Assessing what ‘freedom’ means


In its annual assessment of which states are the most “free,” the libertarian-minded Cato Institute think tank recently ranked Rhode Island to be 42nd out of 50 states in the nation for “overall freedom.” This represents a drop in six spots from its ranking in 2014 and two spots from 2015.

We can’t help but ponder, what exactly does this mean?

According to the Cato Institute’s explanation, freedom means that “individuals should be allowed to dispose of their lives, liberties, and property as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.” This is a bedrock belief in libertarian circles – the notion that all governments really do outside of take your hard-earned money is infringe on your personal liberties with often pointless laws.

This study seeks, from their perspective, to assess how tangible factors, such as economic health of the state and the number of people moving into the state from other states, are affected by the less tangible factors of having more or less freedom – for instance, how difficult is it to acquire a gun, how high are taxes and what are the criminal punishments for nonviolent acts such as misdemeanor drug possession?

States are scored on their “overall respect for individual freedom,” which factors in three separate but important dimensions: fiscal policies, regulatory policies and, broadly, “personal freedoms.” These categories more or less equally make up three pieces of the puzzle, but they are broken down into dozens of smaller categories that make up a total point assessment.

This means that states might excel in some areas of perceived freedom while languishing in others. In Rhode Island, for example, while the state ranked 45th in the nation in gun rights – long guns and shotguns require a 7-day waiting period and criminal background check, handguns require a “blue card” and machine guns are outright banned – the state also ranked #1 in marriage freedom and cable TV choice.

The study reports that net migration to Rhode Island has dropped 7.5 percent and makes recommendations for Rhode Island to become more freedom-friendly that align, again, with libertarian values. These recommendations include the fiscal recommendation of cutting spending on “housing, public welfare, and employee retirement, all areas in which state and local governments spend abnormally high amounts.”

In turn, the study claims, these savings can be used to lessen tax burden on residents. One must wonder, though, whether cutting spending on public buildings – such as schools – is really a good idea in a state that is actively seeking to enter $500 billion in bonds to fix its crumbling school buildings. Similarly, it is one thing to simply say “cut spending on employee retirement” (read: pensions), and another to address how exactly the state closes over $5 billion in unfunded pension liability.

One might even be able to argue that, by cutting money on public housing and welfare, are you not further damaging personal liberties? Public housing is the only way that some people are able to afford a place to live outside of modern-day slums, and public welfare is a necessary safety net for thousands of Rhode Islanders who don’t have the funds to afford private insurance and healthcare or the facility they need in order to live out there lives in dignity as they age.

In certain ways, the perception of “freedom” as being “freedom from government” is contradictory. The government in Rhode Island, according to the study, take a little over 10 percent of a person’s income – which in the eyes of the study is excessively burdensome. However, that money is supposed to go into endeavors that actually increase our ability to live free – such as the upkeep of state parks, maintenance of highways and public buildings and the social safety net that mostly everyone is one financial disaster away from depending on.

Now, of course, you can argue that Rhode Island does not make proper use of tax dollars and point to crumbling infrastructure and municipal buildings as a symptom of that – and rightfully so. However, if being able to pursue an education, enjoy a sunset from your choice of beaches and walk the streets without being harassed for your race or sexual orientation isn’t indicative of at least a top 25 level of freedom, we don’t apparently share the same definition of freedom.


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