How Free Is YOUR State? All 50 States Ranked by Personal and Economic Freedoms

New Hampshire, Alaska, and Oklahoma are tops, but can you guess the three worst states?


Ms. Foundation, Wikimedia

Via the Cato Institute comes the latest iteration of William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens' ranking of "Freedom in the 50 States," which seeks to quantify "personal and economic freedom" throughout the country. For more about the project, which was first published in 2009 by the Mercatus Center, go here.

It's an admirable and invaluable effort. Ruger, who works at the Charles Koch Institute, and Sorens, who teaches at Dartmouth and inspired the Free State Project, do an excellent job of not only calculating degrees of freedom in areas such as land-use regulation, victimless crimes, and occupational licensing, but in providing high-level reform ideas for each state. Here's part of the entry for Arkansas, which finishes in the middle of the pack as the 29th most-free state:

Like many other southern states, Arkansas does well on land-use and labor policies and somewhat poorly on cronyist entry and price controls. However, it does better than most other southern states, and indeed the national average, on its civil liability regime. It has also started to deregulate telecommunications and in 2013 enacted statewide video franchising. The extent of occupational licensing, according to two different measures, is more than a standard deviation worse than the national average. Hospital construction requires a certificate of need, and there is an anti-price-gouging law and also a general law against "unfair pricing" or sales below cost.

Arkansas does better than most of its neighbors on criminal justice policies. Victimless crime arrests are below average, and the crime-adjusted incarceration rate is not much above average. On the other hand, the state does a bit worse than one might expect on gun rights, with heavy training requirements and significant limitations on the right to carry concealed. Marijuana laws are unreformed. In personal freedom categories other than these and the aforementioned marriage laws, Arkansas deviates little from the average. School choice particularly looks like an opportunity for improvement, given the state's fiscal centralization (so there's not much choice among public schools), its generally conservative ideological orientation, and its minority student populations….

Policy Recommendations

  • Fiscal: Cut the state sales and use tax, which is high. Let local governments vary property taxes to meet local needs and desires, reducing state aid for education and other purposes.
  • Regulatory:Roll back occupational licensing. Some occupations that could be deregulated include sanitarians, title abstractors, interpreters, dietitians and nutritionists, pharmacy technicians, veterinary technologists, opticians, athletic trainers, occupational therapist assistants, massage therapists, private detectives, security guards, landscaping contractors, tree trimmers (locally), funeral apprentices, collection agents, 911 dispatchers, tree injectors, construction contractors, security alarm installers, well drillers, mobile home installers, and boiler operators.
  • Personal: Enact a generous tax credit for contributions to private scholarships for K–12 education.

So what states are the absolute worst? Numbers 50, 49, and 47 are New York, California, and Hawaii; New Jersey and Maryland round out the bottom five.

And which states are the most free? New Hampshire, Alaska, Oklahoma, Indiana, and South Dakota take top honors—and also suggest the limits of freedom per se as a lure to Americans. Those states might be the most free in all sorts of ways, yet very few people are banging down doors to enter them.

New Hampshire and North Dakota have seen growth in "net migration" or the number of people moving in from other states between 2000 and 2014, according to Ruger and Sorens. That's relatively strong, though both states have tiny populations (and net migration numbers don't count international migrants). The bottom five states have all lost significant numbers of people to other states, but so did Alaska, Indiana, and Oklahoma. A state like Texas, which finishes in the middle of the pack at 28th, not only has a large base population but has seen a large increase in out-of-state migrants (6.7 percent). As Ruger and Sorens acknowledged in an earlier edition of this study (partly in response to a 2005 piece I wrote on the broader topic), "Freedom is not the only determinant of personal satisfaction and fulfillment."

And yet, by calling attention to differences among the states in the level of personal and economic freedoms, Ruger and Sorens make a significant contribution to how states might function as laboratories of democracy and learn from the experiments carried out around the country. Armed with the information they present and the recommendations they make, the best thing we can all do is start working for change in our own local and state governments that expand the scope of freedom in all its manifestations.