Free State earns last place in personal-freedom rating

Strict gun laws, widespread smoking bans and a failure to legalize same-sex unions have left Maryland residents with the fewest personal freedoms of any state in the nation, according to a recent study.

The study - released this month by the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank based at George Mason University - ranked the Free State as 50th in personal freedom and 43rd in overall freedom, citing not just personal restrictions but tight regulations on labor, gambling and occupational licensing.

New Hampshire ranked first in overall freedom, while New York finished 50th as “by far” the least free.

Virginia placed ninth.

“In order to have freedom granted to you, you have to extend it to the other side,” said William Ruger, a political science professor who co-authored the study with Jason Sorens. “We’re just big on allowing people to live their lives as they see fit.”

The study looked at each state’s public policies and their effects on economic, social and personal freedom. Researchers took many states to task for limiting economic freedom through high taxes and health insurance-coverage mandates, while criticizing others for failing to legalize gay partnerships or decriminalize marijuana use.

Most forms of government intervention - ranging from record-keeping requirements on home-schooling to bans on so-called “victimless” crimes like prostitution - were considered detriments to overall freedom.

As the nation’s most-free state, New Hampshire fared especially well owing to its limited taxing and spending, relaxed gun laws and legalized same-sex unions. It also received credit for being the only state that does not require adults to wear seat belts.

“We might not share all those lifestyles,” Mr. Sorens said. “But we think freedom means not infringing on others’ rights.”

Most of the top-rated states, including Virginia and second-ranked South Dakota, were lauded for modest taxes and limited spending. Others, like third-ranked Indiana, were praised for minimal regulation on private schools and deregulation of many utilities.

New York finished dead last in overall freedom owing to high property- and income-tax rates and above-average spending on welfare programs, transit systems and public employee retirement benefits. New Jersey placed 49th, largely as a result of taxes, gun control and strict driving laws.

While Maryland Republicans have often accused the state’s Democratic leadership of reckless taxing and spending, the state did not rank especially low in economic freedom, placing 28th. Maryland ranked 11th in fiscal policy - two spots better than Virginia - owing in part to its low government debt levels and modest taxes on alcohol.

However, the study said the state could increase its freedom by rolling back licensing requirements on many professions. Researchers suggested that Virginia improve its standing by reducing government employment and making it more difficult for the government to seize private assets.

Maryland Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, Montgomery Democrat, said he thinks Maryland legislators should reconsider some of their taxing and regulation policies to make the state more business-friendly, but that such policies don’t necessarily translate to the state being “unfree.”

Mr. Simmons said that while libertarian viewpoints like the one expressed in the study are “useful,” they often underestimate the need for government in modern society. He said he thinks government is more powerful and efficient than the private sector in some areas, including care for the poor and sick.

Mr. Sorens said he and other libertarians do favor some government intervention to protect the environment, prevent predatory crimes and provide a “minimal safety net” for the poor or disabled who might need help beyond private charity.

“It’s a fallacy to think that we do not need intelligent, measured government,” Mr. Simmons said. “The choice is not between government and pure liberty. I think the choice is between heavy-handed government and intelligent, measured government.”

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