The Mercatus Center at George Mason University believes in freedom; so much so that when it issued a report this week ranking the 50 states according to their respect for personal freedom, it included the raw data and invited readers to assign their own rankings.
With that generous suggestion in mind, we respectfully take issue with Utah's 20th overall finish in the report, especially to the extent that its liquor laws and prohibitions on gambling may have dragged down its score.
The report's authors are clear about their definition of freedom. "In our view, individuals should be allowed to dispose of their lives, liberties, and properties as they see fit, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others," they write. But few personal behaviors can intrude more on the rights of others than drinking alcohol and gambling.
Certainly, alcohol can be consumed at responsible levels, but the evidence is clear that a market-based retail system for selling and distributing alcohol, complete with the advertising and promotion necessary to increase sales, leads to a host of societal ills. These run the gamut from traffic accidents attributable to drunken driving to families that are broken due to abuse and neglect, and a myriad of diseases and other health problems.
Utah is one of 18 states that operate monopolies over liquor sales. Its stated philosophy is "to make liquor available to those adults who choose to drink responsibly — but not to promote the sale of liquor." That philosophy has worked well. The state consistently ranks at the bottom nationally for per capital alcohol consumption and DUI-related deaths. Religious preference may have much to do with this, but laws affect behavior, as well.
Utah has changed its liquor laws in recent years get rid of some cumbersome rules, but it has not abandoned its basic philosophy, nor should it. As a senior adviser for the Norwegian ministry of health and social affairs discovered when he came here to study liquor laws in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics, there are no shortage of outlets along the Wasatch Front, and particularly in Salt Lake City, for purchasing alcohol. But the enormous alcohol industry, relentlessly pushing everything from glamorous images to new products such as sweet-flavored alco-pops, would, if left unfettered, eventually rob more people of freedoms.
We note that the Mercatus study regarded gambling as the least important factor in its paternalism index. This is because, while gambling is popular, "it is hardly critical to the foundations of the Republic." We agree, but add that legal gambling removes money from the economy that otherwise could create wealth or stimulate job growth. Gambling produces nothing of value and often destroys lives and families in the process.
Having said all this, we need to note that the report overall paints Utah in a positive light. The state ranks third in terms of regulatory policy, which reflects its overall business-friendly atmosphere. The report's recommendations for Utah include loosening its licensing requirements for taxi drivers and chauffeurs, funeral attendants, occupational therapist assistants, recreational therapists, interpreters and translators, and other occupations. That is a good suggestion.
As the report notes, its freedom rankings correlate with recent population shifts. People vote with their feet and move to the states they consider the freest. Utah's impressive growth rate — it was the third fastest growing state in the century's first decade, increasing by almost 24 percent — is a sign that individuals likely see it somewhat higher than 20th.