How free is your state?

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University undertook a study of personal liberty in each of the 50 states, based explicitly on “an individual-rights framework.”  First started in 2009, Mercatus has fine-tuned the study to include more policy variables — and that’s bad news for Massachusetts.  Thanks to the health-insurance mandate as well as a number of other restrictive measures, the Bay State has fallen to 46th among the states for freedom:


The Bay State ranks near the bottom of a new “Freedom in the 50 States” study, which found the health-care law, gun laws, taxes and a string of other “nanny state” rules on smoking, seat belts, transfats and firecrackers makes Massachusetts one of the least free states in the nation.

New Hampshire, the commonwealth’s “Live Free or Die” rival to the north, ranked first in freedom, in the study by the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Massachusetts trailed at 46th.

“The big takeaway is that Massachusetts is not doing well overall in terms of freedom,” said study co-author William Ruger, despite the state’s laissez faire attitude toward gay marriage and pot. “There’s this kind of stereotype or myth that the deep blue states are more economically restrictive but more personally free. But the data doesn’t actually bear that out . . . Liberals tend to want to constrain your freedom in all areas.”

Really?  Well, let’s take a look at the bottom 5 states to test that theory:

  • 50th: New York
  • 49th: New Jersey
  • 48th: California
  • 47th: Hawaii
  • 46th: Massachusetts

Yes, these all seem to fit that profile, don’t they?   The only real surprise in the bottom 10 is Alaska, usually seen from the lower 48 as home to a more libertarian spirit.  The study marks Alaska low mainly for its fiscal policy:

Alaska’s big problem is fiscal policy. Over a quarter of the state’s workforce is employed by state or local government, and that figure does not include federal employees. Alaska has the highest debt and government spending to personal income ratios in the country. However, Alaska does extremely well on personal freedom, scoring fifth on our ranking. Reasons for its score include fully legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana (accomplished through a court ruling), the least-restrictive gun laws in the country, strong asset-forfeiture protections, recognition of same-sex domestic partnerships, and possibly the best homeschooling laws in the country. On economic regulation, Alaska does poorly on labor law, occupational licensing, and eminent-domain reform but relatively well on health-insurance regulation.


As for Massachusetts, it’s exactly what you think:

Massachusetts has a reputation as a liberal state par excellence, and therefore it might be surprising to discover that the state ranks higher on economic than personal freedom. The state has fallen significantly since 2007, due in part to the notorious Romneycare health-insurance reform. Tax rates remain about average, and the government payroll is remarkably small. The biggest fiscal problem for Massachusetts is debt, which equals more than a quarter of personal income. Meanwhile, on personal freedoms the state has highly restrictive gun laws, bicycle- and motorcycle-helmet laws, personal injury and uninsured motorist auto-insurance mandates, fairly restrictive gambling laws, a total fireworks ban, extremely strict private- and homeschool requirements, terrible asset-forfeiture rules, extremely strict campaign-finance laws, high cigarette taxes, and a total statewide smoking ban. On the positive side, the state did decriminalize marijuana possession in 2008. Same-sex marriage remains in place. Labor laws are subpar, except on workers’ compensation funding (self-insurance is allowed).

How about my state of Minnesota?  We came in at #34, which is still 14 places above the state I left to move here (California):

Minnesota’s taxes and spending are somewhat higher than average, although debt and government employment are not. Social services spending and individual income taxes stand out as particularly high. Some striking facts about Minnesota include the following: 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 and underinsured motorist auto insurance coverage, health insurance coverage mandates are the third most costly in the country, occupational licensing is the second worst in the country, asset forfeiture puts the burden of proof on the owner, and cigarette taxes are high. The state has improved by allowing its minimum wage to lapse to the federal standard.


On the latter point, I believe that the state did that only after Congress raised the minimum wage in 2007 — just before the economy tanked.

So which state in the union is the most free?  Why, it’s the one with “Live Free or Die” as its motto.  New Hampshire gets to #1, but that’s not to say it’s perfect:

New Hampshire is, by our count, the freest state in the country. Depending on weights, however, it really shares the slot with South Dakota. New Hampshire does much better on economic than personal freedom and on fiscal than regulatory policy. Under unified Democratic control in 2007–2008, the state saw a respectable increase in freedom. A smoking ban was enacted, but so were same-sex civil unions. Taxes, spending, and fiscal decentralization remain more than a standard deviation better than average, and government debt actually went down slightly. Gun laws are among the most liberal in the country, but carrying a firearm in a car requires a concealedcarry permit. Effective retail-tax rates on wine and spirits are zero. Marijuana laws are middling; lowlevel possession could be decriminalized like it is in Maine, while low-level cultivation could be made a misdemeanor like it is in both Maine and Vermont. New Hampshire is the only state in the country with no seatbelt law for adults. It lacks a motorcyclehelmet law but does have a bicycle-helmet law and authorizes sobriety checkpoints. State approval is required to open a private school. Homeschool laws are slightly worse than average; standardized testing and recordkeeping requirements are stricter than those in most states. Eminent-domain reforms have gone far. The state’s liability system is one of the best, but campaign-finance regulations are quite strict. The drug law-enforcement rate is low and dropping, while arrests for other victimless crimes are high and dropping. Asset-forfeiture law is definitely subpar, with potential for abuse.


Assuming that every governor rumored to be thinking of a run for the GOP presidential nomination gets into the race, which one would get the individual-liberty nod based on this study?  Palin’s Alaska comes in at 44th, while Tim Pawlenty’s Minnesota gets 10 places above that.  Chrsi Christie’s New Jersey is second-to-last, which means we need Christie to do some work there rather than on the national stage.  Jon Huntsman’s Utah is above average at 20th, but Rick Perry’s Texas wins the prize at 14th.  However, Mitch Daniels’ Indiana wins the bronze medal at #3, which might have impressed primary voters had he thrown his hat into the ring.

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Ed Morrissey 4:41 PM on September 29, 2023