America’s Least Free States

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The gun control legislation that failed to make it through Congress earlier this week once again highlighted the ongoing debate in this country about the balance between individual freedoms and concerns over gun violence. Gun control is but one issue. Individual freedoms are many, from lifestyle choices to fiscal ones. And the question remains, how much should governments regulate and restrict these choices in the name of protecting and providing for the nation’s residents.

States may tax their population heavily, but also can be liberal about personal choices, like regulation on drugs, alcohol, tobacco and marriage equality. Based on the “Freedom in the 50 States” report, published by the George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, a libertarian-leaning think tank, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the states with least freedom.

Click here to see the least free states

The report breaks freedom into three distinct categories: personal freedom, fiscal freedom and regulatory freedom. According to the Mercatus Center, a free state has a government that is more socially liberal, has hands-off policies, spends less and levies less taxes on its residents.

While some states do better than others based on the Mercatus report, the states with the best overall scores for freedom are not necessarily protecting liberty across the board. While the top 10 states tend to score well in regulatory and fiscal policy, only two are in the top 10 for personal freedom. South Dakota, which has the second-highest overall freedom score, is the fifth worst in the country for personal freedom, which includes victimless crimes like drugs and prostitution, as well as religious freedom.

While the states with the worst overall freedom tend to score poorly across the board, there are also states that do well in some areas. Maine is eighth worst for fiscal freedom because of its high tax burden and government employment. However, it is also third best in the country for personal freedom, in part because of its marriage equality, education and drug enforcement laws.

Mercatus scholar and assistant professor of political science at University of New York at Buffalo, Jason Sorens, explained that this has a great deal to do with the political divide in this country. Sorens noted that left-leaning states tend to perform better in areas like marriage freedom, marijuana, victimless crimes, gambling and alcohol. These states also are likely to be tax-and-spend economies, with high expenditure on education, Medicaid and pensions, and higher tax burdens to pay for these costs.

At the same time, conservative states, which perform poorly in those areas in personal freedom, do well in gun freedom, education and tobacco laws. They also tend to operate more fiscally conservative, spending less on benefits and taxing less. “There aren’t any states that do really well across the board, that really break out of the left-right mold,” Sorens said.

One factor that has helped some of these states’ scores, particularly in the past few years, has been their ability to make it through the recession, Sorens explained. “Those states that have seen the biggest increases in their freedom score — North Dakota, Oklahoma and Idaho — usually it is low taxation that is driving these improvements.” Those states fared much better than most of the country during the recession.

To determine the least-free states in America, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed “Freedom in the 50 States,” published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a market-oriented university-based research center. The current publication provides information that is current for 2011. Current unemployment figures for February from the Bureau of Labor Statistics were also analyzed.