The Nation's Pulse

Freedom Lives

A state by state analysis.

By 3.17.09

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John Locke said: "The end of law is not to abolish or restrain but to preserve and enlarge freedom." According to a new report compiled by two Political Science scholars and published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University -- "Freedom in the 50 States" -- some states understand this better than others.

The paper is the "first-ever comprehensive ranking of the American states on their public policies affecting individual freedoms in the social, economic and personal spheres." The scholars approached their research with the philosophy that a person should have the right to do what he wants, so long as his actions don't infringe on someone else. Specifically, the study covers fiscal policy; taxation and spending issues; regulatory policy, such as tort system, health insurance mandates and the like; and paternalism which covers alcohol regulation and gun control to marriage and civil union laws.

The rankings of some states come as no surprise. States like Idaho and Indiana rank high in economic and personal freedom. Southern states like South Carolina and Georgia rank lower in personal freedom than Midwestern states. Other states like Maryland, Rhode Island, and New Jersey rank lower in all categories. Not surprisingly, New York ranks as the "least free" state in the nation.

While it seems obvious California would rank where it did in terms of economic policies (44th) the study said it also "aggressively interferes in the personal lives of its citizens," ranking 47th in overall freedom. (Perhaps Hollywood elites should jump on that bandwagon and do some good with their millions.) Alaska came in number one on personal freedom but 47th in economic freedom. Michigan of all places, had the least amount of regulatory policies in the country. Maine ranks second best on personal freedom, but comes in second worst on economic freedom. These states seem to contradict their reputation.

The temptation is to assume states and their rankings complement their political leanings: All blue states will rank low in personal and economic freedoms and red states, the opposite. For many states, this doesn't appear to be the case and raises some interesting questions about where politics -- a free sport -- comes into play with the numbers game of economics.

Conservatives, for example, were at Colorado's political helm for many years and could take credit for its ranking as the second most free in the country. Using this logic, it would make sense that Colorado is freer than Maryland or New York, states overrun with Democrat legislatures and governors. While it's true Colorado is more free than those two East Coast states, the study seems to contradict that a political party dictates its "free-ness." Continuing towards the Midwest, the report says: "Despite frequently electing politicians who do not seem very interested in preserving freedom, Iowa's policies are fairly freedom friendly." Massachusetts is home to John Kerry and Ted Kennedy but ranks higher on economic freedom than personal freedom. Missouri, a state rife with political scandals, ranks higher on personal and economic freedoms than one would think.

Still, there are explanations for this perceived dichotomy. The scholars did not take into account some tricky issues like abortion, citing the obvious challenge for true libertarians to decide who has the rights -- the mother or the fetus. They also believe some states have come to restrict freedom because they have been "responding more to interest group pressures and politicians' self-interest than to citizens' most strongly held preferences."

The scholars explain some of this with a graph that shows the relationship between the percentage a state voted for John Kerry in 2004 and its scores on economic, personal, and overall 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 […] 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." A liberal state might on one hand be willing to legalize medical marijuana, which would make it freer personally, but it would have a more restrictive tax code, which would make it less free economically. A more conservative state might ban medical marijuana but would tax citizens less so they are more free economically and overall, but less free personally.

If you're looking to move and wondering which state might best accommodate your lifestyle choices, this study could be a good starting point. But beware, if you want to live in the freest of the free, you'll have company. The study concluded Americans "are attracted to freedom for its own sake, not just for the economic benefits." However, if you're stuck for a while and reading this from your laptop on a beach in California, don't despair: Not only have you got the surf, you've still got more freedom than your neighbors around the world. "Even New York provides a much freer environment for the individual than the majority of countries. There are no Burmas or Zimbabwes among the American states."

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About the Author

Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.