure freedom at the sub-national level, the most-recent of which is Sorens and Ruger’s Freedom in the 50 States, published by Mercatus (the next addition of which is coming out soon). 

As I have recently noted, these state level indices suggest that economic freedom is a powerful predictor of prosperity.

So that, in a nutshell, is economic freedom.

Economically Free States see 30 Percent Faster Job Growth

In my last post, I mentioned a couple of business climate indices. There is a new paper by Jed Kolko, David Neumark, and Marisol Cuellar Mejia which examines these types of indices in depth. They find that states with high rankings in economic freedom indices tend to have faster job growth, greater wage growth, and greater growth in gross state product.

There are a lot of indexes out there that attempt to rank states in terms of their business climates and the results of their rankings often conflict. As the authors write:

[A]cross all 50 states, every state but one ranks in the top 20 in at least one index, and every state ranks in the bottom half in at least one index.

However, it turns out that when you dig deeper, the indices can be grouped into two general categories and there is actually a lot of consistency within these categories.

Economic Freedom Indices:

The first category examines what the authors call “taxes and costs” and what I might call economic freedom. It includes factors such as the cost of doing business, the size of government, tax rates and tax burden, regulation, litigation, and welfare and transfer payments. The following five indices tend to capture these types of factors:

The economic freedom component of the Freedom in the 50 States Index by Sorens and Ruger would almost certainly fall into this category too, but since the authors focused on indices that have been around for several years, they do not include it.

Productivity and Quality of Life:

The second group of indices tends to measure what the authors call “productivity or quality of life.” These indices include measures of quality of life; equity; employment, earnings and job quality; business incubation; human capital; infrastructure; and technology, knowledge jobs, and digital economy. It appears to me that a number of the indices in this group focus on outcomes (are there a lot of “knowledge jobs in the state”?) while others in this group focus on policy inputs aimed at improving the quality of life (has the government invested in business incubation and human capital?). The indices that tend to fall into this category include:

  • The State New Economy Index by the Progressive Policy Institute, the Information, Technology and Innovation Foundation, and the Kauffman Foundation,
  • The Development Report Card for the States—Performance by the Corporation for Enterprise Development,
  • The Development Report Card for the States—Development Capacity, also by the Corporation for Enterprise Development,
  • The Development Report Card for the States—Business Vitality, also by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, and
  • The State Competitiveness Index by the Beacon Hill Institute.

The distinction isn’t always clear cut and I’d note that the Beacon Hill State Competitiveness Index, for one, also seems to capture a lot of economic freedom-type factors. The authors categorize an eleventh index, the Fiscal Policy Report Card on the Nation’s Governors by the Cato Institute, as falling somewhere between these two broad groups.

The authors examined the degree to which these indices predicted job growth, wages, and Gross State Product (controlling for other factors that might influence economic growth, including weather and historical industry mix). They found that the quality of life indices generally do a poor job of predicting these positive economic outcomes. In contrast, the economic freedom (aka “low taxes and few regulatory costs”) indices are strong predictors of job growth, wages, and GSP. In particular, the authors found “the corporate income tax structure and base matter for wage and GSP growth, though not necessarily for employment growth.” furthermore, the relationship, “does not appear to be driven by the top marginal tax rate, but rather by other factors such as the simplicity of corporate taxation…” They also found that greater welfare and transfer payment spending was associated with slower economic growth (they have reason to dismiss most concerns about reverse causality; but I’ll leave that to the reader to investigate).

The two indices with the best record for predicting economic progress were the Economic Freedom of North America index by Fraser (“the strongest and most robust evidence”) and the State Business Tax Climate by the Tax Foundation. Looking at the Fraser index, they found that moving a state from the 40th to the 10th place in terms of economic freedom “would increase the rate of growth of employment by 0.317 percentage point.” Given that the mean employment growth rate is 1.15 percent, this amounts to about 30 percent faster employment growth.

Lastly, the authors found that “footloose” industries such as manufacturing that are less-tied to the geography of the state tend to be more responsive to the policies captured by these indices.


Update: I have fixed a broken link to the article.  Thanks to alert readers!