At long last, we're not last.
As West Virginians, we often find ourselves near the bottom of every national comparison. From education to income levels to percent below the poverty line, we frequently rank 48th, 49th or 50th. However, a recent study gives cause for hope. Well, sort of.
West Virginia is the 42nd-freest state in the nation, according to the latest "Freedom in the 50 States" report by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. While it's great to be out of the bottom, we clearly have work to do -- 42nd just isn't good enough. But this study can serve as a guide to increasing freedom in the Mountain State and enjoying all of the benefits that follow: jobs, higher incomes, better quality of life and many more.
Research shows that states ranking highest in economic freedom provide residents higher standards of living and well-being. "Freedom in the 50 States" can help gauge economic freedom levels by measuring how free individuals in each state are from government interference. The study focuses on three main categories: fiscal policy, which includes tax burdens, government spending and government debt; regulatory policy such as property rights protections and occupational licensing constraints; and personal freedoms such as restrictions on education, tobacco and alcohol.
Comparing West Virginia to neighboring Virginia, which ranks 8th in the Mercatus study, serves as a case in point. West Virginia puts an enormous regulatory burden on businesses, placing 49th in this subcategory.
Numerous costly and confusing regulations make starting and maintaining a business in the state more expensive and onerous than necessary. Time and money spent on complying with bureaucratic procedures could be better used for hiring workers and serving customers.
Virginia's regulatory burden, on the other hand, earns the state a much healthier ninth-place ranking. But the rewards for allowing businesses to operate with greater freedom from regulations translate into more than just a higher finish. Businesses respond positively to greater freedom: There are 24 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Virginia compared to zero -- that's right, zero -- Fortune 500 companies in West Virginia.
This discrepancy contributes to strikingly different standards of living between the states. Virginians enjoy a median household income more than $20,000 higher than West Virginians, and Virginia's unemployment rate is 5.2 percent, while West Virginia's is 6.6 percent.
For two states that share nearly 400 miles of border, they are worlds apart. To put it simply, Virginia has a regulatory environment that actually encourages job creation, while West Virginia has one that makes it difficult for businesses to succeed.
Unfortunately, this lack of choice puts our beautiful state in an all-too-familiar spot. When you regulate something, you get less of it. We are over regulating employers and prospective employers and, as a result, the number of businesses and jobs they provide are lagging.
We should not celebrate mediocrity or rejoice over avoiding the dreaded 49th or 50th ranking. As a proud West Virginian, I cannot remember a time when our state was the "best" or "first" in any national comparison. Our motto is Montani Semper Liberi, "Mountaineers Are Always Free." Let's make sure we are living up to it. It's time to relax our regulatory burden and unleash the creative spirit that can make West Virginia wild and wonderful.
Ballengee is a policy analyst and research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute in Arlington, Va. He grew up in Parkersburg, attended West Virginia University, and still calls himself "a proud Mountaineer."