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Last week it was announced that a retired state Supreme Court Justice, James Johnson, was joining a conservative think tank to try to maintain our freedoms.

What was interesting was his statement, which suggested that, around here at least, we are no longer the land of the free.

“I’ve traveled all over the world,” Johnson said, “and I’ve seen enough government systems to know what works and what doesn’t work. And what doesn’t work is the sort of one-party, government-knows-all system Washington state has lived under for too many years of its history.”

He added he’s joining the group, called the Freedom Foundation, to help “protect the people against infringement on their freedom.”

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I do find it odd that one could travel the globe and conclude that the place where government is truly misguided and failing would be here. We have our lemons for sure — Bertha, City Light, etc. But Syria, Iraq or Nigeria we’re not.

Still, this being Fourth of July week, I wanted to engage the bigger question posed by Johnson: Are we losing freedom?

I hear people contend this all the time. I don’t mean just on a national level, with the surveillance of the National Security Agency or the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. But that local and state governments have, to quote the Freedom Foundation, “bound us in red tape and drowned us in red ink” to the point that effectively we are no longer free.

The latest flash point is the $15 minimum wage. Though the city is phasing it in over nearly a decade, some business owners say it’s still too big an intrusion into what should be mostly a private transaction.

Just the other day a longtime reader wrote to tell me all the rules and groupthink around here have him moving to Mexico.

“The beauty of the natural surroundings is overshadowed by the dominant selfishness of left coast politics and the narrow-minded thinking,” he wrote. “I will not miss Western Washington politics, embodied by you, mostly, and others on The Times staff.”

It used to be I caused the occasional canceled subscription. Now they’re leaving the country!

But seriously, this area, especially Seattle, has clearly become more liberal. I can see how that would rankle if you’re a conservative — it means you’re outnumbered at the ballot box.

It doesn’t necessarily mean the government’s got you on more of a leash, though.

In fact two of the biggest changes of late — gay marriage and legalized pot — have made people here more free, not less. That’s the conclusion of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, another free-market think tank that puts out an interesting “Freedom in the 50 States” ranking.

It found that nanny-state Washington actually ranks “well above average in terms of personal freedom,” due to our permissive policies on marriage, marijuana and death with dignity, our lax prosecution of certain victimless crimes and our strong support of gun rights (“for a liberal state, Washington’s gun-control laws remain quite modest”).

It’s true there are plenty of rules around here — mandatory food composting, anyone? — but my own experience is that even uptight Seattle is getting more of a live and let live attitude, at least about some of them.

One example: In the 1980s, Seattle police had years when they wrote 8,000 jaywalking tickets — one for every 70 residents, the most zealous enforcement rate in the country. Last year? They wrote 185, total. I’m a chronic jaywalker, and I’ve noticed this easing up. It feels like liberation!

The Freedom rankings say our land-use and business regulations are on the severe side, while our taxes are middling (and when they’re not, they’re often voter-approved). The overall picture: We’re strict on businesses but pretty easygoing on people (unless they’re smokers, and then there’s holy hell to pay).

It all seems about the right balance to me. But I’m not the one joining a freedom movement. Or moving to Mexico. You?

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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