By: D.J. Bettencourt – APril 2013
The Mercatus Center, on the campus of George Mason University, is billed as an “education research and outreach center” and does something incredibly rare for an institution within higher education. It thinks seriously about freedom and how states can protect and expand it. Not ironically, Mercatus takes its name from the Latin word meaning “markets.”
Every few years Mercatus publishes a comprehensive study, “Freedom in the 50 States” that ranks each state by combining their ranked scores for fiscal, regulatory, and personal freedom. For individuals and businesses looking to escape environments they dislike and moving to states they believe to be more beneficial economically and personally, the study is a vital road map.
For New Hampshire, the latest study conducted between 2009 and 2012, looks outstanding. We rank as the 4th freest state in the nation and we are far and away the freest state in New England. By comparison, Massachusetts ranked 30th, Maine 39th, Vermont 43rd, Connecticut 40th, Rhode Island 46th. The freest state was North Dakota.
While this ranking is very encouraging for the Granite State, a deeper look within the numbers reveals some troubling trends. From 2001 to 2008, New Hampshire reigned as the freest state in America. In 2009, Mercatus saw New Hampshire’s grip begin to slip but we maintained a second place ranking. However, according to the most recent study, by the end of 2010 we were clearly no longer the freest state. What was the culprit for New Hampshire’s freedom decline? Democratically controlled legislatures from 2007 to 2010.
The Mercatus study vanquished the notion that New Hampshire’s longstanding heritage based on freedom was impenetrable, regardless of which political party was in control of state offices. As Ronald Reagan correctly understood well over 30 years ago, freedom isn’t magically passed along in the bloodstream, rather it must be protected and cultivated.
The study specifically cited the 2009-2010 legislatures’ decision to destructively raise numerous taxes and fees and utilizing one-time stimulus funds to bloat the size of government which resulted in massive debt. While the study credited the 2011-2012 legislature for cutting spending and expanding educational freedom, the good work we accomplished in two years could not mitigate the damage wrought by the Democrats in previous four years.
Additionally, the study exposed troubles beyond simple notions of freedom. New Hampshire scored poorly in several specific economic rankings that indicate economic health and competitiveness. For example, we rank only 7th in economic freedom and 27th when it comes to regulatory policy. Most troubling, we rank 27th when it comes to ability for our citizens to find a job and 33rd in both health insurance and educational freedom. Thanks to the 2011-2012 Republican legislature, these porous rankings are improvements from even the worse rankings. Consequently, New Hampshire has some significant work to do to compete economically with the rest of the nation.
Will we remain a beacon of freedom in New England and America? It remains an uncertain question. The 2012 elections returned Democrats to power in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and the Governor’s Office. The leadership teams in both are nearly identical to those that precipitated New Hampshire’s decline and it appears they are picking up exactly where they left off. Within the House budget, passed just last week, Democrats increased spending by 16% and raised dozens of taxes and fees.
In the end, elections have consequences both good and bad. Unlike 2012, the advocates of freedom and responsibly sized government must craft a compelling argument for the 2014 elections about why freedom matters. We must start to recruit candidates who can effectively articulate that message.
The Mercatus study and others like it are helpful but they are not complete arguments. It must be defined in terms that make every citizen appreciate why they should care that New Hampshire regains its status as the freest state in America. After all, our freedoms hang in the balance.
D.J. Bettencourt served as a State Representative in the New Hampshire House of Representatives from 2005 to 2012 and was the House Majority Leader for the 2011-2012 legislative term. He currently works as a special education academic assistant and is the Volunteer Coordinator at the Salem Animal Rescue League.