By Megan Poinski
The Free State really isn’t very free, according to a new report from the Mercatus Center in Northern Virginia, a libertarian research group.
According to a study from Mercatus Center scholars who looks at how truly free each state is, Maryland ranked 43rd, seventh from the bottom. Done by two scholars with the George Mason University-based group, the study ranks Maryland dead last in personal freedom, 44th in regulatory freedom and 28th in economic freedom.
But one surprise in the study was how well Maryland ranks on fiscal issues, coming in 11th among the states on its freedom rankings. The Tax Foundation, business groups and Republicans typically beat up Maryland for high taxes.
Surprise on taxes, spending
Jason Sorens, a political science professor at SUNY Buffalo who co-authored the study, was “a little surprised ” too, given Maryland’s poor rankings in other categories.
The main reason for the good ranking on government taxes and spending is the way the Mercatus study calculated the fiscal burden. Maryland’s state “debt ratio to personal income is very low” compared to other states, Sorens said. “Its ratio of government spending to personal income is also low.”
“On tax collection, Maryland is about average,” he said.
Sorens noted that the Tax Foundation, which ranks Maryland as the 12th highest taxed state, counts taxes paid to other states. The Mercatus study puts Maryland “right there in the middle.”
Maryland’s tax burden looks higher because personal incomes are higher, Sorens said.
Study aims for policy debate
“We hope that this will spark a broader discussion of what freedom looks like, and more of a debate in public policy,” said Daniel Rothschild, managing director of state and local policy for the Mercatus Center.
The study, done every other year since 2007, looks at how government-created rules, regulations and obligations impact residents. The states with fewer obligations on residents are deemed in the study as “more free,” while states with more regulation and deeper debt are “less free.” The data in the study released this week are current as of Jan. 1, 2009.
Regulatory freedoms deal with labor regulations, health insurance policy, licensing requirements for occupations, and tort laws. Personal freedoms look at how “paternalistic” state laws are, as well as how many people the laws impact. This category looks at gun control, driving laws, marijuana possession penalties, same-sex marriage, and campaign finance laws.
The study goes through a litany of regulations Maryland has in place for its residents – which are responsible for its rock-bottom personal freedom rating.
“Maryland’s impositions on personal freedoms” include many things, the report states. Gun control is tight, marijuana laws are strict, there are many restrictions on motorists, and the state keeps a tight rein on gambling. When making arrests, police can often collect DNA from suspects. Additionally, the study decries that the state must even approve curriculum used by parents homeschooling their children.
There are also policies in place that burden the business world, the study says. These include many occupations that are licensed, “severe” labor regulations, health insurance coverage mandates – which the study says adds more than 50% to the total cost – and “almost totally unchecked” use of eminent domain.
The study authors recommend that Maryland legalize same-sex marriage, allow more exceptions for medical marijuana, and license fewer occupations.
Red states freer
William Ruger, one of the study’s authors, said that many conservative “red” states tended to be freer across the board. On the other end of the spectrum, liberal “blue” states tend to bring up the rear. Joining Maryland, with its strong Democratic majority, as some of the “least free” states are Democratic powerhouses like California, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
“While bright blue states tend to be more liberal on some things, the majority of them are more paternalistic,” he said.
The “freest” states, according to the study, are New Hampshire, South Dakota, Indiana and Idaho.
Study authors also looked at population trends and saw that people have been moving away from the “less free” states. Meanwhile, “more free” states have seen population growth. The more free states, they predicted, are on track to become the cultural centers where people want to live.
Progressives take exception
Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, says the Mercatus Center’s study is looking at personal freedoms in the wrong way. Maryland has instituted many policies that enhance public health and safety – like taxing tobacco so that fewer people smoke, or making it more difficult for criminals to buy guns. The Mercatus Center mischaracterizes “personal freedom,” he said, and Maryland should really be ranked as the nation’s “most free” state.
“There’s nothing better for freedom than being alive,” DeMarco said.
Rion Dennis, executive director of Progressive Maryland, said that the things the study says Maryland is doing wrong have actually done very well for the people of the state.
“You can put together a compendium of any number of things and say what freedom is,” he said. “Here in Maryland, we enjoy a prosperity from all of those rules and regulations that were put in place.”