The authors of “Freedom in the 50 States,” a ranking published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, are up front about their opinions.
Freedom is a moral concept that can be difficult to nail down. “We are forthright about our moral philosophy so that we can be precise about what counts as ‘freedom’ for us, but we recognize that others may define freedom differently,” the report says.
They even let you personalize the rankings to suit your own definitions. That’s a nice touch.
With that in mind, their annual study makes for interesting reading, and interesting comparisons.
Utah made it to the top 10 for the first time (it was 28th on the first report in 2001). That was due mainly to its economy, its fiscal policies and its strong liability system.
But the areas in which the authors, William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens, believe it needs improvement are telling, as well.
First, the state has a cumbersome occupational licensing system, making it too hard to qualify as anything from a taxi driver to a translator. This is a valid point. It was brought into vivid focus a year ago when a woman from Sierra Leone had to sue in order to void a Utah requirement to obtain 2,000 hours of specialized training in order to provide African hair braids to clients.
Also, the report chided the state for having too much debt, something you don’t hear a lot of lawmakers talking about.
The most controversial complaint of all, however, centered on Utah’s drinking and gambling restrictions. The report said the state “has by far the tightest alcohol regulations in the country…” It also is the only state that outlaws all types of gambling, “including social gambling.”
This is where the disagreements over what constitutes freedom come in. Personally, I think limits on alcohol advertising and sales, and on gambling, have made the state much freer from the social costs that come with the abuse of both those things. Both, but gambling in particular, come with high moral costs that direct people away from constructive social behavior.
Both things still take place in Utah, of course, but they do so to a much smaller degree than in most other states.
By the way, New York was judged to be the least free state in the nation, and it wasn’t even close. The authors say this is reflected in an exodus from the state that, were it not for foreign immigrants moving in, would be at a crisis stage.
North Dakota was judged the nation’s freest state.
Also, 13 of the freest 15 states voted Republican in the last two presidential elections. The reverse was true for the bottom 10. No surprise there.
But again, freedom is subjective.