Hope springs eternal for freedom worldwide
A freedom recedes globally, the question is whether the tide has turned for good. Pessimism is in order for the short-run (say 20 years), but history provides hope for the long-run.
The just released Human Freedom Index 2020: A Global Measurement of Personal, Civil, and Economic Freedom, published by Canada’s Fraser Institute and the U.S.-based Cato Institute, shows a steady decline of freedom from 2008 to 2018, the most recent comprehensive data. (Ian Vásquez, director of Cato’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, and I co-author the report.)
The index is the first to measure all crucial aspects of freedom, including personal freedom, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and personal safety, as well as economic freedom, the ability of individuals to make their own economic decisions without government or crony interference.
Further declines in freedom, perhaps large declines, are likely as data become available for 2019 and 2020. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has intensified its attack on freedom at home and abroad. Regimes in Hungary, Poland and Turkey undermine the rule of law and suppress media freedom. Dictatorships in Egypt, Russia, Venezuela, Iran and many other countries have redoubled repression.
Why is this happening?
In the early 1990s, with freedom surging after the fall of the Soviet Union, historian Samuel Huntington famously proposed three waves of democratization. The first began with the American Revolution and spread to a handful countries. It receded with the rise of fascism and communism after the First World War. The defeat of fascism in the Second World War propelled the second wave and then it too receded as the Soviet Union extended its grip and semi-fascist populist and militarist regimes gained ground.
Huntington’s happy third wave began with the downfall of remaining fascist states in Europe, starting with Portugal in 1974. It became a tidal wave with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the spread of democracy across post-Soviet states.
The Human Freedom Index measures freedom while Huntington’s waves were about democracy or, more accurately, liberal democracy where freedom accords the people the ability to make rational democratic choices about their government. Elections in Iran and Venezuela hardly make these countries democratic. True and stable democracy is impossible without freedom and in the long-run it’s likely only democracy can safeguard freedom.
So freedom tracks Huntington’s democracy waves. But just as giant waves recede far back down the shore, Huntington’s huge third wave is in full retreat. Several forces drive the relapse. One is disappointed expectations.
People living under dictatorship, communist or otherwise, were mired in poverty. Liberal democracies generated unprecedented prosperity. It seemed so easy to repressed people—replace the dictatorship and become as rich as Germans, everyone driving a Mercedes. With such unreasonable expectations, democracy disappointed many.
Few of the new democracies had a history of sustained democracy and thus the institutions required to support democracy—rule of law, tolerance of different ideas and people, trust, minority rights, the willingness to support democratic outcomes, etc.
Then there’s greed and hunger for power. Without institutions protective of democracy, political leaders often strove to turn temporary conditional power into permanent power. They capitalized on disappointment and tribalism to do so.
The CCP has replaced the Soviet Union as the great enemy of freedom as it tries to export its “Chinese model.” But unlike old-style Marxism, the CCP has no philosophical appeal. All it demands is obeisance and no criticism of the CCP, and that does require the suppression of freedom. The collapse of the CCP would return freedom to Hong Kong, secure it in Taiwan, and free other countries from CCP pressure. No one knows when or if this will happen.
But I am optimistic for the rest of the world. A fourth wave will come, due to the same forces that propelled the over waves. Free countries simply create better lives for their citizens than unfree ones. All you have to do is look around the world—and back through history—to see that the best places for people to live are liberal democracies.
This becomes a living testament to the failures of regimes that promised better lives as they stole freedom and democracy. People begin to understand that while liberal democracy may not create overnight miracles it lays out a path to improved lives.
As Huntington’s three waves retreated, each left more freedom than it found. Even at the height of fascism, more countries were democratic than when the first wave started. Even when communism spread its gospel after the war, there were more free countries than when the second wave began. And now, as the third wave recedes, there are far more free countries than when this wave began with the end of fascism in Portugal.