Economics

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?

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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.

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  1. This isn’t another one of those “freedom” indexes whose top tier criteria somehow includes climate change, is it?

    1. No, I doubt the Mercatus center cares much about climate change.

      1. This is of course an outrage, to claim that New York, the cultural and financial capital of our great nation, somehow neglects the freedom of its citizens. It is to New York that we owe our finest advances in criminal law, especially in regards to protecting the good names and reputations of distinguished, well-connected members of the community who have been subjected to inappropriate mockery and criticism that no one should ever have to endure. See the documentation of America’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

        http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

    2. Mexican pot ass sex and cake

    3. You can actually build your own freedom index if you click through the link, although the items used in it are so granular that it’s a little tricky to select a decent set even if you know your own preferences well.

    4. I’m trying to figure out how Oklahoma is #3 when the values of the three given indexes are 5/30/10. What’s missing?

    5. My last pay check was 9700 dollar working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
      This is what I do,…. http://bit.do/FOX92

  2. Wo Ho! We’re number 47!

    1. local taxes are much higher than average (5.5 percent). New Jerseyans have more choice of local government than any other state, with 6.2 effective competing jurisdictions per 100 square miles.

      I’m a bit dismayed that Mercatus fails to connect the dots on these two facts.

      1. We might have the highest local taxes, but we also have the highest income and sales taxes!

        1. Don’t forget the highest property taxes too!

          1. Low gas taxes, but I think that’ll be changing sooner rather than later.

            1. You still don’t get to pump your own gas, do you?

    2. While we are only at 26, I would like to extend my thanks on behalf of the rest of Pennsylvania to New Jersey, as well as Maryland and especially New York, for making our crap hole look slightly better by having you guys as neighbors.

      1. Don’t act too cocky, our emigrants are bringing their terrible politics with them.

        Soon enough all matters of commerce will be conducted as alcohol sales as. Except for alcohol sales, which will be conducted as gun sales are today. And gun sales, which will be conducted out of the back of a van on the West Virginia border.

        1. *as alcohol sales are today.

          1. I’m well aware, that’s why I’m getting my celebrations in now, while there is still something to be reluctantly happy about. I live near the Poconos, I know exactly what happens when a large amount of New Yorkers or New Jerseyeans move in.

  3. but can you guess the three worst states?

    California, New York and… either New Jersey or Illinois.

    Now I’ll go read the article.

    1. Numbers 50, 49, and 47 are New York, California, and Hawaii; New Jersey and Maryland round out the bottom five.

      I drove myself crazy trying to think what conceivable reason Nick could have for phrasing it this way, until I tracked down the actual rankings in the source. Hawaii = 48. Typo.

      My guess was New York, Cali, then Jersey so I got really close.

      1. Illinois is only #44? It feels like we are in the bottom 3…

          1. The details make it sound like freedom is breaking out in IL because ass-sex, Messicans and the pot!

        1. Using the new math 44 is in the bottom three if you want it to be…. 😉

        2. Don’t worry, you guys certainly suck. CA is the cesspool I was expecting it to be…oh well, only a few more years and then I can leave.

  4. Why is the graph so different from the article? Arkansas is 38, Texas is #9 Oklahoma isn’t in the top 5.

    1. Should say “Texas is 19”

    2. Now everything looks right. Someone’s fuckin’ with me.

  5. CA, NJ, NY.

    Checks:
    2 out of three ain’t bad. Wow, Hawaii. I didn’t realize how terrible you are.

    1. Hawaii’s climate and natural beauty make it the ultimate “hot chick” of states. And just like a dude will take a ton of shit from his hot girl and not break up, so the residents of Hawaii will take a ton of shit from their government and not move out.

    2. I’ll bet it’s because it’s very difficult to do something with land there and there’s tons of red tape involved, which would kind of be expected on an isolated archipelago.

    3. And that’s now counting how the Federal Jones Act screws Hawaiians over.

  6. Washington is one of the worst states on labor-market freedom. It lacks a right-to-work law, limits choices for workers’ comp programs, and has extremely high minimum wages relative to its wage base.

    And it got even worse, probably after this study was concluded. The City Council just passed a law which regulates how business can schedule their employees.

    1. At what point do they just rip the mask off and change the name of the place to Leningrad?

      1. Dead white male, d00d.

        Need a Womyn of Colour, Socialist.

        1. Steinemgrad?

          1. Actually, current radical feminists don’t count her as one of them because she fails the current purity test.

            1. Something that is continuously randomized isn’t much of a test?

      2. After they enclose it in a wall to keep the Seattlites from escaping.
        Might be challenging with all the water and stuff, but I’m sure they can set up blockades. Think of all the jobs that would create!

      3. We’ve already got the statue in Fremont. The name change can’t be far away.

        1. Statue of who?

          1. https://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Statue_of_Lenin,_Seattle

            If it were my town I would put a chain around that piece of shit and drag it to the city dump.

      4. They’re in a race with Minneapolis for that designation.

    2. Jesus Christ. When did we forget the basic premise of employment, that employees serve the needs of employers, not the other way around?

      Do you want less employment? Because this is how you get less employment.

      1. When did we forget the basic premise of employment, that employees serve the needs of employers, not the other way around?

        The 1890s or so.

      2. Actually the basic premise of employment is that employees and employers exchange labor and money for mutual benefit.

        Their government keeps distorting that exchange in the employees favor and wonders why the employers are purchasing less labor.

        1. it wouldn’t be hard to make robots to load the shelves and many stores already have self checkouts and they already make robots for cleaning floors. soon it will only be customers in stores no employees except for the security at the door and that may be a robot as well.

  7. I am always dumbfounded by the number of restrictions placed on alcohol whenever I leave California (I can’t buy real wine in New York on Sundays? What? And what the fuck is going on in Pennsylvania??)… and this chart confirms California is the fourth best state.

  8. I wouldn’t have guessed Oklahoma. But all I know about OK is that they have oil, Indians and really harsh drug laws.

    1. Yeah, Oklahoma is Texas without the liberal influx from California trying to screw it up like where they left. Been a lot of quiet but awesome growth there in the last 10-20 years.

      One of Oklahoma’s biggest problems though is the Drug War and corresponding asset forfeiture and harassment/abuse of travelers with cash. I-35, I-44, and the famous I-40/Route 66 go through it so there’s plenty of opportunities to eff the 4th amendment right over.

      Still, I will probably eventually go back “home” there.

      1. And yet Oklahoma scores better than Texas when it comes to personal freedoms. If it wasn’t for Kentucky, we’d be dead fucking last in that area. Obviously the “liberal influx” doesn’t bother with trying to kick the Puritan nanny-statists out of office.

      2. Saying Oklahoma is Texas doesn’t really make the sale. Texas may vote red, but they sure as shit don’t vote liberty.

        I’ve lived in both states.

        The only difference between Texas and Philadelphia is location and voting trends. Both places are otherwise full of pricks who all think their shit doesn’t stink.

        Actually, I live in Oklahoma now and I’m quite eager to depart this s(h)ithole. Ways I’ve described this place; it’s a meth lab stuffed into a dirty sock and rolled around in an ashtray. A third-world state. The citizens of this state are all a bunch of ignorant assholes and for the most part dumb as all fuck. I’ve never encountered a larger collection of completely clueless idiots. The sheriffs are all pursuing their own version of corruption whether it be participating in the drug trade or using the office as a rape factory.

        Free-est place I’ve lived; Arizona. You can walk around with a Desert Eagle taped to your forehead and the only thing you might get cited for is forgetting to police your brass.

  9. Iowa at #9. could be worse.

  10. Good old Pennsylvania, reliably in the middle at #26. Take that, O-low-o, Jerksey and Jew York!

    The Keystone State is freer than all its neighbors, but it is a little below the national average, especially on economic policy.

    Fiscal: Reduce spending, especially on public welfare and employee retirement benefits, which are high by national standards. Reduce numerous minor taxes that are relatively high by national standards.
    Regulatory: Improve the civil liability system by abolishing punitive damages and joint and several liability, and by ending partisan elections to the Supreme Court.
    Personal: Privatize and break up the state liquor monopoly.

    Harrisburg has shown it’s not giving up state stores anytime soon. It’s brazen in its lack of a valid reason for keeping them, as a matter of fact.

    1. We are #49 on alcohol policy. Harrisburg is going to have to step it up if we want to take the coveted #50 away from Utah. I, for one, have complete faith in their ability to fuck up anything and everything, so I think we have a real shot.

    2. The legislature in Harrisburg passed privatized liquor sales. The progressive Governor veto’ed it.

      He did sign a medical cannabis bill into law recently, possibly because he is currently suffering from a minor bout of cancer himself.

  11. Texas hits middle of the pack, but I think the jurisdictions/sq. mi. negatively affects us. The actual density varies considerably in suburban areas, but both rural (lotta space, no people) and metro (crazy annexation laws – I agree with this one!) seem to have a huge impact. West Texas is probably, in many ways, more free because of the sparseness of cities.

    1. Yeah, I think that metric gives an artificial boost to eastern states with larger population density.

    2. I’d think jurisdictions per population would be a better way to measure what I assume they are trying to measure.

      1. Maybe, but I’m not sure. I’m guessing that they’re trying to measure how much freedom to choose between (possibly competing) municipal attitudes you have in a given area. And that makes some sense. To live in the Houston area, and not live in a suburb, you don’t have a lot of choice – city of Houston or a handful of totally surrounded municipalities (which have, on average, VERY pricey homes…coincidence?). If there were other jurisdictions, you could move to one of them if Houston were enacting crazy laws. That’s harder when you have to move further. Big rural areas don’t really have the same issues, I’d think, and yet the metric treats them the same. Doing it purely by population would definitely account for rural issues, but I think to get it right you’d have to account for both…maybe some sort of function of population density rather than just population?

        1. This is why you can’t just quantify things.
          The large number of “Municipal” governments in IL is just another way the F you here. You’re paying taxes to 12 different municpal authorities on your property tax, and who knows who is on the elemenatary school district board, the high school district board, the library board, the water reclamation board, the community college board, etc. etc.

  12. AZ is #3 in gun rights. Behind VT and WY

    Not a big surprise.

    Of course the Brady Campaign ranked AZ 51/51 (DC included)

    1. Worst state for gun owners:

      Hawaii

    2. Holy crap. AZ is #1 for education.

    3. I strongly disagree with Arizona’s high ranking. I’m of the opinion that a “freedom” ranking should heavily weigh a state’s eagerness to throw everyone in jail, and the conditions in said jail. I’m guessing Arizona would be 51 out of 51 in that, or close to it.

      IOW, I think the rankings scale too favorable toward Republicans.

      1. They do acknowledge that.

        On the other side of the ledger, incarceration rates have climbed consistently

        AZ is ranked #40 for incarceration.

        1. And I think since that is the very essence of ‘freedom,’ it should be weighed higher than it appears to be.

      2. The whole thing gives some weird weightings – in 90% of the listings AZ is well below # 10, but they give some really high import to ‘telecom freedom’ and that pulls us back up.

  13. My state’s still in the top five…..

  14. That album is fucking triggering Gillespie!
    My hippy mother played that fucker till the grooves wore down.
    Now I can’t get the choruses out of my head.

  15. My home state’s North Carolina, and it’s 19th this time. The summary for NC in the report notes its relatively shitty gun laws, but where I lived as a kid, everybody was armed, and nobody ever so much as flinched at it. I’d assume it was total noncompliance with restrictions, and cops didn’t seem to care either.

  16. I’m not sure why KY is 50 in personal freedom? Pretty fucking good on gun laws. Alcohol is about the only thing that stands out; and that has gotten worlds better in last 10 years.

    1. I mean, you’re free to be… Kentuckians. And you have SF. Who is an affront to personal freedom so great that it shows up here.

  17. Kansas #16. Not too shabby.

    ?Fiscal: Cut spending on health and hospitals and public buildings, areas where the state spends far more than the national average. Cuts could be made in part through privatizations. Reduce government employment closer to the national average.
    ?Regulatory: Legalize independent nurse practitioner practice with full prescription authority, join the Nurse Licensure Compact, and enact a nursing consultation exception for interstate practice. In 2014, these moves would have raised Kansas to second on regulatory policy.
    ?Personal: End state approval, registration, teacher licensing, and curriculum requirements for all private schools.

    My wife is a nurse practitioner. The nursing regulations and the fact that I can’t buy booze at Target are the 2 things that we dislike about Kansas. Though we moved from AZ, and that was ranked 10.

    1. Though we moved from AZ, and that was ranked 10.

      Yeah but you got outta the heat and into the humidity! So there’s that.

      1. meh. We have the NA monsoon right now. The ‘dry heat’ is overrated.

        1. 91 deg. with high humidity is bearable, if not particularly comfortable. 118 is just fucking hot! And it isn’t as humid as Florida or anything!

          1. The key is to grow up in the humidity. That way you never notice it.
            *flaunts native privilege*

            1. Which is why no one in Florida uses air conditioning.

              1. Which is why no one in Florida uses air conditioning wears clothes

            2. The ocean breeze goes a long way to keep you cool…

    2. Liberal, KS is an oxymoron.
      And the spirit of Cary Nation lives when it comes to buying some firewater.

  18. Whooo – Michigan is #24. Snow, cold, and middle-of-the road in freedom. *salutes*

  19. Florida: #4 Fiscal (Yay!) #36 Personal (Boo!)

    But about right. If a physician writes a narcotic prescription, I think it automatically triggers a SWAT response to your door and suspends the doc’s license.

    1. Medical pot is coming soon. You just have to believe.

  20. Texas has a better marketing regime. They may be middle of the pack in terms of freedom, but everyone believes they are top 5.

  21. Mine’s #1 in terms of BOOZE FREEDOM. Take that!!

  22. The typical Maryland voter has a sad that the “Free” State is so close, so close and yet so far from being dead last.

  23. Maybe it’s the sunshine, but moving from Indiana to South Carolina seemed like a BIG increase in freedom.

    I guess it depends upon what you hold dear — federalism does have it benefits.

    And replacing a bad DOMA with the current federal overreach is a PUSH — not an increase in freedom.

  24. YESSSSS! I live in a bottom 5 state! #46 baby! Go Maryland!

    1. #49 in regulatory freedom! That’s why it’s called The Free State!

  25. It looks like there is a pretty good correlation between blueness and restriction of liberty. I, for one, am surprised by this. Shocked even.

    1. Funny, isn’t it?

  26. We’re number 3?!?!

    Yeesh! The rest of the country must be a total Hell.

  27. I have lived in two of the bottom five, one top five, and two middle ten. I can at least concur on their relative rankings. Fuck CA and MD.

  28. WooHoo, top 5 🙂 I don’t care how jaded or inaccurate it is.

  29. “Wyomingites have little choice in local government, with less than 0.10 effective competing jurisdictions per 100 square miles of private land, thus squandering the advantages of fiscal decentralization”

    Could somebody explain this? Most of the state is rural, which means for the most part county governments. The biggest county commission has 8 people on it. The biggest city in the state has close to 65,000 people.

    Why would more choice in local government, which means more government in general, be a better choice? These idiots really need to get outside the beltway.

    And of course the high percentage of state and local workers is because when it’s the only job in town with decent pay, benefits and longevity, well…

  30. Bottom 5 are the richest ?

  31. Why do the bottom two not surprise me? And I’m a Brit!

  32. What I derive from this is that the more people the less free. Unfortunately the less people the less economy.

    1. As Akshar points out, this assumes a state-biased definition of an ‘economy’. An economy with no minimum wage is going to inherently be ‘smaller’ than an economy with a minimum wage without regard, necessarily, for numbers of workers or goods produced. A legion of desk pogues enforcing the rules of petty tyrants in a state systematically over-leveraged against constitutionally-guaranteed public employee pensions is always going to look great, economically, with people employed, stuff being produced at living wages, money flowing into and out of public coffers. Even if the state itself is plunging itself and its constituency off a fiscal cliffinto bankruptcy.

  33. 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.

    It’s almost like freedom is hard work. Also, given the degree to which Reason consistently trashes flyover country while lauding and siding with the social policies implemented in cosmopolitan/urban centers makes it seem like Nick’s highlighting a problem that he helped create or at least contributes to.

  34. Florida should move into the Top Five since Clint is moving here …

    St. Cloud

  35. Free? By what standard? Did anyone notice the State Income Tax collectors straight out of the communist manifesto? How much consideration was given to prohibition laws making plant seeds a felony?

  36. Overlays map of red vs. blue states. Yep. Predictable. Wait, what is this I see? Mississippi is near the bottom and a red state? Oh, duh, it’s Mississippi.

  37. “… 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.”

    Or supports the political science theory that the larger the government, the larger the population it purports to govern, and the more diverse their political pressures (Hobbes’ war of all against all), the more authoritarian the government will become.

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