New Hampshire Is the State with Most Individual Freedom; New York Offers the Least

Lots of economic, social, personal liberty in South Dakota and Colorado, too; much less in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland and California

Release Date: March 6, 2009 This content is archived.


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 personal spheres.

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 first place.

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 Maryland.

"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 criteria.

Since Americans value all these freedoms differently, the authors have made the data and the study available to the public on their Web site,, allowing people to create their own personalized rankings of the states.

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 and at

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