This Memorial Day, Americans paused and gave due respect to our deceased veterans for protecting our nation’s freedom. "Freedom isn't free," the saying goes, as we give thanks to those who bravely laid down their lives in its name. But what exactly is this freedom our veterans sought to protect, and are we — living in the so-called "land of the free" — truly free?
Greek philosopher Epictetus (55 – 135 A.D.) described freedom in its purest form: “Is freedom anything else than the right to live as we wish? Nothing else.” So, freedom is nothing new nor is it a uniquely American concept. The virtue of living free has been apparent since ancient times. But it's also apparent Epictetus wouldn’t deem us as living free if he were here today.
Perhaps freedom within society is better described by Robert Frost: “You have freedom when you're easy in your harness.” Freedom then becomes a measure of the degree to which others don’t strangle our right to live freely. When our troops put their lives on the line, they strive to protect our existing level of freedom, and also enable us to loosen our harnesses a bit more at a time. Indeed, creating a birthplace for freedom, where liberty can grow and mature, was part of the master plan of our Founding Fathers
So how does modern American freedom currently measure up?
America fares decently on most fronts when comparing degrees of non-strangulation relative to other nations, but it's not considered the best. There is also strong evidence that American freedoms are declining. Given the fact that most Americans can name all five of the Simpsons and three American Idol judges but not the five freedoms granted under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it’s no wonder. It also doesn’t help when U.S. officials take advantage of the distracted Simpsons fan by increasingly violating our rights.
While this is all good and of interest, George Mason University’s 2013 Freedom In 50 States report may be the best tool yet for the purpose of examining how individual freedom relates to phenomena such as economic growth, migration, and partisan politics in the United States.
Freedom in 50 States scores all states on over 200 metrics encompassing fiscal policy, regulatory policy, and personal freedom, weighing public policies according to the estimated costs that government restrictions on freedom impose. GMU's understanding of freedom follows from the natural-rights liberal thought of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Robert Nozick, but it is also consistent with the rights-generating rule-utilitarianism of Herbert Spencer and others.
The data indicates that New York is the least free state in the union overall. Leading the nation in taxes and debt and ranking poorly on progressive economic regulations and personal freedoms, it’s not surprising New York also has the highest net migration out of the state as a result. California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Hawaii round off the bottom five freedom-haters.
On the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota loves freedom the most. It scores exceptionally well on regulatory and fiscal policy. Moreover, North Dakota scores slightly above average on personal freedom, and also earns the most-improved award over the last decade. North Dakota’s southern neighbor, South Dakota, also fares very well, as do Oklahoma, New Hampshire, and Tennessee, to round off the top five liberty-lovers.
No, we don’t live in a dreamland of pure freedom as described by Epictetus. And yes, our harnesses are getting uncomfortably snug, for some even more so than others. But as the caskets of our soldiers are draped with the American flag, we must remember that they gave their life in order to give us the liberty to burn one. Honor them, and strive to become a freer nation.