The United States of Freedom

Freedom in the 50 States, published by the Cato Institute, finds New Hampshire is the freest state, while New York ranks by far the least free in the nation.

Which state is the freest? Which state is the least? Which one has the most lightly taxed and regulated economy? Which states protect personal freedoms the best? The worst? How free is your state?

The newly published 2016 edition of Freedom in the 50 States is one of the most comprehensive and definitive sources on how public polices in each American state impact an individual’s economic, social, and personal freedoms. Study authors William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens have gathered data on more than 230 variables to measure freedom now and in the past.

“While the federal government has become more intrusive and inefficient over the last two decades, individual states are providing Americans with a little-recognized renaissance of policy innovation,” argue Ruger and Sorens. “If we want to save our freedom and restore good government, it is to the states that we must look and not to the federal government.”

Freedom in the 50 States examines state and local government intervention across a wide range of policy categories—from taxation to debt, from eminent domain laws to occupational licensing, and from drug policy to educational choice.

Between 2006 and year-end 2014, the latest available data, Ruger and Sorens find the average state has seen dramatic increases in economic freedom, after the effects of the federally mandated Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are parsed out. This has largely been the result of states cutting spending during the financial crisis, with some states going even further and cutting taxes simultaneously.

Conservative states tend to do better on economic freedom overall, although not always by a huge margin. On personal freedom, the results are less clear cut. Progressive states have done better on marriage freedom, cannabis laws, and incarceration. But conservative states gain points on personal freedom too when it comes to gun rights, educational freedom, and smoking on private property.

States that have lower freedom rankings tend to be less economically prosperous. They tend to have higher rates of corruption and more lobbyists seeking government rents. Lower labor-market and regulatory freedom typically discourages business investment and raises the cost of living, which then can scare off Americans from other states looking to relocate for work.

There is strong evidence that states with more freedom attract more residents. The authors find a solid relationship between a lighter fiscal impact of government and net immigration, though evidence also suggests that regulatory and personal freedom play a role in attracting residents. For example, New York, the least free state, suffered the second-worst net out-migration of any state, 7.5 percent of its 2001 population. Conversely, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina, who rank among the top 20 in overall fiscal policy, have drawn nearly four million residents from the rest of the country from 2001-2014.

The study grades all fifty U.S. states on three dimensions—fiscal policy, regulatory policy, and personal freedom.

The fiscal policy dimension consists of five variables: (a) state tax revenues, (b) local tax revenues, © government employment, (d) government subsidies, and (e) government debt, each of which earns a significant weight because of its importance. The tax and debt variables are measured for each fiscal year, whereas the employment and subsidies variables come from different sources and are available for the calendar year. The authors separate state and local taxation and assign different weights to each.

The regulatory policy dimension includes categories for land-use freedom and environmental policy, health insurance freedom, labor-market freedom, occupational freedom, lawsuit freedom, cable and telecommunications freedom, and miscellaneous regulations that do not fit under another category. 

The personal freedom versus paternalism dimension consists of the following categories: (a) incarceration and arrests for victimless crimes, (b) marriage freedom, © educational freedom, (d) gun rights, (e) alcohol freedom, (f) cannabis freedom, (g) gaming freedom, (h) asset forfeiture, (i) tobacco freedom, (j) travel freedom, (k) campaign finance freedom, and (l) other mala prohibita and miscellaneous civil liberties. Weighting these categories was a challenge because the observable financial impacts of these policies do not often include the full harms to victims.

In addition to the study being available as a free download, over 230 policy variables and their sources are available on a specially designed companion website that enables policymakers, concerned citizens, scholars, and others, to create customized indices of freedom, or download data for their own individual analyses.

Freedom in the 50 States is an essential work for anyone interested in state policy and in advancing a better understanding of a free society.

How free is your state? Dig into the data, then tweet what you find with #FreeStates.


Photo Gallery: The First 100 Days of the Bernie Sanders Presidential Campaign

By Arun Chaudhary, Digital Creative Director

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Research conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that immunization can have a powerful impact on economies from the global level down to the family level, and gives many more children the opportunity to reach their fifth birthday safe and sound.

Vaccines work.

Study: The Cost of the US Regulatory Burden is Larger than the GDP of Almost Every Country in the World

If there is one area of economic policy that we should focus on systemically reforming the most, it is not what is typically talked about in modern political discourse. Most conservatives tend to focus exclusively on welfare programs and fiscal policy, most liberals focus almost exclusively on fiscal policy and immigration, and most libertarians will focus on fiscal policy, drug policy, welfare, or monetary policy. Though all of those areas are important and desperately need reform, the conversation almost wholly ignores perhaps the most damaging economic policy out there: regulatory policy.

Of course, there are tons of public choice and political economy points that could be acknowledged to back up my assertion that regulatory policy should be the primary focus of reform. Problems of the logic of collective action, regulatory capture, the revolving door between regulators and their industries, administrative/ bureaucratic bloat, unconstitutional executive actions, and so on plague the way our current regulatory policy is made and enforced. However, there are two points that are often ignored when discussing regulation: first, that it is perhaps more politically possible than any of the other opportunities for economic reform and, second, the sheer size and scope of the problem.

In the first place, I think it is one of the more possible areas systemic reform that can be accomplished. The fact that monetary policy reforms are pretty much politically impossible is readily apparent. First, any systemic reform (such as the abolition of the Fed or even adopting a new policy rule) will be met with strong opposition both from the elite academics affiliated with the Fed and investors who are struggling with issues of regime uncertainty. Second, monetary policy simply isn’t on the radar of most of the American electorate as most voters are rationally ignorant of monetary policy (I doubt most typical voters even know what the term means) so forming a popular movement on it outside of niche circles like Ron Paul supporters is very difficult. Third, it is out of the influence of most of the political process so little can be done about it by political activists or elected representatives save a few small, meaningless actions like auditing the fed (which, for a variety of reasons, I’m opposed to any way). This means that the only people who can meaningfully do something about it are academics who can work with employees of the Fed like Scott Sumner or Larry White (who do a great job at this), but it’ll be a long, hard fight before anything meaningful is done in the realm of monetary policy.

The same could be said for fiscal policy. First, political winds are simply far against cutting spending significantly. Political gridlock in Washington has stopped a budget from being past even over small issues like Planned Parenthood funding, so major cuts to spending are out of the question. Even if we could get a conversation started among legislators about spending, all of them have their sacred cows that will not be touched—liberals have their social welfare programs and pork projects for their districts, conservatives have their military spending and pork projects for their district. The same for comprehensive tax reform for the same exact reasons, in addition to the fact that tax I would argue that welfare reform is also off the table; voters are all going to be opposed to cuts and such austerity measures will cause a similar backlash to what has happened in countries like Greece or Spain. Though immigration reform seemed possible two years ago, the rise of Donald Trump and ISIS has fed nativist populism—on both the right and the left (think Sanders and blue-collar, union-loving democrats)—and has rendered meaningful immigration reform pretty difficult to accomplish.

This is not to say anybody should give up on any of those issues, surely we should continue to advocate for real, meaningful reforms currently outside of the Overton Window in hopes that one day they’ll be politically possible. But if we’re asking what should libertarian policy wonks, think tanks, and political activists in the political realm focus on primarily in terms of getting systemic reform across, I don’t think that should be the central focus. There are opportunity costs to their efforts, and it would be more fruitful to focus with laser intensity on what is possible. I think the answer to this question is regulatory reform.

Though anyone schooled in public choice theory will immediately be skeptical of my view for very good reasons, I think systemic regulatory reform is more politically possible than people realize. First, the infrastructure in terms of activism is there on both the right and the left; Ralph Nader’s network has been working very hard with right-wing think tanks on some of these issues. Second, the political winds are in the right direction right now; both Bernie Sanders’ populism on income inequality and the right-wing skepticism towards big government can work together. There is little doubt that regulations notoriously exacerbate inequality and reduce social mobility, this is why even the Obama administration has called for reform in regards to occupational licensing laws. Third, since most regulations are done bureaucratically in the executive branch rather than legislatively, it is easier to lobby regulators for better policies with the political infrastructure built by the Kochs and the Naders of this world.

There are some caveats; obviously, the public choice opposition to sound reform in many areas by special interests will be a huge barrier to overcome. And in some areas of regulatory reform, like financial regulation and environmental regulation, the ideological difference between the right and left is simply too large to form an alliance and in others, such as telecommunications and internet, the political winds are simply blowing in the wrong direction. However, I’m more optimistic in serious systemic reform for issues like occupational licensing and interstate commerce than tax reform or immigration reform. I think libertarians would be better served primarily focusing their policy reforms and activist attention on issues like those.

Image courtesy of the Mercatus Center.

Second, it is extremely underappreciated how simply huge the economic burden of our regulatory regime is. When big numbers are thrown around in politics, typically it’s in regards to our national debt or welfare spending. Yet a new study by the Mercatus Center has pointed out that these numbers are as relevant to regulations as they are to fiscal policy. The study, authored by Patrick McLaughlin, Bentley Coffrey, and Pietro Parreto, applies endogenous growth theory to build an econometric model of how large the regulatory burden has been in the United States since 1980. The result? Regulatory accumulation has killed GDP growth by .8% annually in the last thirty-five years. Though that may not sound like much, that’s $4 trillion in lost economic growth—larger than the annual federal budget, and about $13,000 per American. If the United States’ regulatory burden were a country, it would have the fourth largest economy in the world.

Image courtesy of Patrick McLaughlin of the Mercatus Center.

If that’s not a policy area in need of systemic reform, I don’t know what is. Further, it is possible to address now–perhaps more so than other areas of systemic reform. However, it is mysteriously absent from the minds of many libertarians—activists and wonks alike—and entirely absent from popular political discourse this election. That needs to change.

Voltaire was a French writer, author, and philosopher during the Age of Enlightenment. He challenged traditional doctrines in favor of using one’s own reasoning.

For more on using one’s knowledge and reasoning:



ACEC are areas within existing public lands that require special management to protect important and relevant values. ACEC can protect important resources, unique scenic landscapes, and people and property from hazards on public lands. ACEC are evaluated through land use planning using the best available information and extensive public involvement, and you have a say in how they are managed.  

Here are 5 things you need to know about BLM’s planning process and ACEC:


Let’s try to make sure it’s not ours.

Study Warns that a “Perfect Storm” Convergence of Events May Exist

Earth Insight column by Nafeez Ahmed // at the Guardian
Friday 14 March 2014

In a tweet,  Nafeez Ahmed linked to this pre-publication draft of the paper in question:A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction” [PDF] — Safa Motesharrei (School of Public Policy, University of Maryland), Jorge Rivas (Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota), Eugenia Kalnay (Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Maryland) [dated November 13, 2012].  As of this post it’s available online.

A new study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Anyone familiar with Nafeez Ahmed’s books will not find it surprising that he is writing about this study …

Ahmed’s point is this:  If these two situations are the causes underlying many previous civilization-scale collapses, then the worst-case scenario (the conditions of the “perfect storm”) may already be here.

The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharri of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

Continue reading in The Guardian

Ahmed concludes by saying:

Although the study is largely theoretical, a number of other more empirically-focused studies have warned that the convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a 'perfect storm’ within about fifteen years. But these 'business as usual’ forecasts could be very conservative.

IMAGE  Perfect Storm // via ABC Net
IMAGE: Oil painting by Brian Marshburn, 2008.