How’s it feel to live in the “freest” state?

Do you feel it? We South Dakotans have the most personal freedom in the country, at least according to a new study by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Technically, we are third but the two political science professors who authored the study say South Dakota is in “a virtual tie” with New Hampshire and Colorado and “citizens of all three states should be pleased to live in the freest states in the Union.” New York ranks last, followed by New Jersey, Rhode Island and California. The winning states prevail because they “feature low taxes and government spending and middling levels of regulation and paternalism.” Which, of course, is the first reminder that the definition of freedom may be in the eye of the beholder .

How did this study determine which states it considered to have the “ideal regime of maximum, equal individual freedom”? It looked in large part to a definition from an article in the Journal of Libertarian Studies: The proper normative values are “a belief in the efficiency and morality of unhampered markets, the system of private property, and individual rights — and a deep distrust of taxation, egalitarianism, compulsory welfare, and the power of the state.” I don’t want to prejudge, but I would venture a guess that there may be a rather significant number of Americans who might question whether “the efficiency and morality of unhampered markets” is setting them free.

Yet the seeming predisposition toward free market economics appears to help South Dakota’s ranking. We ranked first in “economic freedom” but 24th in “personal freedom.” For the two other components, South Dakota ranked second in fiscal policy (government taxing and spending) and eighth in regulatory policy (“labor regulation, health insurance mandates, occupational licensing, eminent domain, the tort system, land and environmental regulation, and utilities”). Again, though, definitions are important.

For example, economic freedom is determined by summing the fiscal and regulatory policy scores. Thus, they plainly outweigh personal freedom, which the study discusses under the subtitle “Paternalism.” What are the three most important issues in assessing personal freedom? Education (which focuses heavily on regulation of home and private schools because those who support regulating these areas justify it “on the claim that parents do not know how or where best to educate their own children”) is about 17 percent of the personal freedom score, gun control (on a less is better standard) is 14 percent and liberal marijuana polices (full legalization of both growth and sale is “the optimal policy choice”) are worth just more than 10 percent. The latter two would tend to reinforce that this is a libertarian approach as opposed to one that can be classified by liberal or conservation ideology.

And here’s why South Dakota is so free:

South Dakota is highly fiscally decentralized for its size, and it is among the best states for taxes and spending. Sales taxes are, however,
rather high. Transportation spending is also a little higher than expected, even when corrected for the state’s low population density. On personal freedoms,
South Dakota scores well on gun control and asset forfeiture but relatively poorly on marijuana laws. The state allows several kinds of gambling but has prohibited Internet gambling. Unfortunately, victimless crimes arrests as a percentage of all arrests are two standard deviations above the norm (24.8%).
Private schools are highly controlled, with schools having to choose between a state accreditation process or detailed curricular oversight. Home school
requirements, particularly on standardized testing and notification procedures, could also be relaxed. On economic regulation the state scores well. Labor
and health insurance laws are generally very good. The state’s liability system is among the best. Land-use planning is largely local. Eminent domain has
been reformed extensively, but the reforms have not yet been written into the constitution.

Don’t like the standards the authors used? Well, they say, if “individuals desire to ‘tie their own hands’ and require themselves to participate in social insurance, redistributive, or paternalist projects, they should form communities by contract for these purposes.”

So, you are now free to celebrate — or to create a community by contract.

A hungry man is not a free man.

Adlai Stevenson, Sept. 6, 1952

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