Illinois Ranks 41st in Freedom
By Michael Kleen
June 20, 2011
For trampling on the liberty of its citizens, Illinois has won the unfortunate distinction of being among the worst states in the nation according to a new study by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. “Freedom in the 50 States” ranked Illinois 41st in regards to the overall personal and financial freedom its citizens enjoy. The Center rated states in four areas: fiscal policy, regulatory policy, economic freedom, and personal freedom. Illinois ranked 26th in fiscal freedom, 27th in regulatory freedom, 29th in economic freedom, and 49th in personal freedom. For those of us concerned about individual liberty, this does not bode well.
The Mercatus study measured dozens of variables and looked at more than 150 distinct public policies, including social and personal freedoms such as the right to educate your children, to own and carry firearms, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizure. New Hampshire and South Dakota were found to have the highest amount of overall freedom for their citizens, while New York ranked dead last. That means, in the past several years, Illinois has moved away from the libertarian policies of states like New Hampshire and toward the big-government policies of states like New York, New Jersey, and California.
Heavy tax burdens decrease economic freedom by reducing the amount of discretionary income you have to spend, and some of these taxes, such as the gasoline and cigarette tax, hit the poor particularly hard. In this regard, New Hampshire and New York are a stark contrast. New Hampshire has neither a state sales tax nor income tax, although it does tax dividends and gambling winnings. It taxes gasoline at only 19.6 cents per gallon and cigarettes at $1.78 cents per pack. New York, on the other hand, has a top income tax rate of 8.97 percent and a sales tax of 4 percent, with an option for local and cities governments to add up to 5 percent on top of that. It taxes gasoline at 44.4 cents per gallon and cigarettes at $4.35 cents per pack. We know in which direction our legislators would like to take Illinois, but in which direction would you like to see our state move?
Illinois’ aversion to personal freedom is particularly troubling. According to the Mercatus Center, Illinois ranks second-to-last in that category. The Center defined personal freedom as the ability of a person to dispose of his or her life, liberty, and property as he or she sees fit, as long as he or she does not infringe on the rights of others. This includes laws regulating such diverse things as education, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, gun ownership, auto and road regulations, asset-forfeiture, and arrests for victimless crimes. Victimless crimes are often defined as infractions of criminal law without any identifiable evidence of an individual (other than the perpetrator) having suffered damage in the infractions.
For decades, many cities in Illinois, such as Chicago and Oak Park, have fought to deprive citizens of their Second Amendment rights. Between 1982 and 2010, the City of Chicago banned the possession of handguns outright, until forced to remove that restriction when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and then ruled that decision applied to the states in McDonald v. Chicago (2010). Chicago still requires all firearms to be registered with the local police department. Both the concealed carry and open carry of firearms is illegal in Illinois, a policy that is currently being challenged in court by the Second Amendment Foundation.
According to the Mercatus Center, Illinois’ victimless crime arrest rates are “almost unfathomable.” They found that in 2008, excluding juveniles, more than two percent of our population was arrested for a victimless crime, mostly for marijuana use and possession. The arrest of individuals for marijuana-related offenses has become big business for the state in the form of “asset-forfeiture.” Illinois asset-forfeiture laws are some of the worst in the nation. In asset-forfeiture cases, police seize and sell the property of individuals suspected of drug offenses, regardless of whether they have been convicted of a crime. No warrant is needed. The state needs only to show probable cause, and if you believe your property has been wrongly seized, you bear the burden of proving your innocence. Law enforcement keeps 90 percent of the proceeds for any sales of seized property.
High taxes, burdensome regulation, and a legislature willing to disregard the personal liberties of its citizens all combine to drag Illinois down into the bottom half of the nation in regards to the freedom its citizens enjoy. In its recent study, the Mercatus Center listed several policy recommendations to improve Illinois’ freedom ranking: Allow the state minimum wage to revert to the federal standard, decriminalize marijuana, repeal the Salvia ban, and end partisan elections for the state supreme court. But these recommendations hardly scratch the surface. On one hand, Illinois needs a legislature and governor willing to stop meddling in the affairs of its citizens. On the other, we need to end the addiction to spending that drives high taxes and the abuse of asset-forfeiture laws. Only then can we begin to roll back the laws that have made Illinois so inhospitable to liberty.