Land of the less and less free

(Denver Post, Jan. 29) So now we’ve heard the State of the Union according to Obama and the State of the State according to Hickenlooper. We’ve seen Gingrich’s debating prowess and Romney’s tax returns, Santorum’s sweaters and Ron Paul’s scowl. But how much does that really tell us about the shape America is in?

If we’re not the land of the free, we’re nothing, right? Economists James Gwartney, Robert Lawson, and Joshua Hall, like a team of doctors taking your vitals before surgery – the operation in this case being the potential removal of elected officials across the land – bring grim news that Americans’ freedom to better ourselves economically has slid drastically in this decade. Hardly the change we hoped for.

The authors’ “Economic Freedom of the World 2011,” a data–rich report from the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, BC, uses five indicators to rank 141 countries on how well they allow you and me to work toward affluence, keep what we earn, and use it as we choose, free from government interference. Since 2000, our country fell down the scale faster than almost any nation on earth.

Notice that this occurred under various combinations of unified and divided control in Washington. The unrelenting trend, with bipartisan culpability, has been “liberty yielding and government gaining ground,” as Thomas Jefferson warned. Notice too that the report’s data end in 2009. The humongous deficits and health–care takeover since then have only worsened our score.

America still ranks 10th in the Fraser global index (exactly where we place in another valuable economic–freedom scorecard just updated by the Heritage Foundation). But look who’s ahead of us: Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Chile, the United Kingdom, and tiny Mauritius.

Then blush to see the company we’re in among the getting–less–free–fastest club: only the Latin caudillo regimes of Venezuela and Argentina, and the North Atlantic basket cases of Iceland and Ireland, have regressed as badly as Uncle Sam did in recent years. No wonder big majorities are now telling pollsters they believe we’re in decline and will leave our kids a narrower horizon of opportunity.

But not all the tidings are bad. Colorado as a state, when ranked against our 49 sisters and the 10 Canadian provinces by another team of Fraser Institute scholars in “Economic Freedom of North America 2011,” trails only Alberta (the oil–rich neighbor whom Obama spurned with his Keystone pipeline veto), Delaware, Texas, and Nevada. We actually gained one place over the previous year, 2008 to 2009.

This result again, paralleling the experience in Washington, has been achieved even as party control seesawed at the state capitol. You can be sure that’s mostly because our Colorado constitution, unlike the federal constitution, has a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to restrain government growth.

And partisans on both sides shouldn’t forget that the North America scorecard (EFNA) has a two–year data lag exactly as the world rankings do. Hence it doesn’t reflect the Democrats’ “dirty dozen” tax increases in 2010, nor the Republicans’ sad 2011 performance with a state enabling bill for Obamacare and no effort to repeal Bill Ritter’s car tax – er, fee.

Fraser rates the 60 states and provinces on 10 criteria under the headings of size of government, takings and discriminatory taxation, and labor market freedom. If Colorado had passed Right to Work in 2008, we’d rank even higher. And that’s not just a bragging point. EFNA includes statistical proof that living standards rise in a state with almost 1:1 correlation to the rise of economic freedom.

Occupying the best cabin on a sinking ship counts for little, however. If the Canadians, Brits, and Aussies continue outdistancing the U.S. in that precious freedom Jeb Bush has called “the right to rise,” all of our red– and blue–state political cheering will be just so much white noise.

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