A 50 state review conducted by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University concludes Wyoming is one of the least “free” states in the region. Entitled “Freedom in the 50 States” the report assessed each state’s “public policies that affect individual freedoms in the economic, social, and personal spheres.” New Hampshire is said to be the most free and New York the least. Regionally, Wyoming ranked 21st, less “free” than South Dakota (2), Idaho (4), Colorado (7) and Utah (20) but more free than Montana (29) and Nebraska (23).
The authors describe the criteria. “We explicitly ground our conception of freedom on an individual-rights framework. In our view, individuals should be allowed to dispose of their lives, liberties, and properties as they see fit, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.”
The study offers a unique perspective on choices our legislature makes. A reader would walk away thinking Wyoming legislators are tax and spend liberals who have created a larger than necessary bureaucracy while making the state a safe place for insurance companies, liquor dealers, drunk drivers and home schoolers.
Wyoming would have received a higher ranking if, like New Hampshire, we had a same sex civil unions law. Wyoming was also marked down because of its mandate that employers contribute to the worker’s comp fund although the study calls Wyoming’s weak labor laws “market friendly.” I guess a state can’t protect working people and be considered “free” at the same time.
Our state scored higher than most because it has the lowest beer taxes in the nation, low cigarette taxes, weak smoke-free environment laws and no sobriety check-points. It appears public policies proven to reduce tobacco related illnesses, drunk driving and underage drinking infringe on the Mercatus Center’s views of freedom.
Laws assuring children are reasonably well educated when parents choose to home school are considered “paternalistic” by the Mercatus Center. Accordingly, the authors like the fact Wyoming has few meaningful standards for home schoolers but were unimpressed with our high rates of “victimless crimes arrests” and found our “drug law-enforcement rate is average.” They liked the fact Wyoming doesn’t do much to regulate the health insurance industry.
Robert Frost famously said, “If society fits you comfortably enough, you call it freedom.” Wyoming doesn’t quite fit comfortably enough with the Mercatus understanding of freedom. But is there a more objective standard? Yes. And it may be even more troubling for some whose political and social views arise from the ash heap of talk radio, FOX News and the talking points of their favorite politician.
One of my most memorable high school teachers was Nick Breitweiser. He taught 10th graders the meaning of freedom. I can still see him pulling out his hair as we described “freedom” as the right to vote and freedom of religion and speech. Mr. Breitweiser used Eric Fromm’s classic book Escape From Freedom in a doomed effort to teach us, "The freedom to express our thoughts ... means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own.”
Mercatus defines freedom in terms of reduced regulation of health and safety, less taxation and public spending, and other standards that would make society more comfortable for them. Their study will make headlines which will themselves become talking points. But “freedom” is something far more important, far more difficult to understand and attain. The right to vote, speak, worship…what we often call “freedom” is meaningless where so few actually have their own thoughts.