The Ten States That Restrict Personal Freedom (And Those That Protect It)

June 17, 2011 by Douglas A. McIntyre

The debate about who is “free” in the United States is older than the Bill of Rights. Whether people are better off with laws designed to protect them but limit their freedom, or with very few laws, allowing them to fend for themselves, clouds the issue.

Consider helmet laws: people who don’t wear motorcycle helmets are probably more often seriously injured in accidents. Is the freedom to ride helmetless worth the increased risk? This is one simplified version of the debate surrounding almost all issues of liberty in the United States.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed the George Mason University’s biannual “Freedom in the 50 States” report authored by the school’s Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank. According to the report’s authors, they “explicitly ground [their] conception of freedom on an individual-rights framework. In [their] view, individuals should be allowed to dispose of their lives, liberties, and properties as they see fit, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.” As a result, a more “free” state in the study will have more liberal social policies and more conservative economic policies. The report considered “a wide range of public policies, from income taxation to gun control, from homeschooling regulation to drug policy.

The Freedom report ranks individual liberty of state residents based on three major categories: fiscal freedom, personal freedom, and regulatory freedom. Fiscal freedom involves issues including state taxes, government spending, and wages.  Regulatory freedom involves the impact that local laws have on personal economic choices and property, including labor regulation, mandatory health insurance, and eminent domain. Personal freedom involves individual choice, such as the right to drink, smoke and shoot guns.

One of recurring themes in the report is the issue of eminent domain. People who have their property seized by the state are worse off than those whose property cannot be. That is until, perhaps, they cannot travel easily from their property to some other point because the state could not build a road. The way that the Mercatus Center looks at this problem, people would be better off to own their land and build their own roads. That is a brilliant approach until it becomes clear that it is impractical. People may be better off without regulations for how their children should be educated, but these same people may not have the background to home school their children. They have freedom, but one which may cause their offspring to be poorly educated.

24/7 considered the ten states that the report lists as “most free” and those ten that are “least free.” We have used Mercatus Center analysis and definitions for what makes people free. Here is a list of the most and least free states, according to the Mercatus Center.

The States That Protect Personal Freedom

10. North Dakota

> Fiscal freedom: 0.170 (6th highest)
> Regulatory freedom: 0.118 (5th highest)
> Personal freedom: -0.063 (14th lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -3.1%

North Dakota’s strengths in liberty are largely for fiscal issues, although it also does well for personal freedom. The state has very low government spending, taxes, and debt. Additionally, the state has done particularly well  reforming its eminent domain system. North Dakota also has one of the least restrictive tort systems, which reduces businesses’ liability in civil actions, according to state business owners and managers. The state does not approach many social issues with the same concern for freedom, however. There is a high level of school regulation, both for private schools and homeschooling. North Dakota also has the highest rate of arrests for what the report refers to as “victim-less crimes” – those involving drugs, liquor, gambling, and prostitution – both as a percentage of the population and as a percentage of all arrests.

9. Virginia
> Fiscal freedom: 0.124 (13th highest)
> Regulatory freedom: 0.124 (4th highest)
> Personal freedom: 0.026 (22nd highest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): +2.4%

Virginia is, according to the George Mason study, the state with the most freedom in the southern U.S. Like most Southern states, most of this liberty comes in the form of economic and regulatory freedom, rather than personal freedom. Virginia has relatively low taxes, and low state government spending. It does, however, have one of the highest liquor tax rates in the country, which limits residents “freedom” to purchase it. In terms of personal freedom, the state does well in some areas, including having a low rate of arrest for victimless crimes. On the other hand, the state has one of the longest mandatory terms for school attendance – 13 years, which includes Kindergarten.

8. Oregon
> Fiscal freedom: 0.070 (18th highest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.036 (19th lowest)
> Personal freedom: 0.250 (highest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): +5.2%

Oregon has had the greatest increase in overall freedom since George Mason University’s 2007 “Freedom In The 50 States” report, increasing from the 22nd highest-ranked state to the eighth. It has improved its court system since that year, adopted same-sex civil unions, and decreased taxes from 9.7 percent of personal income to 8.8 percent. The state also currently has the highest score in the country for personal freedom. Marijuana possession has been decriminalized in many cases. The state has refused to enact sobriety checkpoints. It is one of just three states to allow physician-assisted suicides. The state’s greatest weakness is its high level of state government, which has contributed to significant state debt.

7. Colorado
> Fiscal freedom: 0.176 (5th highest)
> Regulatory freedom: 0.039 (25th highest)
> Personal freedom: 0.088 (8th highest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): +4.9%

Colorado receives high marks for personal and fiscal freedoms. Its tax system has one of the strongest examples of fiscal freedom of any state. In 1992, Colorado was one of the first to incorporate a taxpayer bill of rights, which requires all major tax hikes be voted on through referendum first. Colorado also relies less on state and federal funds than any other in the country, with more 45% of revenue coming from local sources. The state has decriminalized marijuana, but has one of the strictest public smoking policies in the U.S.

6. Nevada
> Fiscal freedom: 0.154 (9th highest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.035 (20th lowest)
> Personal freedom: 0.196 (3rd highest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): +1.9%

Nevada, which is widely perceived as a fairly libertarian-leaning state, is known for its relaxed gambling laws and locally-optional position on prostitution. Gun, alcohol, and marijuana laws are all better than average, according to the study. It also enacted same-sex civil unions in 2008. The state’s schooling regulations hurt its overall ranking, however. It has the strictest private school regulations in the country, with “mandatory state approval of all schools, mandatory state licensing of all teachers, and detailed curriculum control.” Nevada also has smoking bans in all restaurants and places of work, except for bars, and recently passed its own minimum wage on top of the federal requirement.

5. Missouri
> Fiscal freedom: 0.168 (8th highest)
> Regulatory freedom: 0.043 (24th highest)
> Personal freedom: 0.104 (6th highest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): +0.7%

Missouri’s personal freedom laws run the gamut between very paternalistic to almost entirely hands-off. The state has extremely harsh marijuana laws. However, “sin taxes” on alcohol and tobacco are some of the lowest in the country. The state still has laws which require union membership for certain jobs, and a “right-to-work” bill stalled in the senate in March. This would have have made it illegal to make union membership a prerequisite for employment, which would improve its score.

4. Idaho
> Fiscal freedom: 0.168 (7th highest)
> Regulatory freedom: 0.087 (13th highest)
> Personal freedom: 0.088 (9th highest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): +8.6%

Idaho has the second lowest state debt compared to its population size in the country behind only Wyoming. This is due to a the balance its leaders have struck between spending and taxes, both of which are lower than average. It also has a highly limited requirements for mandatory public education. The state only requires nine years of schooling for students and has zero regulations for both private schools and homeschooling, aside from curriculum requirements. The state also has among the most relaxed gun laws in the country. Individual income taxes are relatively high in Idaho, as are taxes on alcohol. Marijuana laws are relatively strict.

3. Indiana
> Fiscal freedom: 0.011 (24th highest)
> Regulatory freedom: 0.165 (highest)
> Personal freedom: 0.169 (4th highest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): +0.4%

Indiana has, according to the Mercatus report, the highest level of regulatory freedom in the U.S. The state has completely deregulated cable, natural gas, and the telecom industry. Indiana has relatively light campaign finance laws. It also has a mostly hands-off policy on the regulation of private and public schools.

2. South Dakota
> Fiscal freedom: 0.355 (highest)
> Regulatory freedom: 0.114 (7th highest)
> Personal freedom: -0.055 (17th lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): 0.9%

South Dakota has the second-highest level of overall freedom in the country. This is due largely to its economic policies. Taxes are low, with citizens currently paying approximately 7.6 percent of their income in state and local taxes each year. This is the third lowest rate in the nation, according to The Tax Foundation. The national average is 9.8 percent. Spending is also extremely low, as the state must balance its budget each year. The study describes South Dakota’s labor and health insurance laws as “generally very good,” and the state’s liability system as “among the best.” However, marijuana laws are strict, cigarette taxes are high, and the state’s rate of arrests for victimless crimes is significantly above the average. Additionally, while some forms of gambling are legal, social gambling and online gambling are not.

1. New Hampshire
> Fiscal freedom: 0.299 (2nd highest)
> Regulatory freedom: 0.058 (18th highest)
> Personal freedom: 0.084 (11th highest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): +2.8%

It is more than appropriate that the state whose motto is “Live Free or Die” has more pro-freedom policies than any other. The state is strong in avoiding much of the paternalism that others do not. In 2009, it became the sixth state to approve same-sex marriages. It also has very relaxed gun policies. It is the fiscal policies of New Hampshire that earn it the most points from a libertarian perspective. The state has no taxes on wine and spirits. It is also the only remaining state in the country which has no seat belt law. In 2006, voters passed laws which limited eminent domain, limiting when the government can seize personal property.

The Ten States That Restrict Personal Freedom

10. Illinois
> Fiscal freedom: -0.002 (25th lowest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.005 (24th lowest)
> Personal freedom: -0.193 (2nd lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -5.1%

At the number ten slot on the Mercatus list for the least free states, Illinois actually performs around average in fiscal and regulatory freedom, including taxes and excessive spending. Its overall score is dragged down severely by personal freedom, where it ranks the second worst in the country. According to the Mercatus report. “In 2008, more than 2 percent of the state’s population was arrested for a victimless crime.” Victimless crimes include things like drug possession and prostitution. Until a recent court case overturned the measure, it was legal in the state for local governments to ban handgun possession.

9. Ohio
> Fiscal freedom: -0.063 (14th lowest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.046 (18th lowest)
> Personal freedom: -0.105 (9th lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -3.2%

Although Ohio’s state debt is below average, spending and taxation are both exceptionally high. This is especially true for spending in the areas of administration, education, and social service. Most gambling is illegal, there are widespread bans on smoking, and cigarette taxes are high. Additionally, students that are home schooled face an above average amount of regulation. Beer and wine taxes are relatively low. The state also does not mandate many of the things other states do, including motorcycle helmets.

8. Maryland
> Fiscal freedom: 0.124 (11th highest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.119 (7th lowest)
> Personal freedom: -0.273 (lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -1.8%

Maryland has one of the highest rates of fiscal freedom in the country because of low taxes and government spending. However, the state ranks the absolute worst in the U.S. in terms of personal freedom. The Old Line State has – according to the Mercatus Report – “ the second-strictest gun laws in the country, fairly harsh marijuana laws … tight gambling laws, a law allowing police to take DNA from certain felony arrestees, burdensome homeschooling laws (curricula must be approved by the government), high drug-arrest rates, and lack of same-sex partnerships.”

7. Alaska
> Fiscal freedom: -0.434 (2nd lowest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.006 (22nd)
> Personal freedom: 0.140 (5th highest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -1.4%

Despite being ranked as the seventh-least free state in the nation, Alaskans have the fifth-greatest amount of personal freedom. The state has legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana along with same-sex domestic partnerships.  It has the most relaxed gun laws in the country, and has among the least restrictive homeschooling laws in the country. Alaska is extremely involved in the state’s economy, however. Over a quarter of the state’s workforce are state or employed by teh state or local government. Also, according to the study, the state has “the highest debt and government spending to personal income ratios in the country.” Alaska also has extensive labor laws and has done a poor job of reforming eminent domain.

6. Rhode Island
> Fiscal freedom: -0.067 (13th lowest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.173 (5th lowest)
> Personal freedom: -0.143 (5th lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -4.2%

Rhode Island has high taxes, although alcohol excise taxes are quite low. It is also one of the worst states in terms of high levels of spending and debt, and therefore performs poorly overall in the fiscal freedom category. Worse still for its rank, the state has one of the most paternalistic systems of policies in the country. The state has harsh penalties for drug offenses and strict regulation of public and private schools.

5. Massachusetts
> Fiscal freedom: -0.023 (23rd lowest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.222 (2nd lowest)
> Personal freedom: -0.147 (4th lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -4.3%

Taxes in Massachusetts are about average and the state employs a relatively small number of people. The Bay State has such a low economic ranking due to its high debt, which equal a quarter of all residents’ annual personal income. It is perhaps more surprising that the state, which is usually considered to be very socially liberal, has such a low score regarding personal freedom. The state has extremely strict gun control laws, helmet laws for bicycles and motorcycles, auto-insurance mandates, restrictive home school and private school laws, high cigarette taxes, indoor smoking bans, a complete ban on fireworks, and restrictive gambling laws. Massachusetts’ ranking has also decreased since 2007 due to the implementation of “Romneycare” health care reform. The state receives points for decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing same-sex marriage.

4. Hawaii
> Fiscal freedom: -0.205 (3rd lowest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.117 (8th lowest)
> Personal freedom: -0.123 (8th lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -2.7%

Hawaii has the most centralized – and therefore controlled – school system in the country. The state department of education effectively runs every public and charter school on the islands. The state has extremely restrictive gambling laws, second only to Utah. The state also has a great deal of strict policies on labor and wages, with mandatory worker’s insurance. Hawaii also has some of the most severe gun control laws in the U.S.

3. California
> Fiscal freedom: -0.198 (4th lowest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.184 (4th lowest)
> Personal freedom: -0.105 (10th lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -4.4%

According to the George Mason University Study, California “simply needs to cut government spending.” The areas in which spending are the most above national averages are administration, social services, environment, and housing. The state features a number of labor laws, notably the state’s requirement of short-term disability insurance. The state also infringes on a number of personal freedoms, despite its liberal positions on marijuana and legalization of same-sex partnerships. California has the most restrictive gun control laws in the country, has lead the battle in smoking bans, and has a number of policies which target motorists, such as widespread sobriety checkpoints.

2. New Jersey
> Fiscal freedom: -0.129 (7th lowest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.239 (lowest)
> Personal freedom: -0.137 (6th lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -5.5%

New Jersey scores poorly across all areas of freedom measured in the Mercatus report. It has one of the worst scores in the country in terms of regulatory freedom. According to the report: “Gun control is extensive and worsening. Marijuana laws are subpar, although a medical-marijuana law was enacted in 2010.” New Jersey also enforces seat belt laws, motorcycle and bicycle helmet laws, a cell-phone driving ban, an open-container law, sobriety checkpoints, and “mandatory under-insured-motorist and personal-injury coverage for drivers.” The state also has the highest property tax rate in the country.

1. New York
> Fiscal freedom: -0.471 (lowest)
> Regulatory freedom: -0.90 (11th lowest)
> Personal freedom: -0.191 (3rd lowest)
> Net Migration (2000-2009): -8.9%

New York is the least free state in the country.  According to the report, this is because it has the lowest rated economic freedom and the third lowest rated personal freedom in the country. The state has the highest taxes in the nation, with above average property, selective sales, individual income, and corporate income tax rates. Government spending on “public welfare, hospitals, electric power, transit, and employee retirement” is all well above the national averages. The state also has the second greatest debt as a percentage of the state’s economy in the country, behind only Alaska. The state is not much better when it comes to personal liberty. New York has among the strictest gun laws in the country, motorists are highly regulated, home schools are highly regulated, and cigarette taxes are the highest in the country — currently $4.35 a pack. Eminent domain “abuse is rampant and unchecked,” such as last year’s case involving the expansion of Columbia University and the Atlantic Yards program in Brooklyn.

Douglas A. McIntyre, Charles B. Stockdale, Michael B. Sauter