Monday, March 9, 2009

Freedom's pecking order -- how the states stack up

Think tanks have long ranked not just countries, but U.S. states, according to their economic freedom, and Reporters Without Borders grades nations on their respect for press freedom. Until recently, though, nobody has really tried to assess the attitude toward personal freedom prevailing at the state level, or to really get a handle on the best place to live in the United States for people who want the government to just leave them alone. A new report from George Mason University's Mercatus Center takes on that job, finishing the work started last summer by Reason magazine.

In Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom, William Ruger, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas State University, and Jason Sorens, an assistant professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, offer "the first-ever comprehensive ranking of the American states on their public policies affecting individual freedoms in the economic, social, and personal spheres." Ruger and Sorens very explicitly ground their understanding of freedom in a live-and-let-live understanding of the concept, in which people are able "to dispose of their lives, liberties, and property as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others."

In economic terms, that translates into assessments of burdensome regulations, high taxes, restrictive licensing laws, protection for property rights and the like.

Overall Freedom rankingsPersonal freedom scores depend on treatment of victimless activities such as gambling and prostitution, and restrictions on alcohol and tobacco. Asset forfeiture and violations of free-speech rights (campaign finance regulation) are also considered. Also included are policies toward marijuana, laws respecting same-sex relationships, gun control and regulation of education outside government schools.

Given the ideological divisions in this country, it's probably no surprise that states like New York, California and New Jersey come out poorly in the economic freedom rankings at 50, 48 and 46, respectively. Those states may even take pride that they failed the free-market test. But red-staters be warned: Alaska ranks at number 47 in terms of economic freedom.

When it comes to personal freedom, though, some familiar blue-state names reappear. New York ranks at 48 in this category, California at 37 and New Jersey at 45. Ouch.

Alaska gets the highest personal freedom ranking of all 50 states, creating a bit of a quandary for freedom-loving fans of the last frontier.

In terms of overall freedom, combining personal and economic considerations, the best scoring states are New Hampshire, Colorado and South Dakota.

New York ... well ... New York has really good restaurants.

As for New Jersey (number 49) ... There's still no good reason for living in the Garden State.

Last summer, Reason magazine published "What's the Matter With Chicago?," a treatment of the same issue, focusing on 35 cities instead of 50 states. The authors looked at each city's policies regarding sex, tobacco, alcohol, guns, movement, drugs, gambling and food/other to come up with their rankings.

According to Reason, Las Vegas ranked best in terms of personal freedom, while officials in Chicago are the most intrusive. According to the magazine, "The Windy City’s litany of meddlesome laws range from a tax on bottled water to a ban on serving alcohol at all-nude strip clubs. Local gun controls and a public smoking ban are among the most restrictive in the country. ... There’s a primary seat belt law, meaning motorists can be pulled over for not buckling up, and a ban on using cell phones while driving. The city is second only to New York in the use of surveillance cameras in public spaces and has more red light cameras than any metropolis in the country."

Sure enough, Illinois receives a mediocre ranking from Ruger and Sorens -- but so did Nevada. In part, that's a recognition that cities can be more or less liveable than the states in which they're located. But it's also a result of the somewhat subjective nature of ranking systems, which depend on categories included and excluded and the weights given each.

Ruger and Sorens admit that there's a subjective element to the weight they give each category. They make their data available online so that people can adjust their own rankings based on their own priorities. They also link to a site that is set up to adjust rankings using simple sliders, so have at it.

Before accusations fly that rankings like this are slanted to give the advantage to lefties or righties, let's read what Freedom in the 50 States has to say about the relative status of liberals and conservatives when it comes to respecting freedom:

[T]he relationship between ideology and personal freedom is flat, reflecting the propensity of liberal and conservative states to protect certain freedoms but not others. The relationship between liberalism and economic freedom is more strongly negative, and as a result the relationship between liberalism and overall freedom is modestly negative, but only among the most liberal states. In short, moderate states are no less or more free than conservative states, but liberal states do tend to be less free, particularly on economic issues.

Basically, neither of America's dominant political tribes has a lock on respect for liberty -- both tend to be selective about the freedoms they protect.

But if you're looking for a libertarian atmosphere of overall freedom, New Hampshire looks good. And the Wild West hasn't yet grown too mild.

Speaking of the West, Arizona, where my butt warms my sofa as I write, ranks 11 for economic freedom, 12 for personal freedom, and 8 overall. That's not too shabby.

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Blogger akaGaGa said...

This is a great report, JD, thanks for posting - but I'm not coming to Arizona. You have snakes and spiders and other crawly things.

Then again, I'm in New York, so what do I know?

March 9, 2009 2:51 PM  
Anonymous TJP said...

Liberty really isn't subjective. The legislature of any state rating below zero ought to be ashamed.

March 9, 2009 7:05 PM  
Blogger UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 3/10/2009, at The Unreligious Right

March 10, 2009 3:45 AM  
Anonymous Kirsten said...

I am quite amused by Arizona's ranking versus Montana's. Last April I moved to Montana from Arizona in large part because of the extreme police state that has been developing in southern Arizona over the years.

It will be interesting to dig into the mechanics of the ranking and see how Arizona came out as supposedly more free than Montana.

March 11, 2009 8:03 PM  

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