The spirited social media reaction to my last post, which laid out a speculative libertarian case for Bernie Sanders, raises a hard problem that merits more attention than it gets: how do you determine which presidential candidate is best for freedom overall?

Before we get to that thorny question, let me touch on some of the criticism my post elicited. The main objection to my simple libertarian case for Sanders has been the objection I made in the post:  Sanders may say he wants to make the United States more like countries like Denmark, but the economic policy he actually seems to favor is not very much like Denmark’s. If Sanders’ economic platform were implemented, it would definitely move America’s economic freedom score in the wrong direction.

It was interesting to see this point made so often and so vehemently, despite the fact that I had already made it and clearly agreed that it is true. My response to this in the original post was that, obviously, President Bernie Sanders wouldn’t get to implement his economic policy.

Now, I failed to make the rest of the case as explicitly as I might have, mainly because I was exploiting Berniemania to illustrate a deeper point: If freedom-minded folk paid less attention to theory and more attention to the empirical question of where freedom really flourishes, they’d be forced to seriously consider the fact that “social democracy,” as it actually exists, is sometimes more “libertarian” than the good old U.S. of A.

I was glad to see John Cochrane, an economist at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, grasping this point and drawing out one of its most important implications: the welfare state and a heavily-regulated dirigiste economy are logically independent and empirically separable. Cochrane writes:

A welfare state is not necessarily a politicized regulatory state, with strong two-way political-industry capture. The latter may be more dangerous economically.  Those who wish to eat golden eggs have an incentive to let the Goose grow fat.

It has been intensely heartening to see even many of those who found my libertarian case for Sanders absolutely ridiculous nevertheless concede, more and less explicitly, that the pro-liberty case for Bernie Sanders would be strong if only he actually did want to adopt the broad contours of Denmark’s free-market economic policy in addition to it’s heavily redistributive egalitarian social policy. That’s a really important development and I’m pleased to have played a part in bringing it about.

But I wasn’t only using Sanders as a way of bringing attention to the fact that freedom does in fact flourish in some big-government welfare states, at least according to one libertarian index of freedom. I sincerely think there’s a modest-to-strong libertarian case to be made for Sanders. Alas, an important part of that case got a little lost in my attempt to bring home the point about the empirically proven compatibility of freedom and a robust safety net.

So here’s what I left out. Sanders seems to me more devoted to increasing non-economic freedoms in the right direction than any other candidate left in the race. He’s not inclined to start wars, wants to ramp down the war on drugs, rein in police abuses, and do something about mass incarceration. Moreover, he’d have a freer hand as president on these issues than he would on economic policy.

My assumptions on this score were similar to Nobel-laureate Vernon Smith, who is to my mind our greatest living classical liberal thinker. In his Facebook comment on my post, Vernon wrote:

The way I have put it, Bernie is 2/3rds libertarian. He passes on civil liberty, and foreign intervention, fails on economic freedom. This is a product of his compassionate ignorance of the role of freedom in the growth of income and the reduction in poverty over the last 250 years emanating from Northern Europe. Bernie is a product of American Socialism, a movement of high integrity with outstanding leadership from Eugene Debs followed by Norma[n] Thomas. Thomas came out of the early ACLU and anti-war movement. American socialists were under no delusions as to the threat of Soviet communism to freedom. They were committed to non-violent means a major feature of the racial equality movement of the 1930s to 1950s.

I wanted to quote Vernon at length here because his comment helps illustrate the degree of polarization of attitudes about the relationship between socialism and liberty. Vernon, whose mother was a full-on “public-ownership-of-the-means-of production” socialist, and who once voted for Norman Thomas for president, seems to take it for granted that the American socialist left is a political manifestation of pro-freedom cultural impulses, which just happened to be disastrously mistaken about markets. If you came to libertarianism from socialism through economics, as Vernon did, it just seems sensible to regard Sanders as 2/3rds of a libertarian. But if you came to libertarianism, as I did, starting as a vehemently anti-communist high-school Young Republican, through Ayn Rand (whose version of libertarianism was an intended refutation of and cultural counter-weight to communism), and on through a libertarian movement that has always been part of the American right (largely due to the Cold War anti-communist alliance), it can seem simply preposterous to conceive of a self-avowed socialist as anything but fundamentally hostile to liberty.

Some of the reaction to my post suggests that the reflexive hostility to socialism as an inherently anti-liberty force is alive and well on the right. But it is an unthinking hostility, full of the sort of atavistic tribal passion that makes it so incredibly hard to talk rationally about politics. Vernon’s gesture toward the role of socialists in the ACLU and the civil rights and anti-war movements suggests why this hostility is mistaken, as does the high level of lived freedom enjoyed by the denizens of egalitarian social democracies, such as Denmark and Sweden, which show the empirical congruence of liberal socialism and liberty. If you’re not ready to consider the possibility that the politics of a liberal socialist like Bernie Sanders might be on the whole more pro-liberty than, say, Ted Cruz’s, then you’re simply not ready to think seriously about the politics of liberty.

Speaking of Ted Cruz, I noticed that few critics of the libertarian case for Sanders mentioned other candidates at all, much less candidates who have a serious chance of winning the nomination of one of the two major parties. That’s odd. It may be that every candidate who has a real shot at becoming president would be a net negative for liberty. Now, in the conclusion of my post, I said, “If we’re lucky, we’ll live to see Bernie Sanders’ America and experience a future in which the United States, made great again, manages to knock Mauritius down a peg on the world freedom league tables, seizing the inestimable glory of 19th place.” My hope for a President Sanders was that, at best, he’d leave America barely better off in terms of freedom.

You see, I’m not especially sanguine about the prospects of freedom under Bernie Sanders, and I would not be surprised if America’s freedom score declined a bit on his watch. But that doesn’t knock down the libertarian case in his favor unless someone else would do better. Isn’t there a libertarian case to be made for the candidate who is least bad in terms of liberty? Of course there is. Well, I heard a lot about how there can’t possibly be a libertarian case for Bernie Sanders without hearing anything serious about why Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio should be expected to make freedom ring. Seriously, I didn’t hear anything about other candidates.

I think I know why. Because is is really hard to compare candidates on abstract variables like freedom. The dispute over this sort of question inevitably devolves into an inconclusive contest of posturing, hand-waving, and strongly-held but unstated assumptions. Let’s think about why this is the case.

It’s pretty easy to know which candidates to support for political office if you make one or two issues a priority. If you want to restrict gun ownership, you can’t do better than Hillary Clinton. If you want neoconservative foreign policy more than anything else, then Marco Rubio’s your man. But the question becomes extremely difficult if you’re mainly interested in making America on the whole more equal or just or free, or something like that. 

Suppose you want to grade the presidential candidates’ platforms to discover who is the most pro-freedom overall, which is what you’d need to do to really show that Bernie Sanders, or anyone else, is or isn’t the most pro-freedom candidate. A bunch of problems crop up immediately, even when there’s agreement about the nature of freedom in the abstract. It’s not that hard to say which policy position is more or less pro-liberty on a lot of issues. The candidate with the least restrictive immigration policy wins on immigration. The candidate who wants to go the furthest in decriminalizing drug possession wins on drugs. But it’s not always that easy.

For example, I think criminal sentences are way too long for both violent and non-violent offenses. Captivity is the antithesis of liberty. If people are kept in cages for longer than they ought to be kept, as a matter of proportional retributive justice, then that’s obviously egregiously anti-liberty. If it’s happening on a massive scale, to many millions of people, then that’s an enormous, outrageous travesty of liberty. In that case, even modest sentencing reform could be a massively pro-liberty development, saving thousands of lifetimes worth of years from theft by the state.

But what if you think the sentences aren’t too long? What if long sentences prevent some amount of violent and property crime, even if they are too long? How do you come up with the liberty score of sentencing reform?

A dispute about this issue cropped up in a Facebook discussion thread of my post. A libertarian-leaning conservative law professor of my acquaintance posited that America’s astonishing incarceration rates fairly reflect America’s high crime rates, which in turn reflect deep-seated cultural factors that public policy is helpless to do much about. He met heated resistance from a couple of libertarian-turned-progressive friends, who I thought had the better argument. But there was real intellectual merit on both sides and it’s by no means obvious who is right. So, depending on your background beliefs about retributive justice, the legitimacy of sentencing guidelines, the roots of criminal behavior, police and prosecutorial conduct, etc., a candidate’s support for criminal justice reform may count greatly in his or her favor as a matter of liberty, or count not at all in his or her favor, or even count against him or her. There are many other issues like this (e.g., abortion), which is the main conceptual problem of attempts to rank countries in terms of personal and economic liberties.

And what if there are systemic interactions between policies? I have a strong but unconfirmed hunch that economic liberty in the U.S. has declined because there’s a rising sense of economic insecurity in much of the population. (If you don’t think this helps explain the very real possibility a we’ll have a presidential election between a mercantilist crony-capitalist and an old-timey socialist, you’re nuts). Conversely, economic liberty has increased in places like Denmark and Canada in part because a strong safety net, including universal healthcare, reduces the sense of material insecurity that creates resistance to liberalizing economic reforms.

Just suppose that’s true. Suppose that if America did have single-payer health care, then it’s overall economic liberty would eventually improve. In that case, how do you grade a single-payer proposal from a presidential candidate? Does it matter why they want single-payer if that’s the likely effect in the long run? Does it matter that they don’t want it to have that effect, even if it will?

Or, to take a similar but slightly different example, suppose cutting entitlement spending and giving it back in tax cuts, which would raise America’s score on economic freedom indices, would exacerbate the widespread sense of economic precariousness and lead to, say, protectionist trade policy, which would reduce America’s economic liberty score. How do you score the entitlement cut and tax break proposal? Do you take into account only the first-order effects, or do you account for the n-order effects as well? If it’s the latter, then the freedom score’s going to depend on your background theories of the way the effects of policies ripple through the system and interact over time.

Matters are made even more difficult by taking into account political posturing and political friction. A lot of politicians’ platforms are cheap talk meant to appeal to voters they want to attract, but which they have no intention of implementing. Do you try to tell the difference between sincere and opportunistic positions? It’s easier if you don’t. But then that rules out trying to see past Ted Cruz’s put-on piety (I think his evangelical Christianity is more purely performative than his occasional Ludwig von Mises name-drop) or Donald Trump’s vile, nativist xenophobia (I think it’s even more brazenly fake than Cruz’s piety, and that he’s a principle-free moderately liberal crony-capitalist pragmatically but genuinely averse to costly foreign wars) or Marco Rubio’s manic dissembling about his admirable support for comprehensive immigration reform. This ensures that we’ll score most candidates worse on liberty than they’d actually govern simply because they’re trying to win an election and most voters, Democrat and Republican alike, are even less libertarian than the sort of people who run credible presidential campaigns.

I think most of us do try to see behind the veil of campaign rhetoric and intuit what the candidates’ real beliefs and priorities are. But there’s simply no principled way to do this, and mostly our ideological conditioning fills in the gaps. We think things like this: “Ted Cruz was a ‘Constitutional Corroborator‘ in high school. The Constitution is a libertarian document. So probably he’s more liberty-friendly than he lets on.” Or: “Bernie Sanders is a socialist. Socialism, even if it was tragically misguided about economics, was one of the great liberation movements of the 20th century. I see him as a freedom-friendly, 2/3 libertarian sort of guy.” Or, more likely for my audience, you have a standard and quite correct thought about 100 million people dying under tyrannical socialism, and reel with horrified disgust at the notion that someone who identifies as socialist might get anywhere near the presidency of  Mr. Madison’s republic.

If the very idea of a libertarian case for Bernie Sanders leaves you thinking, “What’s next? A libertarian case for Pol Pot? A pacifist case for war? A Christian case for atheism?” perhaps you don’t think it’s necessary to say a word about why Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would be better. It’s that obvious. Anyway, it’s hard not to let our intuitions run riot when attempting to divine the truth behind campaign palaver, but it’s really not a reliable method for estimating how freedom really would fare under the candidates still in the game.

And then there’s political friction. A lot of sincere proposals are politically unrealistic. Barack Obama promised in 2007, perhaps sincerely, to close Guantanamo. It’s still open. Do we take political friction into account and ignore positions that won’t get implemented, only scoring the ones that are really feasible and probable? That was my basis for not counting Sanders’ horrible economic policy against him. This is a pretty easy call when you’ve got an unreconstructed socialist coming up against Republican congressional majorities. But there are a lot of cases where the frictions are less clear-cut. Do you assign a probability to the political implementation of sincerely-held proposals, conditional on the candidate becoming president, and then multiply it by the proposal’s liberty score?

And then there’s the question of relative weight. How much does a 5% decrease or increase in the top marginal tax rate enhance or diminish liberty relative to decriminalizing marijuana possession? I think the first is totally trivial as a matter of liberty while the second is momentous. Others differ. But those differences matter a lot when it comes to determining which candidate you think is best for freedom.

Without answers to these kinds of questions, debates about which candidate would be on the whole best for freedom are necessarily inconclusive, and mostly reflect our background theories about all of this stuff. In the presence of this sort of complexity, there are definitely worse rules-of-thumb than asking candidates which countries they would most like to see us emulate, and then seeing how free those countries are compared the United States.

I am fairly confident that if I unpacked all of my assumptions in a treatise on the nature of liberty and the dynamics of political economy and democratic public administration, laid out all of my theories of the candidates’ genuine priorities, modeled the likely course of public policy under each contender’s presidency, then ranked all of the candidate’s platforms on my carefully calibrated freedom index, Bernie Sanders would come in first place. This libertarian case for Bernie Sanders, assuming it came out as expected, would be unimpeachably rigorous, but nevertheless unpersuasive to anyone not taken with the underlying picture of liberty, political economy, and candidate psychology. As it happens, politicians and electoral politics aren’t really that interesting to me. So I don’t think I’ll be undertaking the profiling and prediction part of the project. But liberty and political economy? I’ll talk about them all day.

Did I tell you already that high levels of both economic and personal liberty seems to be compatible with a very large welfare state? I think I did. And I think you might have agreed when you admitted that Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be so bad, freedom-wise, if he wanted the free-market part of the Danish model. Let’s pick it up there and think through the implications.

As for the election, just go with your gut. After all, what else have you got?