Americans’ freedoms have been gradually eroded over the last 20 years, a new study has found, with the COVID-19 pandemic giving local officials more power over everyday life.
A new study by the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank that promotes individual liberty, limited government and free markets, has assessed each of the 50 states under 23 different categories and produced an overall ranking.
The most and least free states are unchanged – New York being the least free, followed by Hawaii and California, and New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada being the most free.
The three least free states all have Democrat governors; two of the three freest states have Republican governors, except Nevada, ruled by Democrat Steve Sisolak.
New York is ranked 50th in the ‘freedom ratings’, and New Hampshire is first, according to the Cato Institute
William Ruger and Jason Sorens, the Cato Institute researchers who compiled the annual report, said that their analysis showed individual liberties were being curtailed across the board.
‘Although the rights of some have increased significantly in certain areas, for the average American, freedom has declined generally because of federal policy that includes encroachment on policies that states controlled 20 years ago,’ they state.
They looked at factors that varied depending on the state – such as taxation, marriage restrictions, rules around wearing seatbelts in cars and helmets on motorbikes, and marijuana and gambling laws.
New Hampshire, whose motto is ‘live free or die’, unsurprisingly came at or near the top on most metrics – although they were at the bottom of the rankings for land use and marriage equality.
‘We ground our conception of freedom on an individual rights framework. In our view, individuals should be allowed to dispose of their lives, liberties, and property as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others,’ the authors wrote.
‘This understanding of freedom follows from the natural-rights liberal thought of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Robert Nozick, but it is also consistent with the rights-generating rule-utilitarianism of Herbert Spencer and others.’
Economic freedom involves both fiscal and regulatory policy.
Florida was ranked the freest state, with no individual income tax.
‘Florida does especially well on economic freedom, and even more so on fiscal policy,’ the authors write.
‘Indeed, it is our top state on both.
‘Regulatory policy is improved but mediocre compared with the fiscal side.’
Florida is followed by Tennessee and third New Hampshire.
‘The Volunteer State lacks an income tax, and both state and local tax collections fall well below the national average,’ the report notes.
New Hampshire’s overall tax burden is well below the national average at 8.1 percent. The state government taxes less than any other state but Alaska.
The average individual income tax rate for all taxpayers is 13.3 percent, according to a Tax Foundation report from February 2021.
All three states have Republican governors.
Arizona, Florida and Indiana are leading the way when it comes to education, taking into account requirements and restrictions for private and homeschools.
The most restrictive states are North Dakota, ranked 50, followed by Nebraska and Michigan.
‘North Dakota remains the very worst state in the country for educational freedom,’ the authors write.
‘Private schools and homeschools are both more harshly regulated than anywhere else, and the state has no private or public school choice.’
The Cato Institute recommends that Doug Burgum, the Republican governor of North Dakota, eliminate teacher licensing, mandatory state approval, and detailed curriculum requirements for private schools, and reduce the notification and record-keeping burdens on homeschooling families.
Maryland – ranked 46th for educational freedom – ‘is one of the least free states in the country, and it has had this status since the beginning of our time series in 2000,’ the authors write.
Homeschools and private schools are tightly regulated, the latter more so, thanks to mandatory state approval and teacher licensing.
The state raised the years of compulsory schooling from 11 to 12 in 2014, and then to 13 in 2017.
Idaho, North Dakota and Nebraska are deemed the freest state for health insurance.
Socially and economically conservative, the states protect nurse practitioner independence, and physician assistants have full prescribing authority.
There is no certificate-of-need requirement for hospitals.
The most regulated states are New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Health insurance mandates are extensive in New Jersey, the bottom of the list.
In 2013, nurse practitioner freedom of independent practice was abolished despite more states going the other direction.
In 2018, New Jersey legislated a state-level individual health insurance mandate.
The Cato Institute ranked states based on the freedom of couples to enter into private contracts – both civil unions or marriage.
Eleven states made it equally easy for couples to marry.
The states ranged from deeply Democrat California and Hawaii to staunchly Republican Tennessee.
Seven states sat at the bottom of the table, with Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington all putting up the most barriers.
While many believe Texas to have the most liberal gun laws, it is actually Kansas which has the least restrictive gun ownership policies.
Permitless open carry was legalized in 2013, and permitless concealed carry was enacted in 2015.
American civilians own an estimated 393 million firearms, both legal and illegal; that’s more than all of the firearms combined from 24 countries reporting the highest rates of civilian gun ownership, according to Small Arms Survey.
However, only one in three Americans report owning a gun, while 44 percent live in homes where a gun is held. That means most gun owners have more than one gun.
Four states – Texas, Florida, California, and Pennsylvania – had at least a million estimated gun sales in 2020.
Kansas may have the most liberal gun laws, but the most guns are held in the state of Wyoming, followed by Montana and Alaska.
Iowa, Massachusetts and Nebraska have the lowest rates of gun ownership, plus Washington DC.
Massachusetts, California and Hawaii have the most restrictive gun ownership rules.