The chains they revere
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Inspired by the 1814 Defence of Fort M’Henry, Francis Scott Key referred to our nation as “the land of the free and the home of the brave” in his poem, later retitled “The Star Spangled Banner” and our national anthem. 208 years later, if we were to have a nation-wide contest for someone to write a new anthem, would the winning writer also be inspired to make note of the level of freedom of our nation?
“Freedom” has been defined as “the ability for the individual to live their lives as they choose, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others to do the same.” The Cato Institute currently ranks the United States with regard to human freedom at fifteenth overall out of 177 nations ranked.
Alabama, when ranked against the rest of the 50 states, ranks a middling 22. Hooray, we’re the twenty-second freest state in the fifteenth freest nation in the world. Yeah, I think I shall pass on the “cheer.”
Here in Alabama, we do manage better on economic freedom than on personal freedom. Our bordering states of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all manage to do substantially better regarding economic freedom, leaving only Mississippi to pull a lower ranking.
Alabama’s overall freedom level has steadily risen since our lowest ranking at thirty-second in 2012. The biggest one-year gains in freedom came in 2015, 2013 and 2019, in that order. However, if we ignore federalized policies, the only significant one-year gain came in 2013.
Alabama has always been one of the lowest-taxed states in the country. Its combined state and local tax collections, excluding motor fuel and severance, are an estimated 8.2 percent of adjusted personal income. State-level taxes fell quickly in the early stages of the Great Recession and have increased little since then.
Local taxes crept up a bit over the 2000–2008 period, but have fallen off since the highs reached during the Great Recession. Alabama has a moderate degree of choice in local government. Municipalities are more important than counties, but counties are still important, as municipalities are not numerous enough to give Alabama even one competing jurisdiction per 100 square miles.
Alabama’s debt burden is fairly low. However, public employment is high because of publicly owned utilities and hospitals.
On regulatory policy, Alabama does especially well on land-use and labor policy. However, it does well below average on its tort system and certain cronyist policies. Local zoning has a light touch, allowing the housing supply to rise elastically with the state’s growing population.
Alabama enjoys a right-to-work law, no minimum wage and liberal workers’ compensation mandates. Alabama has made some moves to improve its civil liability system, but it could do some further reform, as the state has not yet abolished joint and several liability.
Alabama suffers from too many cronyist regulations on business and occupation entry. Alabama, like many other southern states, has a strong lobby for physicians and dentists that has prevented nurse practitioners and dental hygienists from practicing independently. The state has a certificate-of-need requirement for hospital construction.
Personal automobile and homeowner’s insurance rates require the insurance commissioner’s prior approval. Alabama has a long-standing anti-price-gouging law that will create real harm if the state is ever struck by a major natural disaster. The state also bans sales of below-cost gasoline.
The state remains well below average on personal freedom despite benefiting from the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, which had the effect of nullifying Alabama’s prohibition on all same-sex partnership contracts. It has improved in other ways, too, though, as noted in the next paragraph.
Alabama ranking improved regarding gun rights when the state moved from shall-issue on concealed carry to “Constitutional Carry.” Alcohol regulations have gradually loosened over time, but the state still has some of the highest beer and spirits’ taxes in the country, along with local blue laws. It still bans direct wine shipment despite a 2017 attempt in the state senate to allow it.
Despite passing medical cannabis usage, that is still pending implementation; the state has done nothing to reform its archaic cannabis laws. Alabama long had a much higher incarceration rate than the national average, even adjusting for its violent and property crime rates. But since 2014, that rate has come down substantially.
Alabama’s police do not actually pursue arrests for victimless crimes very vigorously. The state continues to suspend driver’s licenses for drug offenses unrelated to driving. Despite substantially reducing its prison collect-call rate in 2015, the state still has one of the highest rates in the country.
Alabama does much better than average on tobacco freedom because of low taxes and relatively lenient smoking bans on private property. The state is mediocre on educational freedom, but did enact a modest private scholarship tax-credit law in 2013/14.
I have traveled most of the states and a fair portion of our world, but I chose Alabama to be my permanent home because of all the things that it has going for it geographically and many of the things that it does right politically and socially, but there is a lot of room for improvement.
It is my hope that my neighbors here will take note of a statement made long ago by Voltaire (1694-1778), who said that “It is difficult to free people from the chains they revere.” Alabama can do better, and with that, I endorse the recommendations by the Cato Institute for our state.
Fiscal: Encourage the privatization of hospitals and utilities to bring government employment down closer to the national average. Private utility monopolies will, however, require careful rate regulation.
Regulatory: Allow independent practice by nurse practitioners and dental hygienists within the scope of their training.
Personal: Continue to reduce incarceration rates with thorough sentencing reform, including abolishing mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and lowering maximum sentences for marijuana and other victimless crimes.
I would also add that I would prefer that Alabama adopt the lottery, not to increase revenues into state coffers, but to replace current revenues. In the United States, lotteries are already run by 45 states, while there are eight states that have no personal income tax.
All taxation that can be replaced with lottery revenue could be released back to the citizens, where they can in turn use the whole of their incomes to invest back into the economy. I would also have a judicial review of all of Alabama’s laws and remove, invalidate, or repudiate all archaic laws that are no longer applicable to contemporary society, especially all laws that limit the ability for the individual to live their lives as they choose, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others to do the same.