The Full Measure of Freedom

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Appeared in American Outlook, Winter 2015

The Fraser Institute has embarked on an ambitious and important effort to create a comprehensive index of human freedom. As a trailblazer in the study and measurement of economic freedom, the Fraser Institute has long recognized that existing attempts to measure freedom have been imperfect—blurring various definitions of freedom, using subjective rather than objective measures, and either failing to account for economic freedom or focusing exclusively on it. The Fraser Institute’s new collection of essays on freedom—Towards a Worldwide Index of Human Freedom—represents a major step in the direction of developing an over-arching Human Freedom Index. As two of the contributors to the collection observe, “No such index currently exists, at least not one that is comprehensive and consistent with a classical liberal perspective.”

Developed in partnership the Cato Institute and Germany’s Liberales Institut, the book is edited by the Fraser Institute’s Fred McMahon, who says the goal of the human freedom index (HFI) “is to measure the degree to which people are free to enjoy classic civil liberties—freedom of speech, religion, individual economic choice, and association and assembly—in each country surveyed.” Toward that end, Ian Vásquez of the Cato Institute and Tanja Štumberger of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation have combined economic freedom measures from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World report (EFW) with measures of civil and personal freedoms to create the first prototype of a human freedom index. The index is comprised of four categories:

  • The Security and Safety category factors in a government’s threat to those who live within its borders, as well as the degree of threat to the individual posed by society at large, including threats to private property. These threats can emanate from too much government (otherwise known as tyranny; think North Korea) or too little government (otherwise known as anarchy; think Somalia). In either case, liberty is at risk or threatened. In the former, it is smothered by the state; in the latter, it is overwhelmed by license and chaos. “We mainly try to measure the degree to which people who have not violated the equal rights of others are in their body or property physically threatened, assaulted, imprisoned, kidnapped or killed, or are otherwise insecure in their safety,” Stumberger and Vasquez explain.
  • The Freedom of Movement category includes factors such as forcibly displaced populations, freedom of foreign movement, freedom of domestic movement and freedom of movement for women. “We attempt to capture government impositions or restrictions on people’s freedom to move about their country or to leave it,” the authors note.
  • The Freedom of Expression category factors in press killings, freedom of speech laws, regulations that influence media content, political pressures and controls on media content, and public dress codes. “The freedom of speech indicator measures the extent to which speech or expression, including the press, music and art, are affected by government ownership of the media or censorship,” according to the authors.
  • Finally, the Relationship Freedoms category considers freedom of assembly and association, parental authority, government restrictions on religion, social hostility toward religion and institutional discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Behind the Rankings
After all the number crunching, here’s what the top 10 looks like: New Zealand takes the top spot, followed by the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, Ireland, the United States, Denmark, Japan and Estonia.

Estonia’s placement is impressive in light of the fact that just 23 years ago—an eye-blink in the lifespan of a nation—it was shackled to one of greatest enemies of human freedom in all of history.

Indeed, the examples of Estonia and Japan put the lie to two common misconceptions.

First, the notion that freedom is something that blossoms only after centuries of nurturing is disproven by Estonia’s rapid rise from totalitarian oppression to post-Soviet orphan to exponent of freedom, and by Japan’s dramatic transformation from a militarist society ruled by a god-king into a nation with high and enduring levels of individual freedom.

Second, by placing in the HFI top 10, these countries—one an island nation in the Pacific, the other unwelcomed, unwanted and unclaimed by Europe for so many years—refute the notion that freedom is something only a small circle of Western nations can handle.

Indeed, if nothing else the HFI reminds us that economic freedom, personal freedom and political freedom are not abstractions for debate and discussion. The anecdotal evidence available indicates that freedom is a powerful force with real-world implications. Its presence makes a positive difference in the lives of individuals and in the health of nations, and its absence shackles individuals and corrodes the nation-states in which they live. Until now, it has been impossible to examine the full impact of freedom due to lack of a comprehensive, intellectually consistent measure of freedom. The development of the HFI will allow rigorous, fact-based testing of the impact of freedom.

There is no more exquisite proof of the real-world impact of freedom than the side-by-side comparison offered by the Korean Peninsula. After all, here is one nationality divided into two countries, two forms of government, two economic systems. One is free and connected to the world, the other enslaved and isolated. The difference is breathtaking. South Korea ranks 44th on the HFI and 33rd on the latest EFW. It boasts a GDP of $1.66 trillion (13th globally), a per-capita GDP of $35,700, exports of $557 billion, and a life expectancy of 79.8 years.

North Korea is nowhere to be found on the HFI or EFW, due to lack of data. The HFI authors note, “The sources clearly indicate that the government of North Korea is among the most repressive in the world with respect to religion as well as other civil liberties. But because North Korean society is effectively closed to outsiders, the sources are unable to provide the kind of specific and timely information” needed for this survey of surveys. Even so, the data that are available paint a grim picture: North Korea has a GDP of just $40 billion (106th globally), translating into a per-capita GDP of $1,800; North Korea’s exports are a paltry $3.9 billion; and its people have a life expectancy of 69.8 years—10 years less than their southern cousins.

We sometimes overlook the real-world impact of such disparity. But consider some of the facts of daily life in North Korea. Of the 24 million people in North Korea, 16 million depend on government rations of cereals like barley, corn and rice (Associated Press, “North Korea a Grim Picture of Deprivation,” July 5, 2012). Many North Korean children grow up without ever eating protein. The results, as James Morris observed when he was director of the World Food Program, are as tragic as they are avoidable: “The average seven-year-old North Korean boy is eight inches shorter, 20 pounds lighter, and has a 10-year-shorter life expectancy than his seven-year-old counterpart in South Korea” (National Public Radio, May 14, 2007).

Three other problem states that do make the 123-nation HFI rankings are Iran (116th), Syria (119th) and Pakistan (121st). Because of the policies of their governments, these three countries all seem to be headed in the wrong direction—and fast.

Not only is Iran an international pariah (owing to its drive for nuclear weapons), the Iranian regime smashed pro-freedom protests after dubious election results in 2009; rates miserably on the economic freedom index (147th out of 152); languishes in the cellar on the Property Rights Alliance’s global property rights index (107th out of 130; see the full index and is consigned to the lowest tier on a key global ranking of religious freedom.

Decades of oppression have led Syrians to rise up against their government, touching off a brutal, multi-sided civil war that has claimed 190,000 people in three-plus years of fighting (by far the bloodiest of the Arab Spring revolts), metastasized across international borders, served as a seedbed for ISIS and other jihadist terror groups spreading into Iraq and elsewhere, and reopened the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare. The Assad dynasty’s policies have sentenced Syria to 119th on last year’s economic freedom rankings (Syria is unranked in this year’s report due to the war and consequent difficulty in collecting data), 81st on the property rights measure, and predictably low levels of religious freedom.

Pakistan is a picture of dysfunction, unable to control what happens within its borders and unable or unwilling to control what its agents do beyond its borders. Pakistan is 124th on economic freedom, 113th on the property rights index and rates worse than Syria on the religious freedom measure.

In addition, there are several countries in the HFI’s lower levels whose rankings are disappointing either because of what they could be or because of where they are headed.

Turkey (83rd on the HFI) wants to join the European Union and continue its move toward economic liberalization. Yet the nearest EU member on the HFI (Romania) is 17 spots better. Not surprisingly, Turkey sits just outside the bottom half of the economic freedom rankings (71st) and smack-dab in the middle of the property rights rankings (65th). Moreover, Turkey earns the same low score as Syria on the religious freedom survey.

Russia (89th on the HFI) has devolved from an aspiring liberal economy into a mafia-style kleptocracy—and a revisionist-authoritarian one at that—abandoning the twin goals of political pluralism and the rule of law. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is 98th on the economic freedom rankings, 97th on the property rights index, and truly abysmal on measures of civil liberties.

India (92nd on the HFI) is an aspiring global leader but will not gain many followers with poor levels of economic freedom (110th), or by placing 62nd on the property rights index.

China (100th on the HFI) has the world’s largest population, is building the world’s largest economy and appears to have designs on playing a global leadership role, but a world fueled by free governments and free markets simply will not follow a country that does not respect the full range of personal and economic freedoms. China ranks 115th on economic freedom and rates in the second-to-last level on the religious freedom measure.

Permanent Plunge?
If there is a surprise in the HFI’s top 10, it may that the United States finds itself just barely in the top 10. Indeed, the self-styled “land of the free” is not as free as it once was—or as we in the United States think of ourselves.

However, experts who follow these sorts of surveys are not surprised by the position of the United States. For example, although the United States was rated second on the EFW survey in 2000, the United States plunged to 17th on last year’s EFW report before crawling back to 12th in the most recent EFW. Likewise, the United States ranks just 18th on the Property Rights Alliance’s property rights index.

This tumble from the top of the freedom measures was inevitable given Washington’s numerous government interventions in recent years, expansion of government spending and consequent shrinking of the space for free economic exchange. The examples—and warning signs—abound.

Total federal outlays have exploded. Between 2001 and 2013, federal outlays jumped from $1.86 trillion per year to $3.80 trillion per year—an increase of 104 percent, or about 8 percent per year. By way of comparison, in the previous 13-year span, federal outlays grew from $1.06 trillion to $1.78 trillion—an increase of a comparatively modest 67 percent, or about 5 percent per year. (See OMB, Fiscal Year Historical Tables)

Over-spending clearly predates the Obama administration. However, it’s worth noting that in each year of the Obama presidency, the federal government has consumed between 22.8 and 24.1 percent of GDP—far above the historic average of 21 percent of GDP (CBO, Monthly Budget Review). This dramatic shift does not appear to be a temporary, post-recession blip, but rather a permanent change in the level of federal spending—and in the level of federal involvement in the economy.

As government grows, so too does dependency on government. Consider the findings of the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Dependence on Government, which reports: “More people than ever before—67.3 million Americans, from college students to retirees to welfare beneficiaries—depend on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid or other assistance.” Today, 21.8 percent of the country receives assistance through government programs. By way of comparison, before President Johnson’s Great Society programs, 11.7 percent of the U.S. population received assistance through government programs. (See Heritage Foundation, The 2012 Index of Dependence on Government)

Work To Do 
As suggested by the title, Towards a Worldwide Index of Human Freedom is a work in progress; we are moving towards a human freedom index. McMahon notes that he and his team will present an updated version of the index that incorporates helpful comments about, and tweaks to, the initial study.

President Ronald Reagan, like McMahon’s team, worried about the growth of government in all its forms—whether democratic or dictatorial. “There is a threat posed to human freedom by the enormous power of the modern state,” he said in 1982. “History teaches the dangers of government that overreaches: political control taking precedence over free economic growth, secret police, mindless bureaucracy, all combining to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom.”

Towards a Worldwide Index of Human Freedom reminds us there is much work to do to restrain the leviathan and expand freedom in the twenty-first century—at home and abroad.

Note: As we went to press, the latest edition of the Human Freedom Index was released, revealing some changes in the HFI rankings, including a decline in the ranking of the United States from 7th to 20th.

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