The Mercatus Center, an independently funded free-market think tank housed at George Mason University, just released its annual "Freedom in the 50 States" rankings, and the results, showing whether you live in a Randian paradise or a soul-crushing statist hellhole, are getting a lot of ridicule on Twitter. Liberals may laugh that this kind of thing is pretty silly, but it's conservatives who ought to find the results deeply unsettling. Because if "freedom" as conservatives define it determines the quality of one's existence, then they all ought to be packing their bags to move to the most free of all the states. Which, according to the Mercatus Center, is North Dakota. You can see the problem here.
The folks at Mercatus have done their best to be comprehensive in coming up with the scores, and a look at their standards shows a basically libertarian index; in other words, the vast majority of the criteria are things any contemporary conservative would agree with, plus a few of the positions that distinguish libertarians. A state can get extra points for having civil unions or gay marriage and some form of marijuana legalization (each account for 2.1 percent of the total score), but the factors that matter are things like low taxes, lack of gun control, and "freedom from tort abuse," i.e. laws that make it hard to sue when your surgeon cuts off the wrong leg. There are also some glaring omissions, like reproductive freedom, but that's not too surprising given who's making the list.
It's often said (accurately) that liberals and conservatives both value freedom; they just have different ideas about which kinds of freedom are important. For instance, we all agree that free speech is vital, but conservatives think that if you can't choose your health insurance provider, you aren't free. Liberals, on the other hand, think that particular kind of freedom is far less important than the freedom that comes from having guaranteed health coverage, which is why we'd prefer a system in which everybody is covered, even if it means we all had to be covered by a single system like Medicare. We can argue endlessly about which conception of freedom is the right one, but if the Mercatus Center is correct, then the states that score the highest on their freedom index ought to be the most fantastic places, where everyone of every ideology wants to live.
And yet, not. After North Dakota, on their list comes South Dakota, Tennessee, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma. As it happens, a lot of people are moving to North Dakota, but that isn't because you can be so free there, it's because the state is experiencing a fossil fuel boom, so there are a lot of good-paying jobs in and around the oil and gas fields. I feel like I've read a half-dozen overly long "Letter from North Dakota" magazine articles in the last couple of months, and the picture that gets painted from all of them is that the people flocking there plan to work for a few years, save as much money as they can, and then get the hell back to civilization.
We all value different things when choosing where to live. Some people want good schools, beautiful landscapes, and access to restaurants, shopping, and culture. Other people want to live where it's 50 below zero in the winter and there's nothing but flat prairie as far as the eye can see. Or let's take the the single most important element of freedom according to Mercatus, the tax burden. If that was what separated a great state from a terrible state, then we'd all want to live in one of the lowest tax states. The top five are: South Dakota, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Alabama. These are all, not surprisingly, states controlled by Republicans who keep the taxes low. And what's the effect? Is your average Washington think-tank conservative telling himself, "Man, I just have to put in a couple more years here, and then I am totally moving to Rapid City. It is going to be awesome there!" I don't mean any insult to the good people of Rapid City; I've never been there, and maybe it's great. My point is just that there's a lot more to life than low taxes.
This reminds me of something I've harped on for a long time. Elite conservatives often wax poetic about the "real America," small towns and places in "the heartland," where people supposedly have superior values and life is good. Yet for some reason, they don't choose to live there. During the 2012 primaries, I wrote about Rick Perry's love of his tiny home town of Paint Creek, Texas, where he supposedly learned so many valuable lessons about life and America. The most important lesson he learned, however, was I've got to get out of Paint Creek, which he did at the first opportunity.
So if I were a conservative, I'd look at a ranking like this and ask whether my compatriots and I were focusing on the right things.
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