A Real Freedom Index

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Lovers of freedom know that Congressional Representative Ron Paul generally scores 100% in The New American’s semi-annual Freedom Index. This examination of the voting behavior of the Congress can be a useful tool, if one is focused on the federal level. And we should be — the monster state, incarnate in the Dismal City, has a thousand tentacles spread all over the fair land, clawing, digesting and growing fat from its suffocating subjects.

But if decentralization is a natural remedy for what we understand as American federalism, then there is another index we should know about. George Mason University has just published a new study "Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom." Two political scientists — William Ruger (now serving in Afghanistan) and Jason Sorens — have designed the first-ever comprehensive ranking of the American states on their public policies affecting individual freedoms in the economic, social, and personal spheres.

The authors looked at state and local government intervention across a wide range of public policies, from income taxation to gun control, from homeschooling regulation to drug policy. For each of the fifty states, rankings are determined in four categories: fiscal policy, regulatory policy, personal freedom, and "state paternalism." This last category is a new way of looking at economic and personal freedom (or lack thereof). It is the category perhaps least familiar to researchers, but most annoying to average citizens. Kudos to GMU’s Mercatus Center for supporting this mainstream conversation about economic freedom, and its nemesis, nanny-statism.

Because I live in Virginia, I wondered where the land of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison and George Mason ranked. I hope people across the country look at the report and see how free their state is, or isn’t.

In terms of regulatory policy Virginia ranks 17th. This category looked at regulations covering labor, health insurance mandates, occupational licensing, eminent domain, the tort system, land and environment, and utilities.

In terms of fiscal policy, Virginia ranks 14th. Fiscal policy included both spending and taxation categories, and looked at the percent of government employment in the state.

Virginia ranks 13th in economic freedom, the infamous "paternalism" category. Here, the authors examined state laws and policies impacting freedom to live our lives and do our business. Paternalistic policies given weight here included laws relating to gambling, smoking, freedom to use a cell phone while driving, and a host of other nuisance laws.

Virginia was ranked 9th in personal freedom, a category related to economic freedom but more closely linked to constitutional guarantees, such as freedom of speech and gun rights. This category — certainly a Virginia tradition from the very beginning — is the only one where the commonwealth performed in the top fifth.

The study compared regional data (the South and West is generally freer than the Northeast), and did some ideological correlation finding that the more a state leaned towards the modern Democratic Party, the lower it ranked in economic freedom (notwithstanding that five of the eight freest states have democratic governors). The study also takes a step towards exposing the great misunderstandings of freedom shared by both major parties, with the GOP supporting a crazy mishmash of deregulation and paternalism, and the Democratic Party schizophrenically promoting government growth while touting personal liberty.

The study is full of interesting data, available at www.statepolicyindex.com. The winners in freedom were New Hampshire, Colorado, South Dakota, Idaho, Texas, Missouri, Tennessee and Arizona. The most unfree and miserable states were Maryland, California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and dead last in freedom — you guessed it: New York.

Why should we care about freedom scores of the various states? I mean, can one ever really escape? The federal unified state is our permanent home, is it not? Consuming nearly half (44%) of the fifty states GDP, what freedom from the federal government can Americans really exercise, beyond a resigned groan or rebellious scream from the gallows?

We care because there is a little secret about freedom that the mainstream media, academia, and the political class don’t yet know. The secret is that freedom works, freedom produces and perhaps most importantly for a nation in need of fundamental change, freedom plays well with others.

By highlighting how freedom can be quantified, Freedom in the 50 States helps average people understand how liberty may be legalistically and legislatively encouraged at the state and local level. By daring to define idiotic and often unenforceable nuisance laws, regulations and restrictions as abominable state paternalism, the authors have helped pave critical linguistic ground for other mainstream researchers.

In the valiant day-to-day battle against maturing national socialism, in light of a looming economic headstone of the federal government’s own making, Americans need to both talk about freedom, to deeply think about what it means, where it may be found, and how we might work in all of our various capacities towards more freedom. The authors write, "…states enjoying more economic and personal freedom tend to attract substantially higher rates of internal net migration." While we don’t all need to move to New Hampshire, or flee New York, those lovely options exist, a testament to the core truth about where real power resides.

LRC columnist Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D. [send her mail], a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, has written on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for MilitaryWeek.com, hosted the call-in radio show American Forum, and blogs occasionally for Huffingtonpost.com and Liberty and Power. To receive automatic announcements of new articles, click here.

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