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Friday, March 6, 2009

South Dakota Ranks Tops for Freedom... But for Whom?

As the South Dakota blogosphere has noted (not without some whining), our fair state comes out at the top of a new "freedom index" produced by staunch libertarian professors William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens for George Mason University's Mercatus Center. We score a "virtual tie" with New Hampshire and Colorado (not bad places to visit!).

For perspective, we should note that Sorens is the founder and chair of the Free State Project. (Matt will be all about this survey.) Ruger is a Cato Institute fellow who argued on August 2, 2008, that Sarah Palin as VP would help John McCain win the presidency.

As South Dacola notes, the measures of freedom do seem skewed toward freedom for business rather than the general public. A look at Ruger and Sorens's methodology supports Mr. Ehrisman's complaint, and also suggests the ideal society would be something like Russia, 1997:
  1. Under Fiscal Policy, Ruger and Sorens treat government spending as inherently bad (p. 11), neglecting the fact that government spending on schools, parks, and economic development can increase opportunities and improve the quality of life.
  2. Ruger and Sorens also incorporate their belief that user fees are superior to taxes. How this relates to freedom is beyond me, as it translates into greater opportunity only for those who can afford services.
  3. By the survey's methodology, low wages for local government employees relative to private sector employees is another plus for freedom. So if your city commission pays its engineers, secretaries, and garbage haulers less than a fair wage, your town is a freer place? Hmm....
  4. Worker protections—disability insurance, workers' compensation, minimum wage, occupational safety and health agencies—count against a state's freedom score (p. 12).
  5. Gambling, while a minor issue, is considered a plus for freedom (p. 14).
  6. So, apparently, is prostitution (would Governor Palin agree on that one?).
  7. Open-container laws infringe on freedom.
Notably absent from Ruger and Sorens's freedom index is any measure of practical economic freedom. Consider that South Dakota leads the nation in the percentage of two-income families. One can argue that if more moms choose to join the work force, that's great for womens' freedom. But one can also argue that if your state's wages are so low that families have to put their toddlers in daycare while both parents take jobs to make ends meet, significant freedom is lost.

If freedom is the theoretical potential to do whatever the heck you want, then Ruger and Sorens's ideological measures reasonably give South Dakota high marks. When the Somalian government dissolved in the 1990s, Somalis were theoretically the freest people on the planet. But I doubt the typical Somali felt free.

Freedom needs to be practical, and it needs to apply to everyone. Maybe we do better to look not to Ruger and Sorens but to Rousseau, who said (I paraphrase) that real liberty is obedience to laws that we make ourselves. Liberty can only be practiced in an organized society where we make our own rules and guarantee certain basic rights to everyone. By that measure, South Dakota still has work to do.

Read the study, and think about what really makes us all free.


  1. South Dakota is right up there at the top for Liberublicans like me, I guess!

    I checked into the Free State Project before they chose New Hampshire. (It came down to a choice between New Hampshire and Wyoming.) I was sorry to see it go out East, where both property and business taxes are onerous. I guess the Free Staters had a hangup about access to an ocean port.

    The Free Staters wanted people to sign commitments to move to whatever state their leaders eventually chose. I found that to be just a wee bit odd.

    I also recall that some of the natives in New Hampshire became rather amused (and peeved) that these Libertarians were moving in and then trying to tell the natives how to be free.

    One can become enslaved to anything, even the notion of freedom.

    Nevertheless, the low taxes, low cost of living, and relative lack of red tape attracted me, as a sole proprietor whose income is independent of geographic location, to South Dakota in 2004. I don't regret that decision -- yet.

  2. In addition to SD leading the nation in the percentage of two-income families, SD leads the nation in percentage of workers who hold more than one job.

    From a recent article:

    “A university study shows that 10.2 percent of South Dakota workers had more than one job in 2007, the highest rate in the nation and well above the national two-job rate of 5.2 percent.

    The figures show the rate for South Dakota has increased every year since 2003. That year, 8.6 percent of the state's workers had two or more jobs.

    David Mitchell, a professor of business and economics at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, said he suspected many people in South Dakota work at jobs that pay less than $10 per hour. At $12,000 annually, Mitchell said it's no wonder many people need more than one job to make ends meet.”

    Read the rest of the story here.
    If you’re someone like Stan (and we’re glad you’re here, Stan!) who can relocate to SD with a career and income already established, then our state definitely provides economic freedom. But if you’re one of the native South Dakotans working two minimum wage jobs, you face a whole slew of difficult issues. You get stuck in crappy rental housing, you don’t have the time or resources to have your voice heard by your representatives, you don’t have the time to set things straight when your health insurance company (if you’re lucky enough to even have health coverage!) screws up, you don’t have enough time to spend with your kids/family, and on and on.

    We have a lot to work on in this state. I hope this study doesn’t lull us into complacency and a false sense of freedom.

  3. Believe me, Erin, I have known hard times. Each of us sees our own situation through the lens of our own situation! I always try to imagine the views other people see.

    As a bit of crosstalk relevant to another post, I thank the Lord every night for what I have (which isn't much, really), and I am aware that it could fall apart at any moment.

    How do we balance personal responsibility and entrepreneurial opportunity with social obligations and the common good?


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