From Fifth to Forty-Second?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Warner Todd Huston discusses a report that ranks personal freedom by state. Apparently, I will be moving myself from the fifth-freest state in the union to the forty-second later this month:

According to a new study released by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University, some of our most liberal states rank at the bottom in a measure of personal freedom. "Freedom in the 50 States, an index of personal and economic freedom," finds the most free states to be first New Hampshire, then Colorado, followed by S. Dakota, Idaho, Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, Arizona, Virginia and N. Dakota.The bottom ten least free states in the U.S. are (in descending order) Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, Hawaii, Maryland, California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and bringing up the bottom is New York.
Huston cites the excerpt about New York, the least-free state in the union according to the study, to give us a feel for what went into the rankings:
New York is by far the least free state in the Union (#50 economic, #48 personal). One of us lives in New York and can attest to the fact that few New Yorkers would be surprised by such a finding. Sadly, equally few New Yorkers seem to believe that anything can be done about the situation. New York has the highest taxes in the country. Property, selective sales, individual income, and corporate income taxes are particularly high. Spending on social services and “other” is well above national norms. Only Massachusetts has more government debt as a percentage of the economy. Government employment is higher than average. On personal freedoms, gun laws are extremely restrictive, but marijuana laws are better than average (while tobacco laws are extremely strict). Motorists are highly regulated, but several kinds of gambling are allowed statewide (not casinos, except on reservations). Home school regulations are burdensome, but asset forfeiture has been reformed. Along with Vermont, New York has the strictest health insurance community rating regulations. Mandated coverages are also very high. Eminent domain is totally unreformed. Perversely,the state strictly limits what grassroots PACs may give to candidates and parties, but not what corporations and unions may give.
On page 5 of the PDF, available at the link, the criteria for the rankings are made more explicit. In part:
We rank all fifty states on overall respect for individual freedom and on components of freedom: "Fiscal Policy," "Regulatory Policy," and "Paternalism." Our approach in this report is to weight policies according to the number of people affected by the policy, the intensity of preferences on the issue, and the importance of state policy variation. However, we happily concede that different people value aspects of freedom differently. Hence, we provide the raw data and weightings on our website...
It should come as no surprise that I learned of this study through a conservative-leaning web site, RealClear Politics or that Huston writes for a blog called The Next Right. Indeed, Huston even headlines his entry, "New Study: America's Most Liberal States Rank Least Free." At long last, the ailing conservative movement has something to crow about.

Or has it?

Having grown up in Mississippi and lived over half my life in Texas, I am all too familiar with the theocratic tendencies of some of the "redder" parts of the electoral map. Blue laws weren't off the books in my home town until just as I was leaving for college, nor did I ever see an entire commercial for wine until I'd left for college in Texas. Much later on, a friend in Texas who was considering a run for public office (and wanted to allow grocery stores in his city to sell wine) told me about the unbelievable pressure various local ministers were placing on him to forget about that part of his platform.

And then, of course, my adopted state has fairly recently passed sloppy, theocratically-motivated legislation that makes it possible to charge some physicians who perform abortions with murder and arguably bans marriage. And, oh yeah, a theocrat -- same link -- was talking about charging soon-to-wed couples a fee for not taking a marriage counseling course. This is the fifth-freest state in the union? This is Texas?

To be fair, Huston links to the study, which openly admits not weighing certain things, like abortion and capital punishment:
Our definition of freedom presents specific challenges on some high-profile issues. Abortion is a critical example. On one account, the fetus is a rights-bearing person, and abortion is therefore an aggressive violation of individual rights that ought to be punished by government. On another account, the fetus does not have rights, and abortion is a permissible exercise of an individual liberty, in which case government regulation of abortion would be an unjust violation of a woman’s rights. Rather than take a stand on one side or the other (or anywhere in between), we have coded the data on state abortion restrictions but have not included the policy in our overall index.

Another example is the death penalty. Some would argue that a murderer forfeits her own right to life, and therefore state execution of a murderer does not violate a basic right to life. Others contend that the right to life can never be forfeited or that the state should never risk taking away all the rights of innocent individuals by mistakenly executing them.
The authors of the study claim to view freedom in terms of individual rights, but they sidestep the issue of whether a fetus has rights. At least they admit doing so.

This does not make their work useless, but as an advocate of individual rights, I will not play into the hands of theocrats by uncritically spouting these rankings, nor will I sit idly by while religionists (and their "battered wife" secular allies) use them to sweep under the rug the vital, fundamental issue of what constitutes the basis for individual rights. If a fetus has rights, states that attempt to restrict abortion are more free. If not, then such states are less free. I think that the latter is the case, because fetuses are only potential human beings, not actual human beings.

So when conservatives start talking about how the "red states" are not just freer in economic terms, but in terms of personal freedom, remember the qualifications stated in this report. The odds are good that someone is pulling a fast one -- or being duped into helping someone else do the same.

-- CAV


C. August said...

Hi Gus,

You might be interested in (if you haven't already seen it) the Pacific Research Institute's report, the "U.S. Economic Freedom Index: 2008 Report." Eric Daniels is one of the authors. My link there is to the map, which shows that Texas is #31 and Massachusetts is #33, in _economic_ freedom.

The report doesn't get into "personal" freedom as expressed in the report you cited.

But as far as what the PRI report covers, here is a quote from Daniels, "We define economic freedom as the right of individuals to pursue their interests through voluntary exchange of private property under rule of law." And later, "Economic freedom and prosperity, happiness, development, and growth are maximized under a system of freedom, which means a system of capitalism."

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for mentioning that report and providing the link. At some point while writing this, I vaguely recalled it -- and then promptly forgot to mention it at all.

If I recall correctly, that report cited unfavorable trends in Texas, which had been freer before.


Rational Jenn said...

Did you notice that the lead author of this study is Jason Sorens? Isn't he the L(l)ibertarian Free State Project guy? Interesting.

Nice to see GA ranking pretty high up there, except Personal Freedom: GAH! Still with the Blue Laws! Although our homeschooling laws are fairly easy for me to live with....

I second C. August's recommendation of the PRI study. Hopefully, someone (not me!) will take the time to compare the two indices...

Gus Van Horn said...

Huh. While I'd heard of the Libertarian free state project, that name doesn't ring a bell to me -- but that would simply be due to the fact that I didn't pay attention when I'd heard about that project.

In any event, a quick Google indicates that your hunch is likely right.