Freedom in the 50 states

The Mercatus Center of George Mason University has released the study Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom by Professors William Ruger and Jason Soren. The study is available in PDF here. The data used to create the rankings are publicly available here.

The study claims to present the first-ever comprehensive ranking of the American states on their public policies affecting individual freedoms in the economic, social and personal spheres. The study develops an index of economic and personal freedom in each of the 50 states and examines state and local government intervention across a wide range of public policies, from income taxation to gun control, from homeschooling regulation to drug policy. The authors claim to have improved on previous studies in number, standardization and weighting of variables, as well as measurement issues.

With respect to drug policy, the study reflects a libertarian bent. The authors state: “Marijuana policies are a high-profile issue and are worth over a tenth of the Paternalism index.”

The authors find that the freest states in the country are New Hampshire, Colorado and South Dakota, which together achieve a virtual tie for first place. New York is the least free by a considerable margin, followed by New Jersey, Rhode Island, California and Maryland. “On personal freedom,” the authors conclude, Alaska is the clear winner, while Maryland brings up the rear.”

MInnesota rates poorly in the study, landing at places between 30 and 35 on each of the five rankings. Here is the study’s “state profile” of Minnesota:

On fiscal freedom Minnesota is actually about average, with the most striking flaw the dependence of local governments on higher-level governments for about half of their revenues. However, the state ends up 31st on economic freedom, 31st on personal freedom, and 35th overall. Some striking facts about Minnesota include the following: Wine is taxed quite heavily ($4.85 per gallon effective rate) but beer and spirits are not; the state still has blue laws for alcohol; low-level marijuana possession is decriminalized; the state lacks helmet laws and prohibits sobriety checkpoints but requires personal injury auto insurance coverage; labor laws are extensive; health insurance mandates are the most costly in the country; asset forfeiture does not require owner knowledge of criminal activity; and cigarette taxes are high.

One can quibble with this or that component of the index developed by the authors, or with the weights used to generate the rankings. Contrary to the authors, I think I would say, for example, that Minnesota’s laissez-faire attittude to marijuana use contributes to social disorder that impinges on the freedom of law-abiding citizens, pariticularly in the Twin Cities. But this is an impressive effort to cast light on an important subject.

Via Mark Steyn’s “Live free or die.”

UPDATE: Reader Gary Gosney writes regarding the study’s take on Colorado:

I found a couple of glaring errors for my home state of Colorado and wonder how many there might be for others. The report says that TABOR is currently suspended for Colorado. Not true at all. TABOR can only be suspended statewide through a constitutional amendment. Local governments have the option to opt out of TABOR, and some have, but it takes a majority vote of the citizens in that locale to do so. The Democrats in control of our legislature have attempted some “end runs” around TABOR with only one notable success. Property tax rates were frozen, effectively creating a tax increase without voter approval. The state supreme court upheld this, however, which is to be expected from a very liberal court.

The other error is that the report says Colorado has for profit casino gambling statewide. This is not true. Gambling casinos are allowed in only three cities – Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City. There is also a casino on an Indian reservation which is outside state rules.

I should have added that the study’s statutory policies and fiscal and arrest data purport to be current through 2006.

MORE: Reader Greg Sopkin writes regarding TABOR:

Actually, TABOR was suspended via vote in 2005 for five years. From CATO: “In the face of this manufactured fiscal crisis, state-spending advocates in Colorado were quick to blame TABOR. This led to the passage of Referendum C in 2005, which suspended TABOR’s revenue limit for five years. This has allowed the legislature to spend, rather than rebate, all revenues over the TABOR limit. As such, Colorado’s growing economy has not funded tax relief as it had in previous years, but big government.”

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