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Study: Most Liberal States Are Least Free

Wednesday, 06 May 2009 01:03 PM

By Dave Eberhart

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According to a new study released by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University, some of the most liberal U.S. states rank lowest when it comes to personal freedom.

The study, which calls itself the “first-ever comprehensive ranking of the American states on their public policies affecting individual freedoms in the economic, social, and personal spheres,” made a host of findings:

  • The freest states in the country are New Hampshire, Colorado, and South Dakota, which together achieve a virtual tie for first place. All three states feature low taxes and government spending -- and middling levels of regulation and paternalism.

  • New York is the least overall free by a considerable margin, followed by New Jersey, Rhode Island, California, and Maryland.

    Unfortunately, say the report authors, these freedom-disadvantaged states “make up a substantial portion of the total American population. Moreover, these bottom five states have considerable ground to make up even to move off this ignoble list, let alone into a creditable position in the rankings.”

  • When weighing personal freedom alone, Alaska is the clear winner, while Maryland brings up the rear.

    Sarah Palin’s Alaska does extremely well on personal freedom, conclude study authors. Reasons for its high personal freedom alone score include: fully legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana (accomplished through a court ruling), the best (least restrictive) gun laws in the country, recognition of same-sex domestic partnerships, and possibly the best homeschooling laws in the country.

  • As for freedom in the different regions of the country, the Mountain and West North Central regions are the freest overall -- while the Middle Atlantic lags far behind on both economic and personal freedom.

    There are real benefits to scoring high on economic and personal freedoms, conclude the study’s authors. Their analysis demonstrated that states enjoying more economic and personal freedom tend to attract substantially higher rates of internal net migration.

    The Problem with Being Liberal

    According to the study, previous research has shown that, as of 2006, Alabama and Mississippi were the most conservative states in the country, while New York and New Jersey were the most liberal. In the index put forth by the new study, Alabama and Mississippi fall in the middle, while New York and New Jersey are at the bottom.

    “The problem is that the cultural values of liberal governments seem on balance to require more regulation of individual behavior than do the cultural values of conservative governments,” say the study’s authors. “While liberal states are freer than conservative states on marijuana and same-sex partnership policies, when it comes to gun owners, home schoolers, motorists, or smokers, liberal states are nanny states, while conservative states are more tolerant.”

    Some Individual State Profiles

  • Illinois is one of the worst states to live in from a personal freedom perspective (#49). On economic freedom it is in the middle of the pack (#29). Illinois has the fourth harshest gun control laws in the country, after California, Maryland, and New York, and the state’s victimless crimes arrest rates are almost unfathomable: In 2006, more than 2 percent of the state’s population was arrested for a victimless crime (and that figure does not count under-18s). Nearly one-third of all arrests were for victimless crimes.

  • Texas (#7 economic, #5 personal, #5 overall) has one of the smallest state governments in the country. As a percentage of corrected GSP, Texas has the second lowest tax burden in the country and the third lowest grants-adjusted government spending. However, government employment is a standard deviation higher than the national average. Gun control is better than average, but the state falls short on open-carry laws, stricter-than-federal minimum age for purchase rules, and dealer licensing.

    Alcohol is less regulated than in most other states, and taxes are low. Low-level marijuana cultivation is a misdemeanor, but otherwise marijuana laws are very harsh.

  • Colorado, the #2 state, achieved its ranking through excellent fiscal numbers and above-average numbers on regulation and paternalism. The state is the most fiscally decentralized in the country, with localities raising fully 44.5 percent of all state and local expenditures. By percentage of adjusted GSP, Colorado has the third lowest tax burden in the country, surpassed only by Tennessee and Texas. It has resisted the temptation of “sin taxes,” with low rates on beer, wine, spirits, and cigarettes. On the other hand, Colorado’s smoking bans are among the most extreme in the country, with no exceptions or local option for any locations other than workplaces. Colorado is 1 of 12 states to have decriminalized low-level marijuana possession.

  • Oregon (#36 economic, #7 personal, #27 overall) is the freest Pacific state. Oddly, government spending is high but taxes are low, resulting in rather high state debt. Public safety and administration look particularly ripe for cutting. Gun control laws are

    about average. Marijuana possession is decriminalized below a certain level, and there is medical marijuana (cultivation and sale are felonies, though). Oregon is one of the few states to refuse to authorize sobriety checkpoints. Oregon is the only state to permit physician-assisted suicide. Private and home school regulations are quite reasonable. State land use planning is far advanced. The minimum wage is the highest in the country when adjusted for average wages.

    The study touts that it improves on prior attempts to score economic freedom for American states in three primary ways: (1) it includes measures of social and personal freedoms such as peaceable citizens’ rights to educate their own children, own and carry firearms, and be free from unreasonable search and seizure; (2) it includes far more variables, even on economic policies alone, than prior studies, and there are no missing data on any variable; and (3) it uses new, more accurate measurements of key variables, particularly state fiscal policies.

    “We develop and justify our ratings and aggregation procedure on explicitly normative criteria, defining individual freedom as the ability to dispose of one’s own life, liberty, and justly acquired property however one sees fit, so long as one does not coercively infringe on another individual’s ability to do the same,” note the authors.

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