Rule-bound Massachusetts inspired the line, "everything's illegal in Massachusetts" in the Mel Gibson flick, Edge of Darkness. And, if that line isn't technically true, as a former resident of the Bay State I can testify that it's close enough to capture the feel of a place so ensnared in laws and taxes that you can safely assume that whatever the hell you're doing can get you in hot water if the wrong person takes notice. So it's no surpise that the state ranks poorly in the Mercatus Center's new report, Freedom in the 50 States, published today. If anything, Massachusetts's ranking of 30 seems generous, but the place has a lot of competition in the race to the bottom. And, the Bay State offsets hideous gun laws and land-use restrictions by recognizing same-sex marriage, and keeping arrests for victimless crimes, including marijuana use, rather restrained. The state also has a modestly sized government workforce and average tax rates, which let it shine relative to states like last-place New York.
But Massachusetts, like many less-free states, is losing population to states that rank more strongly overall in their respect for freedom. Not incidentally, freer states also tend to have higher growth in personal income than less-free states. And, there's a direct link between that prosperity and certain types of freedom. Specifically, note authors William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens, "[o]ur study has found that a positive relationship exists between a state's fiscal freedom and its net migration rate and income growth."
But the top-ranked states are red states, with the exception of New Hampshire, and the usual assumption is that red states favor economic liberty and blue states favor social freedom. Does that mean that Americans looking for economic opportunity have to trade off some leeway in their personal lives? Surprisingly, not really — or maybe a little, but in return for leeway in other areas. Say the authors:
On personal freedom we find little difference in overall scores between conservative and liberal states in general. While liberal states are freer than conservative states on marijuana and same-sex partnership policies, when it comes to gun owners, home schoolers, motorists, or smokers, liberal states are nanny states, while conservative states are more tolerant.
So, there are trade-offs on drugs and tolerance of homosexuality (and abortion, as North Dakota just demonstrated), but it's not an either-or choice between personal and economic liberty. And let's not forget that "red" Arizona legalized medical marijuana, while "blue" California banned gay marriage. Overall, then, what Ruger and Sorens find is that, while conservative and liberal states can be equally respectful or disrespectful of personal freedom issues, generally conservative states are better at respecting economic freedom than their liberal counterparts. And that edge on economic freedom comes with a boost to income growth.
To rate personal freedom the report looks at "gun policy, alcohol policy, marijuana-related policy, travel policy, gaming policy, mala prohibita and miscellaneous civil liberties, education policy, civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement statistics, marriage policy, campaign finance policy, and tobacco policy."
For economic freedom, the authors consider fiscal dimensions including "tax revenues, government employment, government spending, government debt, and fiscal decentralization," and regulatory dimensions, such as "liability system, real property rights (eminent domain and land-use regulation), health insurance freedom, labor market freedom, occupational freedom, cable and telecom, and miscellaneous regulations that do not fit under another category."
Of course, your mileage may vary if you have a special preference for liberty in specific areas, such as an ability to marry your same-sex partner. So, if you are considering a move, you need to look at a potential state's specific ratings to see how appropriate it is for you.
For easy reference, here are the ten top-ranked states:
1. North Dakota
2. South Dakota
And the ten lowest-ranked states:
42. West Virginia
46. Rhode Island
48. New Jersey
50. New York
For what it's worth, Ruger and Sorens expect New York to get a nice boost in the ratings the next time around from the legalization of gay marriage. That should jump the state about three slots personal-freedom-wise.