What's the Matter With Chicago?

and Seattle and New York and Boston...?


On May 15, 2008, a goose graced the right side of the Chicago Sun-Times' front page, poking its beak into the paper's masthead over the headline "Back on the Menu." The day before, the Chicago Board of Aldermen had, by a vote of 37 to 6, repealed the city's notorious foie gras ban, a 2006 animal rights–inspired ordinance that came to symbolize the City of Broad Shoulders' remarkable transformation into the country's biggest wet nurse of a metropolis.

Legalizing goose liver pâté was a rare moment of good news and sanity in an odious national trend that Chicago has been setting for the rest of the nation. From New York to Los Angeles, from the People's Republic of Cambridge to the west Texas town of El Paso, city governments are using and abusing their authority to tell the rest of us how to live. Two decades of healthy economies and dropping crime rates have given many city councils the luxury of worrying about less urgent issues, from the last wisps of secondhand smoke to the discomfort of fatted geese. So even while self-styled progressives in Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston take a more relaxed approach to sex and pot, they've adopted increasingly restrictive laws regarding alcohol, tobacco, and junk food. It may be easier to smoke a joint today than it was 20 years ago (except in New York City—see below), but it's getting much more difficult to enjoy a legal cigarette.

Public health measures tend to be less harsh than criminal laws: Drug bans are enforced by scary SWAT teams, trans fat bans by geeky health inspectors. But Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi, author of The Nanny State (and of our entry below for Denver), argues that public health measures may be more successful at limiting individual choice, because they target suppliers. "Public-health nannyism is more pernicious," he says. "Neither brand of nannyism can truly be enforced—a market is a market, after all. But when government deputizes owners to enforce laws, it streamlines the process. It unfairly punishes business owners for the actions of individuals. Even worse, it's corrosive to other liberties, including property rights and freedom of association."

To find the best and worst cities for exercising personal freedom, reason ranked the 35 most populous municipalities in the United States in eight areas: alcohol, tobacco, sex, guns, gambling, drugs, freedom of movement, and a catch-all category of food and "other." Within each category, we looked at criteria ranging from helmet laws to restrictions on alcohol sales to how aggressively police target recreational activities such as drug use, prostitution, and gambling. (We used proxies for the last category—figuring, for example, that a high number of prostitutes advertising openly on Craigslist suggests lax enforcement in that area.) The higher a city's score, the more restrictive it is. The rankings are presented from worst to best. After each city's entry, we've included how that city stacked up against the other 34 in each of the eight major categories.


Chicago wins the booby prize for most meddlesome metropolis by a wide margin. After more than a century of Big Apple envy, the Second City now has the honor of finally beating New York in at least one contest.

Chicago finished in the bottom half of all eight categories. The Windy City's litany of meddlesome laws range from a tax on bottled water to a ban on serving alcohol at all-nude strip clubs. Local gun controls and a public smoking ban are among the most restrictive in the country. (That smoky Chicago blues joint of yore is now just a movie cliché.) There's a primary seat belt law, meaning motorists can be pulled over for not buckling up, and a ban on using cell phones while driving. The city is second only to New York in the use of surveillance cameras in public spaces and has more red light cameras than any metropolis in the country.

Shortly after taking office in 1989, Mayor Richard Daley blew the dust off an ancient ordinance allowing individual city precincts to vote themselves dry. Today, nearly one quarter of Chicago's precincts are alcohol-free; the number of Chicago taverns has dropped from some 7,000 in the late 1940s to just over 1,300 today.

The place Carl Sandburg once praised for being "stormy, husky, brawling" and "a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities" has gone soft, even soggy, like the last bites of a chili-and-cheese-soaked sausage dog. "That reputation is long gone," says Doug Sohn, owner of Hot Dougs, the city's locally famous purveyor of encased meats. Sohn has the distinction of being the only restaurateur in Chicago to be fined for violating the foie gras ban—a citation that may have had something to do with his decision to name a duck meat and foie gras sausage sandwich after Alderman Joe Moore, the sponsor of the goose liver prohibition.

But the repeal of the foie gras ban doesn't herald a freer future. The same week Chicago reversed the ban, the Board of Aldermen considered a law that would require all pet owners to sterilize their dogs and cats, an overreaction to a pit bull attack on a woman one month earlier. And after a year in which the city's notoriously rough-around-the-edges police department endured a series of high-profile shootings, beatings, and allegations of corruption, the city council addressed these problems by considering a bill that would…give overweight cops a nutritionist and personal trainer.

Sohn says this is typical of the way the Aldermen operate. "The board thinks, 'This is our job; we pass laws,'" he says. "The trans fat ban, the smoking ban—these are easy problems to look like you're solving. It's easy, it's elitist, it's black and white. People don't like smoking, so let's ban it. Chicago is the fattest city in the country, so let's attack McDonald's with a trans fat ban. The knee-jerk stuff is a good way to look like you're leading. It's much more difficult to fix something like the broken sewer and street systems—why we have so many potholes."

While the aldermen are fond of legislating health, the city is also subject to laws passed by the more conservative Illinois legislature. Chicago gets moral prudery and public health fanaticism—the worst of both worlds.

But personal freedom hasn't totally suffocated. "There are black and gray markets in Chicago for all of these categories," says Dan Miller of the free market Heartland Institute. "These are funny sorts of restrictions. For every prohibition you've named, there are ways around them. Everyone knew where to get foie gras when it was banned. You can find poker and dice games all over the city. The newspapers are filled with ads for escort services. Just don't flout the laws openly, and you're going to be fine."

Radley Balko

Sex: 23 Tobacco: 34 Alcohol: 27 Guns: 33

Movement: 26 Drugs: 19 Gambling: 24 Food/Other: 28


Seattle has always had an identity conflict. Gay bathhouses are allowed, street protests are legendary, and marijuana is, by voter initiative, the police department's lowest enforcement priority. Each summer a two-day event called Hempfest draws some 150,000 people who openly smoke weed in a city park with the blessings of the cops and the local government, which regards the festival as protected speech.

Yet Seattle has long had an unhealthy strain of nannyism as well. Washington was one of the first states to prohibit alcohol in the last century, and the city's restrictions on strip clubs and card rooms are legendary. In the last five years, the nanny impulse has gone into hyperdrive.

In 2003 Seattle banned sales of high-alcohol beers and fortified wines in a part of town popular with the homeless and street drunks. Three years later, a city report found that the ban hadn't reduced petty crime and street drinking. Yet Mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle City Council slammed through another ordinance expanding the so-called "alcohol impact area" to several other neighborhoods. It's a measure of just how contradictory paternalism gets in Seattle that you can still walk into a bar in these neighborhoods and buy locally crafted microbrews with even higher alcohol content, albeit at a much steeper price than a 40-ouncer.

In 2005 a state ballot initiative banned smoking in all public places. Unlike similar prohibitions in other cities, there are no exemptions for tobacco stores, cigar bars, or private clubs. As if that weren't enough, the Washington State Clean Indoor Air Act bans smoking within 25 feet of the doors, windows (closed or open), and ventilation systems of any public building. In parts of Seattle, smokers literally have to stand in the middle of the street to comply with the law.

Ironically, many Seattleites who smoke pot voted for the smoking ban. Perhaps they didn't look too closely at the language of the law, which prohibits "smoking," not tobacco.

The city's deep embrace of environmentalism and "sustainability" rhetoric also has a nanny odor to it. This year, for example, Mayor Nickels pushed the state legislature to enact an excise tax on cars based on their fuel efficiency. (For a change, the idea met with a significant public backlash and died.) But one enviro law did expand local freedom a bit. City Council Member Richard Conlin last year proposed that the city license pygmy goats as pets, partly so that residents can process their yard waste in a more eco-friendly manner. The proposal became law by a unanimous vote.

Philip Dawdy

Sex: 9 Tobacco: 35 Alcohol: 35 Guns: 21

Movement: 30 Drugs: 4 Gambling: 20 Food/Other: 32


New York competes with Chicago as a trailblazer for bad new ideas, whether it's the 2003 ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, the 2006 decision to create and maintain an active, involuntary database of the blood sugar levels on every resident diabetic, the 2007 ban on trans fats in restaurant cooking oil, or the 2008 rule that fast food chains must show calorie content on their menus. New Yorkers pay higher cigarette taxes than anyone else in the country, $4.64 per pack in combined city, state, and federal excise taxes as of June. The city has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, requiring official permission for possession of any firearm and reserving handgun carry permits for the well-connected.

Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani alike have empowered the enormous local police force to issue arrest citations and fines to citizens guilty of trivial offenses such as sitting improperly on a milk crate. Worst of all may be the city's decades-long crackdown on marijuana, at a time when other municipalities from coast to coast are decriminalizing or de-emphasizing enforcement of laws against pot possession. "From 1997 to 2006," sociologist Harry Levine and drug policy activist Deborah Small note in an April New York Civil Liberties Union report, "the New York City Police Department arrested and jailed more than 353,000 people simply for possessing small amounts of marijuana. This was eleven times more marijuana arrests than in the previous decade."

Matt Welch

Sex: 6 Tobacco: 31 Alcohol: 17 Guns: 26

Movement: 28 Drugs: 19 Gambling: 13 Food/Other: 34


San Diego combines the progressive paternalism of more liberal California cities with a more strict social conservatism on drugs, sex, and even gambling. (With its recent proliferation of Indian casinos and card clubs, California has more access to gambling than any state except neighboring Nevada.) Worst of all, San Diego recently joined an unfortunate statewide trend by banning alcohol on public beaches under all circumstances.


Sex: 23 Tobacco: 24 Alcohol: 15 Guns: 29

Movement: 32 Drugs: 15 Gambling: 7 Food/Other: 29


This constricting, buzz-killing mix of nanny-state liberalism and Puritan morality ranked near the bottom in most categories. Boston's one good number, for gambling freedom, is due mostly to the city's proximity to casinos in neighboring states. Last spring it outlawed trans fats in restaurants and bottle service in bars.


Sex: 13 Tobacco: 28 Alcohol: 29 Guns: 28

Movement: 24 Drugs: 17 Gambling: 9 Food/Other: 25


In the bottom five for drugs, sex, and, somewhat surprisingly, tobacco (due to a stringent smoking ban and Texas' relatively high excise tax on cigarettes).


Sex: 35 Tobacco: 32 Alcohol: 10 Guns: 10

Movement: 10 Drugs: 31 Gambling: 24 Food/Other: 14


Four cities in this survey finished in the top 10 for tobacco and guns but in the bottom 15 for sex and alcohol: Nashville, Memphis, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville. Add some gun restrictions, and you get Charlotte. Free up the alcohol, and you get Louisville and Kansas City. Substitute sex for booze, and you have Atlanta. And each city is within 600 miles of the Grand Ole Opry. It's a sort of Southeastern Conference of mixed red state liberalism—a mirror image of the coastal San Francisco cluster of blue state nannies.


Sex: 34 Tobacco: 2 Alcohol: 25 Guns: 4

Movement: 19 Drugs: 24 Gambling: 32 Food/Other: 22


If zoning restrictions were included in this survey, Houston would vault up the list, because it famously has none. Another modern feature Space City lacks is gambling: There are just two legal gaming establishments within 50 miles of the city.


Sex: 22 Tobacco: 23 Alcohol: 10 Guns: 10

Movement: 13 Drugs: 29 Gambling: 35 Food/Other: 14


The least-friendly city in our survey for gays.


Sex: 25 Tobacco: 2 Alcohol: 32 Guns: 23

Movement: 25 Drugs: 14 Gambling: 27 Food/Other: 7


In April, Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter signed five new gun laws that, among other things, banned certain "assault weapons," limited handgun purchases to one per month, and authorized the forcible removal of licensed guns from "persons posing a risk of imminent personal injury" to anyone (including themselves). "Almost 232 years ago, a group of concerned Americans took matters in their own hands and did what they needed to do by declaring that the time had come for a change," Nutter said in front of the historic City Hall, somehow equating the declaration of an armed rebellion by citizens against their government with a modern-day government's decision to disarm its citizens. "We are going to make ourselves independent of the violence that's been taking place in this city for far too long." The only problem: As Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham told reporters a few days later, the new laws ran afoul of the Pennsylvania constitution. "If there are wholesale arrests which turn out to be illegal, this city is going to get its pants sued off them," Abraham said. "I cannot, as a matter of law, arrest people for illegal possession of guns."


Sex: 10 Tobacco: 21 Alcohol: 34 Guns: 25

Movement: 10 Drugs: 23 Gambling: 6 Food/Other: 25


If there ever was a good excuse to further criminalize smoking in tobacco-intolerant California, the May 2007 Griffith Park fire was it. According to fire officials, a homeless man fell asleep in a bone-dry patch of brush on a park hillside while smoking a cigarette, setting off an 800-acre inferno that torched about one-fifth of the largest urban park in the United States, coming within singeing distance of homes in the city's upscale Los Feliz neighborhood.

Three months later, to prevent the next Griffith Park fire, the Los Angeles City Council voted to prohibit smoking in municipal parks. That is, unless the smokers promise to fatten the city's coffers.

The council carved out three interesting exceptions to the rule: actors shooting movies or TV shows whose producers have purchased a special permit, concertgoers attending shows in park venues (such as the Greek Theater, which came within inches of being burned in the Griffith Park fire), and golfers at city-owned courses. As an assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department explained to the Los Angeles Times, "There is a tradition of golfers oftentimes smoking in specific areas of a golf course, and we don't want to have any effects on our revenue."

In memos written before the ordinance was passed, the parks department reminded the council that several city-owned golf shops sell cigars to their customers. So a city trying to ban smoking in the name of fire safety sells in its parks the very drug that set off one of the most devastating blazes in L.A. history.

I went to see for myself if I could buy a cigar from a city-owned golf shop in the fire-scorched Griffith Park. That hot August day, several city-erected notices reminded park visitors that the fire danger was beyond extreme, and that anyone caught smoking would pay a steep fine. So upon buying the cigar, I asked the golf shop clerk where I could legally smoke. The golf courses? No problem. Anywhere around the clubhouse was fine too, he said. But smoking anywhere else in the park would not be tolerated, he warned, as if a cigar lit by a nongolfer poses a unique danger.

Paul Thornton

Sex: 12 Tobacco: 24 Alcohol: 8 Guns: 32

Movement: 34 Drugs: 5 Gambling: 5 Food/Other: 33


For decades in the black neighborhoods of Indianapolis, residents have gathered in speakeasy-style establishments for low-stakes gambling (sometimes literally for pennies), usually involving the drawing of a lottery number. These "pea shake houses," as they are known, lack the official sanction given the state lottery, licensed off-track betting, and other forms of acceptable gambling. Unsurprisingly, they have increasingly become the target not just of local police raids but of federal racketeering investigations.


Sex: 29 Tobacco: 10 Alcohol: 24 Guns: 7

Movement: 16 Drugs: 21 Gambling: 32 Food/Other: 14


This year Shelby County, where Memphis is located, passed an ordinance banning beer sales at strip clubs, requiring dancers to wear pasties, mandating a six-foot separation at all times between entertainers and customers, and forcing all employees of girlie bars to undergo criminal background checks and obtain permits. At press time, the rules were being challenged in court.


Sex: 32 Tobacco: 2 Alcohol: 25 Guns: 4

Movement: 19 Drugs: 25 Gambling: 21 Food/Other: 22


Very much like nearby Cleveland, but with fewer strip clubs.


Sex: 29 Tobacco: 19 Alcohol: 30 Guns: 18

Movement: 13 Drugs: 13 Gambling: 21 Food/Other: 7


D.C.'s gun law—recently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the district is doing its best to keep it in place anyway—essentially bars residents from keeping firearms in the home for self-defense. Washington also has lots of traffic cameras and the country's worst seat belt laws.


Sex: 7 Tobacco: 17 Alcohol: 20 Guns: 33

Movement: 32 Drugs: 15 Gambling: 18 Food/Other: 7


The San Francisco class of cities in this survey are in the top 10 on drugs and gambling and the bottom 11 on tobacco and guns. Besides San Francisco, they include San Jose, Oakland, and Los Angeles, with Seattle and Austin being a little less friendly to gambling. Baghdad by the Bay is itself the very best on drugs—ground zero for cannabis clubs, with a mayor who calls the drug war an "abject failure"—while also being the very worst on guns and food. The city has banned plastic bags in supermarkets, levied fines against arcade owners who don't check IDs of young people during school hours, mandated the size of pets' water bowls, and required psychics to obtain licenses.


Sex: 5 Tobacco: 30 Alcohol: 5 Guns: 35

Movement: 34 Drugs: 1 Gambling: 3 Food/Other: 35


Oakland trails only sister city San Francisco in its lax approach to enforcing drug laws, but it restricts alcohol advertising on billboards. With 71 places to lay down a bet within a half tank of gas, Oakland is second only to Las Vegas in proximity to casinos, poker rooms, bingo halls, and racing tracks. Former Mayor Jerry Brown once floated the idea of a "Twinkie tax" on snack foods but reconsidered after a public outcry.


Sex: 13 Tobacco: 24 Alcohol: 18 Guns: 31

Movement: 29 Drugs: 2 Gambling: 2 Food/Other: 29


In 2006 the city of Baltimore paid a firm $500,000 to compose a town slogan. The winning phrase, "Get in on it," is notable mostly for being even more inane than the previous municipal ad campaign, which involved blanketing the city with signs saying "Believe."

But at least those are efforts to persuade people rather than coerce them. They are therefore preferable to some of the other ways city leaders spend their time, such as the smoking ban they passed last year, the trans fat ban that goes into effect in 2009, and a newly proposed ban on individual sales of cheap cigars. Or, worst of all, a drug war that has only worsened the problems associated with drug abuse. The chief effect of criminalizing chemicals is to put the chemical trade in the hands of criminals, driving up rates of robbery and murder. Wander through the Baltimore neighborhoods most ravaged by the drug war, and a more appropriate slogan will probably come to mind: not "Believe" but "Leave."

Still, there's a fair amount of tolerance here. Not touchy-feely, let's-hold-hands-and-respect-each-other's-feelings tolerance. More of a sit-on-my-barstool-and-mind-my-own-business tolerance. And if you're not on a barstool at the moment, don't worry: One good thing about Baltimore is you never need to walk far to find a bar.

Jesse Walker

Sex: 11 Tobacco: 17 Alcohol: 2 Guns: 27

Movement: 22 Drugs: 18 Gambling: 24 Food/Other: 25


Forget the booze- and sex-soaked shenanigans portrayed in the '80s soap Dallas. The local SWAT team here is notoriously aggressive, with a reality TV show to fill and a penchant for raiding innocent poker games. Some police abuses, however, may be changing with rise of new reformist district attorney, Craig Watkins. Unknown to many, Dallas also has a large adult entertainment industry, although city officials have begun to regulate it more heavily in recent years.


Sex: 8 Tobacco: 21 Alcohol: 14 Guns: 10

Movement: 15 Drugs: 29 Gambling: 34 Food/Other: 14


Like San Francisco, only less extreme.


Sex: 16 Tobacco: 24 Alcohol: 6 Guns: 29

Movement: 31 Drugs: 7 Gambling: 3 Food/Other: 29


Cleveland was the first city in the country to ban alcohol and tobacco ads on city billboards. A federal court threw out the full prohibition, but some restrictions are still in place.


Sex: 18 Tobacco: 19 Alcohol: 33 Guns: 19

Movement: 18 Drugs: 11 Gambling: 15 Food/Other: 7


If harassment of suspected illegal immigrants were measured in this list, the stomping grounds of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio would rank dead last.


Sex: 20 Tobacco: 29 Alcohol: 22 Guns: 3

Movement: 17 Drugs: 27 Gambling: 14 Food/Other: 7


A blue city in a red state, Austin has largely adopted the better policies of each. It does have a comprehensive smoking ban, but it's also the only city in Texas to take advantage of a state law allowing local governments to issue citations instead of making arrests for marijuana possession. According to city-data.com, an Austin ZIP code has more bars than any other ZIP code in the country—one for every 48 people. The second-place ZIP code, in New York City, had one bar per 735 people.


Sex: 25 Tobacco: 32 Alcohol: 9 Guns: 10

Movement: 9 Drugs: 8 Gambling: 31 Food/Other: 14


San Antonio regulates sex more than other Texas cities do, but it is winningly reluctant to embrace lucrative red light cameras. It also benefits from the state's reluctance to pass for-your-own-good seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws. Although San Antonio passed an ordinance allowing private organizations to run needle exchange programs for heroin users, the local chief prosecutor has nonetheless been arresting volunteers— for distributing drug paraphernalia.


Sex: 33 Tobacco: 13 Alcohol: 10 Guns: 10

Movement: 3 Drugs: 26 Gambling: 28 Food/Other: 14


The freest of the six Texas cities in our survey, Fort Worth achieved that distinction mostly by not surpassing the state legislature's existing restrictions on vice and by so far forgoing automated traffic enforcement cameras.


Sex: 19 Tobacco: 13 Alcohol: 10 Guns: 10

Movement: 8 Drugs: 31 Gambling: 30 Food/Other: 14


A case study in the folly of highly restrictive gun laws. Tight controls on alcohol sales, advertising, and consumption haven't done much to vindicate the less booze-equals-less-crime crowd either. In 2005 scandal-plagued Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick tried to fill the city's $300 million budget deficit with a regressive "fat tax" on fast food. A wave of national ridicule convinced him to back off.


Sex: 15 Tobacco: 16 Alcohol: 31 Guns: 24

Movement: 23 Drugs: 11 Gambling: 10 Food/Other: 1


Breaks into the top 10 largely because of its surprisingly bustling sex industry. Browse the "erotic services" pages of Craigslist (all part of our research), and you'll see that Atlanta has more advertised prostitutes per capita than any city outside of Las Vegas. The Jewel of the South is third in strip clubs per capita and is the most gay-friendly big city south of the Mason-Dixon line. It also benefits from the conservative Georgia legislature's fondness for guns and tobacco.

On the other hand, the city finished dead last in the drug category because of the aggressiveness with which it enforces prohibition. That may be changing a bit: After a botched November 2006 drug raid resulted in the death of a 92-year-old woman, a subsequent investigation revealed rampant police perjury and cover-ups. The city has since fired or reassigned its entire narcotics force.


Sex: 2 Tobacco: 7 Alcohol: 28 Guns: 9

Movement: 21 Drugs: 35 Gambling: 28 Food/Other: 1


The epitome of red state freedom: lax in regulating the guns, tobacco, and calorie-dense food that public health advocates abhor while remaining moralistic on sex and drugs. Where left and right tend to blur—on issues like alcohol, gambling, and surveillance cameras—Jacksonville finishes in the middle.


Sex: 25 Tobacco: 7 Alcohol: 21 Guns: 6

Movement: 12 Drugs: 27 Gambling: 16 Food/Other: 1


The biggest West Coast metropolis between San Francisco and Seattle has held onto a sense of personal freedom that its once-wacky neighbors have forgotten, keeping a hands-off approach to food and tobacco while recognizing that guns are useful for things other than shooting elk.


Sex: 4 Tobacco: 11 Alcohol: 22 Guns: 22

Movement: 27 Drugs: 3 Gambling: 18 Food/Other: 7


When the fictional town of Springfield was deemed the "fattest city in the U.S." on The Simpsons, Homer Simpson retorted, "In your face, Milwaukee!" Truth be told, despite its kielbasa reputation, Milwaukee isn't all that fat: Since 2000 Milwaukee has made periodic appearances among the 25 fittest cities in annual rankings by Men's Health magazine. The food nannies should be disappointed to learn that Milwaukee shared the top spot on our list of food freedom with several cities (including fitness-crazed Denver) that have apparently discovered other routes to good health besides regulation. No soda tax, no trans fat ban, no snack tax—and the city's fit. Brew City does finish a disappointing 19th when it comes to alcohol, but Milwaukee's pro-freedom approach to drug enforcement (including decriminalization of pot possession) helps bump the city to a very respectable sixth place overall.


Sex: 31 Tobacco: 5 Alcohol: 19 Guns: 17

Movement: 3 Drugs: 9 Gambling: 23 Food/Other: 1


The state of Missouri has some of the laxest alcohol regulations in America, including a law that actually forbids local governments from passing public intoxication ordinances. Kansas City has a proud history of thumbing its nose at teetotalers: Not only did local officials arrest the famed axe-wielding prohibitionist Carrie Nation, but they forbade her from ever setting foot in Missouri again. Thanks to a political machine rooted in bootlegging, not a single resident was charged with a felony violation of the Volstead Act during Prohibition.


Sex: 21 Tobacco: 1 Alcohol: 3 Guns: 2

Movement: 1 Drugs: 34 Gambling: 16 Food/Other: 22


They like their bourbon in Kentucky, where excise taxes on alcohol are among the lowest in the United States. Kentucky is also tobacco country, so cigarette taxes are minuscule too. Still, Louisville has succumbed to the smoking ban fad, preventing its tobacco ranking from rising higher. Louisville is tops in gun freedom, and the town's love of horse racing (and the wagering that goes with it) vaults Derby City to a surprisingly strong fourth place overall—just out of the money.


Sex: 25 Tobacco: 6 Alcohol: 1 Guns: 1

Movement: 7 Drugs: 31 Gambling: 12 Food/Other: 14


Often the relevant question isn't where you are but where you're headed. And Denver, alas, is moving in the same godforsaken direction as the rest of the country. Safety, economic and social "justice," the children, the environment, the pets (unless we're talking about pit bulls, a breed banned from city limits)—all of them trump individual freedom.

Even when Denver technically becomes freer, we lose. In recent years Denver citizens have passed two ballot initiatives liberalizing marijuana laws, one legalizing small amounts of pot and another declaring possession the city's lowest law enforcement priority. Yet the authorities ignore these initiatives, continuing to prosecute pot smokers under state and federal law.

Denver already adheres to a strict statewide smoking ban prohibiting smoking in all restaurants. This isn't enough for state lawmakers, who have been eyeing cigar bars and casinos as well. Stifling economic controls and zoning laws make it an ordeal to start and operate any small business. Local campaign finance laws are already so restrictive that even a modest neighborhood organization must register with the government or be sued. Noise ordinances give police free rein to pull over motorcyclists. As an environmentally conscious yet arid city, Denver tightly controls water use, but also requires you to keep your lawn in tiptop shape if you want to avoid a fine.

In the suburbs, schools have been banning such perilous activities as mixed-gender hugging and schoolyard tag. Local governments are considering legislation to regulate house sizes and help fund a "hate hotline" so those with finely tuned awareness can snitch on neighbors should a tasteless joke slip from their mouths.

Denver is one of the freest cities in the country? That's dreadful news for the rest of you suckers.

David Harsanyi

Sex: 17 Tobacco: 15 Alcohol: 6 Guns: 20

Movement: 5 Drugs: 6 Gambling: 11 Food/Other: 1


If your love of liberty is greater than your distaste for loud noise (and clothes), Miami gets the red state/blue state thing just about right. Miami melds Florida's conservative guns 'n' smokes freedom with the licentiousness you might expect from a cosmopolitan port uniting North and South American culture. Miami finished in the top half of every major category in our survey except drugs—and that's less a matter of the city's own approach to the drug war than of draconian state laws and a heavy federal presence. Miami is gay-friendly and sex-friendly, leading the nation in strip clubs per capita. The Florida legislature is hands-off when it comes to tobacco and food regulation, and it has forbidden local governments from installing traffic cameras.


Sex: 3 Tobacco: 7 Alcohol: 16 Guns: 8

Movement: 1 Drugs: 22 Gambling: 7 Food/Other: 1


What's there to say? Las Vegas is the wildest city in America's most tolerant state, and Mayor Oscar Goodman wants to make the place even freer. He supports legalizing prostitution in Vegas (the oldest profession is currently legal only in Nevada counties with fewer than 400,000 residents), and is the antithesis of a nanny: When a fourth-grader asked him what he'd take to a deserted island, Goodman said a show girl and a bottle of gin.

Alcohol restrictions are virtually nonexistent, gambling is a cajillion-dollar industry, and the city's official tourism slogan hints at forbidden pleasures around every corner. Vegas might not be everyone's paradise, but its libertinism isn't exactly chasing residents away: The city continues to make huge leaps in population, and surrounding Clark County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country.


Sex: 1 Tobacco: 11 Alcohol: 4 Guns: 16

Movement: 6 Drugs: 10 Gambling: 1 Food/Other: 7

How We Did the Rankings

Sex: number of prostitutes per capita who advertise on Craigslist; number of strip clubs per capita; gay-friendliness, based on rankings from several gay publications; adult entertainment regulations, as determined by the Association of Club Executives

Tobacco: excise taxes on cigarettes; smoking restrictions

Alcohol: excise taxes on beer, wine, and liquor; restrictions on happy hours and operating hours; state ownership of liquor stores; restrictions on alcohol advertising; bans on minor consumption even with a parent's permission; restrictiveness of drunk driving laws (e.g., laws so strict they impede social drinking); restrictions on alcohol advertising; blue laws and similar restrictions

Guns: restrictiveness of gun laws, as determined by data from the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

Movement: number of traffic cameras; seat belt, motorcycle helmet, and cell phone laws

Drugs: compendium of rankings and data from the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws

Gambling: restrictions on social gambling, poker, bingo, and charity gambling; number of casinos, poker rooms, horse or dog tracks, bingo halls, or other gambling venues within a 180-mile radius of the city

Food/Other: trans fat bans; menu labeling laws; food labeling laws; taxes on soda or snacks; laws protecting the food industry from obesity lawsuits; foie gras bans; breed-specific dog bans; pet codes; cabaret laws; onerous "livability" laws; any other notable laws of a paternalistic nature

Correction: This is an expanded and corrected version of an article that ran in the August/September issue of reason. The printed version contained a tabulation error that resulted in several cities being listed with an incorrect rank. Also, according to the most recent Census data available at the time of publication, Oklahoma City, Tucson, Albuquerque, and Fresno should have replaced Miami, Kansas City, Oakland, and Cleveland for consideration. Further, information about El Paso County, Colorado was mistakenly transposed to El Paso County, Texas; prohibitionist Carrie Nation's first name was misspelled, and a Carl Sandburg quotation about Chicago was misattributed to Robert Frost.