Freedom in the 50 States…For Rich White Business Owners

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has released its 2013 Freedom in the 50 States report, and this year North Dakota has taken the number one spot. So how did the state that just passed the nation’s strictest abortion law come to be ranked as the freest state in the country?

Well, the Mercatus Center is primarily concerned with “economic” freedom, as is to be expected of a market-oriented think thank composed primarily of economists and supported by the Koch brothers.

The report’s authors reflect this market emphasis, giving far greater weight to “economic” freedom (divided into “fiscal” and “regulatory” categories) than to “personal” freedom, which is how the report can factor in government spending but not abortion, telecom deregulation but not the death penalty, and fiscal decentralization but not police militarization.

Together, “fiscal” and “regulatory” freedom make up 67% of the index–28.6% of that is tax burden alone. Now, I agree that taxation is a gross violation of individual freedom. But should taxes really weigh more heavily than victimless crime arrests (9.8%), gun control (6.6%), marijuana laws (2.0%), eminent domain (0.1%), occupational licensure (1.7%) and sobriety checkpoints (0.01%) combined?

In addition, the authors give greater weight to government employment (2.8%) than they do to marijuana laws (2.0%), while asset forfeiture is only weighted at 0.1% (by comparison, telecom deregulation is weighted five times more heavily, at 0.5%).

As you can see, the authors don’t do a very good job of countering the perception of libertarians as only concerned with the freedom of business owners and corporations.

Anyone who believes that taxes are a worse rights infringement than eminent domain, asset forfeiture, the death penalty or the War on Drugs clearly has not spent enough time outside of corporate boardrooms.

Unlike in previous reports, this time the authors weighted variables

“according to the value of the freedom affected by a particular policy to those people whose freedoms are at stake. Each variable receives a dollar estimate, representing the financial, psychological, and welfare benefits of a standardized shift of the variable in a pro-freedom direction to those people who enjoy more freedom.”

This “freedom value” approach may have only exacerbated the weighting issues discussed above. (It is difficult to put a dollar value on the loss of freedom resulting from marijuana prohibition, for example.)

Looking at the top 10 states on overall freedom, only New Hampshire (4th) and Missouri (7th) crack the top 10 on personal freedom (ranking 5th and 8th, respectively). North Dakota ranks 20th on personal freedom, and the authors make note of the state’s “poor” marijuana laws and “very high level of non-drug victimless crimes arrests.” (I don’t see the Free State Project packing up and moving to North Dakota anytime soon.)

(Bizarrely, Utah is ranked 10th on overall freedom and 27th on personal freedom, despite having the strictest gambling, pornography and alcohol laws in the nation!)

The authors include right-to-work legislation in the index, despite acknowledging that right-to-work laws infringe on freedom and are therefore controversial among libertarians (which is the reason they gave for not including abortion and the death penalty–but then again, legal abortion doesn’t benefit big business).

Conversely, there are a number of additional laws and policies the authors should have included but didn’t: obscenity/pornography laws, child pornography laws and “sexting” prosecutions (do they criminalize teens who send naked pics to each other?), age of consent and statutory rape laws, sex toy bans, drug paraphernalia laws, public nudity laws, same-sex adoption laws, conjugal visit policies, sex offender registries (residency restrictions, who is required to register?, etc.), exotic pet laws, immigration laws like Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, adult entertainment regulations (restrictions on strip clubs, adult video stores, etc.), public intoxication/public alcohol consumption laws, and rigidity of drinking age laws (are parents allowed to serve alcohol to their children at home?)–just to name a few.

Now, many of the things I’ve listed above are relatively minor rights infringements, but I guarantee that all of these laws (except for conjugal visit policies and same-sex adoption laws) have led to people being fined or arrested–if not imprisoned–for violating them, which is more than can be said of, say…telecom deregulation.

Notice, too, that many of the laws I listed pertain to sex or sexuality. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the authors of the report neglected to include a category for “sexual freedom.”

Many libertarians, particularly economists and policy wonks, are rather uptight when it comes to sex and would feel more comfortable defending the freedom to print one’s own currency than the freedom to choose one’s sexual partners.

(Interesting side note: former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese–of the infamous anti-porn “Meese Commission”–sits on the Mercatus Center’s Board of Directors.)

The 2013 Freedom in the 50 States report is too concerned with freedom of the boardroom and not concerned enough with freedom of the bedroom. If “personal” and “economic” freedom are to be considered separate ideas*, personal freedom should outweigh economic freedom.

Why? Because the human costs of drug prohibition alone far outweigh those of high taxation. Because it is far more distressing for a 17-year-old to be arrested for having sex with his girlfriend and forced to register as a sex offender than it is for him to have $50 a week taken out of his paycheck for taxes. Because prisons aren’t full of land-use regulation violators.

We libertarians are still struggling to be seen as advocates of freedom for all–rather than just for rich white business owners. By emphasizing freedoms that primarily concern business owners (low taxes, light regulation) while downplaying the War on Drugs and leaving out abortion laws, the authors of this report only reinforce negative perceptions of libertarians.

So no, North Dakota is not the freest state in the country, unless you’re the Koch brothers or Donald Trump. If you want to get high, have an abortion, or shoot a porno you’ll have to go somewhere else.

*I don’t accept the notion that “economic” and “personal” freedom exist on two separate axes. If a man is arrested for selling drugs, is not his “economic” freedom being infringed? If a woman is arrested for prostitution, is that not an infringement of her “economic” freedom?
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