BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Political scientists from the University at
Buffalo and Texas State University have presented the first-ever
comprehensive ranking of American states with regard to public
policies affecting individual freedoms in the economic, social and
Jason Sorens, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science at
UB, and William P. Ruger, Ph.D., assistant professor of political
science at Texas State, are the authors of "Freedom in the 50
States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom" (Mercatus Center
at George Mason University, 2009).
It finds that the freest states in the country are New
Hampshire, Colorado and South Dakota -- all in a virtual tie for
Sorens says, "All three of these states feature low taxes and
government spending, and middling levels of regulation and
paternalism. These were the criterion we weighted and used to
ascertain an overall freedom ranking."
The least free state by a considerable margin is New York, he
says, followed by New Jersey, Rhode Island, California and
"On personal freedom alone, Alaska is the clear winner," Sorens
says, "while Maryland brings up the rear."
Criteria for "economic freedom" include low taxes and government
spending as a percentage of the economy, low prevalence of
occupational licensing, strict rules preventing eminent domain
abuse and few regulations on health insurance and labor contracts,
among other policies.
States were given credit on "personal freedom" for
decriminalizing marijuana, having fewer gun controls, having fewer
regulations on home and private schools, permitting same-sex civil
unions, abolishing "blue laws" on alcohol sales and having less
restrictive rules on smoking on private property, among many other
Since Americans value all these freedoms differently, the
authors have made the data and the study available to the public on
their Web site, http://www.statepolicyindex.com,
allowing people to create their own personalized rankings of the
As for freedom in the different regions of the country, the
report finds that the Mountain and West North Central regions are
the freest overall, while the Middle Atlantic lags far behind on
both economic and personal freedom.
Sorens says, "Regression analysis demonstrates that states
enjoying more economic and personal freedom tend to attract
substantially higher rates of internal net migration. This result
holds up when we control for climate and cost of living."
He says, "The study improves on prior attempts to score economic
freedom for American states in three primary ways. First, it
includes measures of social and personal freedoms in addition to
the economic freedoms more often studied.
"Second, it includes far more variables, even on economic
policies alone, than prior studies, and there are no missing data
on any variable. Third, it uses new, more accurate measurements of
key variables, particularly state fiscal policies."
The three major categories and the items used to ascertain
rankings within those categories are as follows.
• Paternalism (Personal Freedom): Number and nature of
campaign finance regulations, education laws, marriage and civil
union laws, sundry mala prohibita, gambling laws, auto and road
regulations, alcohol regulation, tobacco regulation, arrests for
victimless crimes, arrests for forfeiture rules, marijuana laws and
gun control laws.
• Regulatory Policy: Extent of utility regulation, extent
of land-use regulation, the liability system, rules regarding
eminent domain, occupational licensing; health insurance
regulations and labor regulations.
• Fiscal Policy: Spending and taxation.
The Regulatory and Fiscal categories are summed to create an
Economic Freedom measure, and all three categories are summed to
create the Overall Freedom measure. Weighting the individual
variables has elements of both art and science, say the authors.
"Within these three concepts -- fiscal policy, regulatory policy
and paternalism -- the rule of thumb we used to weight particular
issues is the salience of the issue; that is, the substantive
importance of state policy variation and the number of people
affected by it," says Sorens.
"We use the existence of explicit constitutional protections at
either the federal or state level as prima facie evidence of high
salience. Our choices of weights may certainly be challenged, but
we tried a number of different weights vectors and found the
results to be quite robust."
The study is available online at http://www.statepolicyindex.com
and at http://www.mercatus.org.
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