The Cato Institute released its latest Freedom in the 50 States study, which …
… presents a completely revised and updated ranking of the American states based on how their policies promote freedom in the fiscal, regulatory, and personal realms.
This edition again improves upon the methodology for weighting and combining state and local policies in order to create a comprehensive index. Authors William Ruger and Jason Sorens introduce many new policy variables suggested by readers. More than 230 policy variables and their sources are now available to the public on a new website for the study. Scholars, policymakers, and concerned citizens can assign new weights to every policy and create customized indices of freedom, or download the data for their own analyses.
In the 2016 edition, the authors have updated their findings to:
- Improve estimates of the “freedom value” of each policy (the estimated dollar value of each freedom affected to those who enjoy it);
- Provide the most up-to-date freedom index yet, including scores as of December 31, 2014;
- Include citizen choice among local governments as an important factor modifying the freedom value of more locally based taxation;
- Significantly expand policies affecting business and personal freedom, including new variables for occupational licensing, tort liability climate, land-use regulation, entry and price regulation, alcohol laws, and civil asset forfeiture;
- Analyze how the policies driving income growth and interstate migration have changed pre– and post–Great Recession.
And what can be said about Wisconsin, which is, you’ll note, 27th of the 50 states?
For all the talk about Scott Walker’s “radical reforms,” we find that economic freedom has been more or less constant since 2011, relative to other states, whereas personal freedom has grown substantially.
The Badger State has relatively high taxes, which have fallen only marginally since 2012. State taxes are projected to be 5.8 percent of personal income in FY 2015, while local taxes have risen since FY 2000 and now stand at 4.4 percent of income, above the national average. Wisconsinites have ample choice among local governments, with more than two and a half effective competing jurisdictions per 100 square miles. State and local debt has fallen somewhat since FY 2007, and government employment and subsidies are below average. Overall, Wisconsin has seen definite improvement on fiscal policy since 2010, but it hasn’t yet reached the national average.
On regulatory policy, we see little change in recent years, although our index does not yet take account of the 2015 right-to-work law. Land-use freedom is a bit better than average; local zoning has not gotten out of hand, though it has grown some. The state has a renewable portfolio standard, but it is not high. Apart from its right-to-work law, Wisconsin was already reasonably good on labor-market policy. Cable and telecommunications have been liberalized. Occupational licensing increased dramatically between 2000 and 2006; still, the state is about average overall on extent of licensure. Nurse practitioners enjoy no independent practice freedom. Insurance freedom is generally good, at least for property and casualty lines. The state has a price-gouging law, as well as controversial, strictly enforced minimum-markup laws for gasoline and general retailers. The civil liability system is above average and improved significantly since 2010, due to a punitive damages cap.
Wisconsin is below average on criminal justice policies, but it has improved substantially since 2010 because of local policing strategies. The incarceration rate has fallen, as have nondrug victimless crime arrest rates. The state’s asset forfeiture law is one of the stricter ones in the country, but equitable sharing revenues are a little higher than average, suggesting some evasion of the law. The state was required to legalize same-sex marriage in 2014. Tobacco freedom is extremely low, due to airtight smoking bans and high taxes. Educational freedom grew significantly in 2013–14 with the expansion of vouchers. However, private schools are relatively tightly regulated. There is almost no legal gambling, even for social purposes. Cannabis law is unreformed. Wisconsin is the best state for alcohol freedom, with no state role in distribution, no keg registration, low taxes (especially on beer—imagine that), no blue laws, legal happy hours, legal direct wine shipment, and both wine and spirits in grocery stores. The state is now about average on gun rights after the legislature passed a shall-issue concealed-carry license, one of the last states in the country to legalize concealed carry.
Next to last, to be precise. The only thing that could be said to be libertarian about this state is the aforementioned alcohol freedom. The existence of the minimum-markup law is an embarrassment to 21st-century commerce. Despite tax cuts, Wisconsin remains one of the highest taxed states in the U.S., in large part because Wisconsin doesn’t require an actually balanced budget, hasn’t really made actual state budget cuts and has no constitutional limits on spending and taxation.
Wisconsin in fact has never been remotely free, in large part because of, as you’ve previously read here, our toxic-to-freedom mix of “Yankee founders and northern European immigrants; combine Protestant reformers and a strong Roman Catholic presence; add the labor activism of the industrial era to agrarian roots; douse liberally with the “Social Gospel,” the Wisconsin Idea, and Progressive-era legislation,” which gave us the “moralistic” political tradition that “considers government ‘a positive instrument with a responsibility to promote the general welfare.’ This culture is predominant in 17 states that stretch from New England through the upper Midwest to the Pacific coast — what several observers of American history and politics have called ‘Greater New England.'” Including, unfortunately, this state, as well as Maine, Vermont, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado, Utah and Oregon.
That is an interesting observation about “choice among local governments.” Wisconsin has 3,120 units of government, second highest in the U.S. behind Illinois. (That number will be decreasing by one in the next few years as the cities of Madison and Fitchburg swallow up what’s left of the Town of Madison.) “Choice among local governments” could be another way of saying “too many units of government,” given, for instance, the 15 separate municipalities between Neenah, Kaukauna and the Calumet County part of Appleton (the cities of Neenah, Menasha, Appleton and Kaukauna; the villages of Fox Crossing, Kimberly, Little Chute and Combined Locks; and the towns of Neenah, Menasha, Grand Chute, Greenville, Vandenbroek, Buchanan and Harrison), which could be said to be 14 too many, at least in police and fire and other governmental services. Merging municipalities should take out the salaries at the very top.
At least the trend is sort of going in the correct direction …
… though with no real speed. Wisconsin ranks worse than Indiana (fourth), Iowa (ninth) and Michigan (24th), but better than Minnesota (38th) and Illinois (44th) among our neighbors.
Mercatus suggests the state needs to …
- Fiscal: Reduce the income tax burden while continuing to cut spending on employee retirement and government employment.
- Regulatory: Abolish price controls.
- Personal: Eliminate teacher licensing and mandatory state approval for private schools.
It’s pretty clear the political will to make our state more free even in those three areas is lacking. (The authors probably don’t know the widespread loathing of property taxes in this state.) Republicans refuse to do the work to get voters to approve constitutional limits on spending and taxes, and won’t even get rid of the minimum-markup law.
And yet, Democrats do nothing but (seek to, given their out-of-power status) raise taxes and expand government, persisting in the mistaken belief that government is anything beyond a necessary evil, perhaps because they think it’s the 1920s and Fighting Bob La Follette is still alive. It’s impossible to believe that the creator of the federal government Golden Fleece Award denoting ludicrously wasteful government spending, Sen. William Proxmire, was a Democrat. Think Sen. Tammy Baldwin or former and possibly future Sen. Russ Feingold want to cut your taxes? How about the would-be Democratic governors out there?