Although we hope we have demonstrated that some states provide freer environments than others, it would be inappropriate to infer that the freest states necessarily enjoy a libertarian streak, while others suffer from a statist mentality. Other research has shown that in the United States, state politics, like federal politics, plays out largely on a single left–right ideological dimension defined by sociocultural attitudes toward equality, authority, and tradition.26 On the other hand, preliminary unpublished research of ours does suggest that states with larger libertarian blocs tend to have more personal (but not economic) freedom, but the effect is small. One might argue that throughout history human freedom has emerged not because political leaders have consciously sought it, but as a consequence of balancing forces (church and state, king and nobles, and institutional forms) that happen to check the arbitrary exercise of power in particular times and places.

Why then do some states protect individual liberty more thoroughly than others, if not because of a libertarian ideology? In our index, conservative states have generally done better than liberal states, but moderately conservative states have done best of all. Previous research has shown that, as of 2007, Alabama and Mississippi were the most conservative states in the country, while New York and New Jersey were the most liberal.27 In our index Alabama and Mississippi are slightly better than average, while New York and New Jersey are at the bottom. The problem is that the cultural values of liberal governments seem on balance to require more regulation of individual behavior than do the cultural values of conservative governments. While liberal states are freer than conservative states on marijuana and same-sex partnership policies, when it comes to gun owners, homeschoolers, motorists, or smokers, liberal states are nanny states, while conservative states are more tolerant. It is questionable whether we ought to attribute this relative freedom in conservative states to any philosophical respect for freedom inherent in contemporary political conservatism, or rather to the fact that conservative positions on cultural issues tend to require less regulation of individual behavior. As we have already seen, extremely conservative governments do not appear to afford any more freedom overall than do moderate, centrist governments.

Another reason freedom tends to prosper in some places and falter in others is institutional design. There has been much research on the effects of institutions on government spending across countries,28 as well as on institutions and the dynamics of policy change in the United States.29 Variables of interest include legislature size, gubernatorial power, professionalization of the legislature, fiscal decentralization, term limits, and initiative and referendum. In theory, institutions could have consistent effects on individual liberty in one direction or the other, but it is more likely that most institutions affect freedom positively in some areas and negatively in others. For instance, popular initiatives have helped pass strict tax-limitation rules, such as Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but have also allowed massive spending increases to become law, such as Florida’s 2002 initiative requiring that universal prekindergarten be offered throughout the state and 2000 initiative requiring construction of a high-speed rail system to connect Florida’s five major cities. As a time series of freedom scores emerges, it will become possible to do interesting research on the determinants of policy change in pro- and antiliberty directions.

Would it be correct to say, pace Nick Gillespie’s review in Reason of the Pacific Research Institute report on U.S. economic freedom, that “economic freedom’s just another word for nothing else to do”?30 It is true so-called flyover country generally scores high on our freedom index, but those states scoring high on our index can at least claim to have gone to less effort to squelch private initiative and personal freedom than have the states at the bottom. Freedom is not the only determinant of personal satisfaction and fulfillment, but as our analysis of migration patterns shows, it makes a tangible difference in people’s decisions about where to live. Moreover, as we noted during many of the talks we delivered after the first edition of the index appeared, we fully expect people in the freer states to develop and benefit from the kinds of institutions (such as symphonies and museums) and amenities (better restaurants and cultural attractions) seen in some of the older cities on the coasts (in less-free states such as California and New York) as they grow and prosper. Indeed, Joel Kotkin has made a similar point about the notso-sexy urban areas best situated to recover from the economic downturn:

Of course, none of the cities in our list competes right now with New York, Chicago, or L.A. in terms of art, culture, and urban amenities, which tend to get noticed by journalists and casual travelers. But once upon a time, all those great cities were also seen as cultural backwaters. And in the coming decades, as more people move in and open restaurants, museums, and sports arenas, who’s to say Oklahoma City can’t be Oz?31

These things take time, but the same kind of dynamic freedom enjoyed in Chicago or New York in the nineteenth century that led to their rise might propel places in the middle of the country to be a bit more hip to those with Gillespie’s tastes.

Finally, we would stress that the variance in liberty at the state level in the United States is quite small in the global context. Even New York provides a much freer environment for the individual than the majority of countries. There are no Burmas or Zimbabwes among the American states. Still, we do find that our federal system allows states to pursue different policies in a range of important areas. The policy laboratory of federalism has been compromised by centralization but is still functioning. As Americans grow richer in future years, quality of life will matter more to residence decisions, while the imperative of decent employment will decline by comparison. As a result, we should expect more ideological “sorting” of the kind Charles Tiebout foresaw.32 High-quality information on state legal environments will matter a great deal to those seeking an environment friendlier to individual liberty.


26. Erikson, Wright, Jr., and McIver, Statehouse Democracy; and Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll-Call Voting (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

27. Sorens, Muedini, and Ruger, “U.S. State and Local Public Policies in 2006: A New Database.

28. See, for instance, Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini, The Economic Effects of Constitutions (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).

29. See, for instance, Charles R. Shipan and Craig Volden, “Bottom-Up Federalism: The Diffusion of Antismoking Policies from U.S. Cities to States,” American Journal of Political Science 50, no. 4 (2006): 825–43.

30. Nick Gillespie, “Rant: Live Free and Die of Boredom: Is ‘Economic Freedom’ Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Do?” Reason, February 2005,, accessed July 30, 2008.

31. Joel Kotkin, “Welcome to Recoveryland: The Top 10 Places in America Poised for Recovery,” November 8, 2010, http://www.joelkotkin. com/content/00320-welcome-recoveryland-top-10-places-america-poised-recovery.

32. Charles Tiebout, “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures,” Journal of Political Economy 64 (1956): 416–24.

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