Americans love to talk about freedom. We see it as the foundation of our Republic. We celebrate it on the Fourth of July. We brag about it to anyone who will listen...
And yet we pay very little attention to our actual freedoms and continually support new laws that takes it away from us. Luckily the Founding Fathers attempted to decentralize as much power as possible by endowing the states with a high degree of leeway to enact laws as they see fit. And some states have done a much better job preserving the freedoms of their residents than others.
One of the best, most complete analyses of the 50 states can be found in the annual "Freedom in the 50 States" report, formerly compiled by the Mercatus Center and now by CATO. It evaluates each state using an incredible amount of data to rank the states on how free their residents are.
What emerges is a picture of an ideologically diverse nation, where people can choose to live in the hands-off state of New Hampshire, whose "Live Free of Die" motto perfectly captures the spirit of its people, or in New York, where the government has a say in nearly everything you do.
It's a key element in the success of federalism, where states serve as the "laboratories of democracy", meaning it may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory to try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country. The reason it's worked so well is the same reason free markets have been successful; it engenders competition in which the bad ideas fail and die out and the good ideas thrive and spread. In the case of states, those with better policies draw population away from those with failed policies, rewarding success in governance.
Unfortunately, the trend in America has been away from states' rights and toward the consolidation of power in Washington. Every new sweeping Supreme Court decision that imposes a one-size-fits-all ruling on all 50 states erodes the ability of the people to make decisions for themselves, and threatens the underpinnings of our once great nation. Whether we've passed the point of no return is debatable, but the fact that there's still so much variance among the states is a good sign.
Below are the main criteria used in the report. And each of these includes dozens of subcategories, which can be found by going here.
Fiscal Freedom: Fiscal policy consists of categories for taxes, government employment, spending, debt, and fiscal decentralization.
Land-Use Freedom: The land use freedom category includes eminent domain reform and land-use regulations.
Incarceration and Arrests: The incarceration and arrests category includes incarceration rates, non-drug crime arrests, and drug enforcement.
Labor Market Freedom: The labor market category includes right-to-work laws, disability insurance requirements, and workers' compensation.
Occupational Freedom: The occupational freedom category takes into account occupational licensing, education, and experience requirements.
Education: The education category takes into account requirements and restrictions for private and homeschools, as well as school choice options.
Health Insurance Freedom: The health insurance category includes variables for state-level mandates and other health insurance regulations.
Marriage Freedom: The marriage category includes the ability for couples to enter into private contracts, both civil unions or marriage.
Cannabis Freedom: This category includes an index of medical marijuana policies and other policy variables.
Tobacco Freedom: The tobacco category includes taxes on tobacco, smoking bans, Internet bans, and vending machine regulations.
Alcohol: The alcohol category includes restrictions on distribution, taxes, blue laws, keg registrations, and “happy hour” bans.
Travel: This category includes seat belt laws, helmet laws, mandatory insurance coverage, and cell phone usage laws.
Gun Rights: The gun control category measures the direct costs of gun laws to gun owners and dealers.
Campaign Finance: This category covers public financing of campaigns and contribution limits.
Asset Forfeiture: This category reflects the extent to which a state’s asset forfeiture rules encourage revenue-sharing with the Dept of Justice.
Gaming Freedom: The gaming category includes an estimated cost of gambling restrictions and whether social or online gaming is allowed.
Victimless Crimes: This category includes variables that relate to individual actions that harm no one else.
Lawsuit Freedom: Lawsuit freedom includes how plaintiff-friendly each state's civil liability system is.
Cable and Telecom Freedom: The cable and telecom category includes telecommunications deregulation and cable franchising.