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Freedom Under Assail

Freedom Under Assail

No. 7-8, Sep.-Dec. 2017 » Bridging News

For millennia, papers and books have been written about the essence and significance of human freedom. In these contributions, competing conceptions of freedom aimed to define the contest between liberty and power. Philosophers Plato and Hobbes, for example, thought that extensive or absolutist rule over society was compatible with their definition of freedom because, in their view, it would prevent society from plunging into violence or even chaos, which they perceived as more detrimental to freedom than a powerful state. Others, such as the 6th-century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu and the 16th-century Spanish scholastics, expressed and developed ideas consistent with the view of the father of modern political philosophy, John Locke, that freedom implies that an individual not “be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own”[1].

Philosophers Plato and Hobbes, for example, thought that extensive or absolutist rule over society was compatible with their definition of freedom because, in their view, it would prevent society from plunging into violence or even chaos, which they perceived as more detrimental to freedom than a powerful state.

Until 2015, the world lacked a broad measurement of freedom. The significance of measuring human freedom can be broken into three parts. First, such measurement discloses the extent to which the freedoms of individuals are respected in the countries observed. Second, the human freedom dataset offers an opportunity to explore relationships between human freedom and other variables, like affluence, economic growth, poverty, democracy, innovation, literacy, social development, foreign aid, maternal mortality rate, life expectancy, and happiness. Third, the measurement, by itself, as well as the findings on the relationships, could be an effective tool in the advocacy for a broader scope of freedoms. 

Human Freedom Index 

Since 2015, the Cato Institute in the United States, the Fraser Institute in Canada, and the Liberales Institut at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Germany are co-publishing the annual Human Freedom Index. The index is the broadest measurement of freedom, both in terms of the number of indicators used as well as the number of countries covered. My co-author Ian Vásquez and I use 79 distinct indicators to capture the degree to which people in 159 countries are free to enjoy rights such as freedom of expression, press, religion, assembly, movement, trade, identity, and relationships, as well as measure the rule of law and security & safety, both being essential conditions of freedom that protect the individual from coercion by others.

The index reveals freedom is under assault in many parts of the world, primarily due to the rise of nationalism, populism, and hybrid forms of authoritarianism being sold as viable alternatives. Accordingly, global freedom rating has declined from 7.05 to 6.93 on a ten-point scale in the 2008-2015 period, with about half of the countries in the index increasing their ratings and half decreasing (See Figure 1). At a country level, the largest deteriorations in freedom have occurred in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Venezuela, Belize, Greece, Ukraine, Brazil, Argentina, and Iran. Simultaneously, the good news comes from Taiwan, Angola, Myanmar, Cote d'Ivoire, Lesotho, and Guinea-Bissau, where freedom has taken root, which is manifested in the largest increases in freedom ratings for these countries. 

Figure 1: Change in Human Freedom Score

Source: Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, The Human Freedom Index 2017.

The top and bottom spots 

The human freedom dataset offers an opportunity to explore relationships between human freedom and other variables, like affluence, economic growth, poverty, democracy, innovation, literacy, social development, foreign aid, maternal mortality rate, life expectancy, and happiness.

In the latest Human Freedom Index, the top 10 jurisdictions in order were Switzerland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and, tied at 9th place, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Selected countries rank as follows: Canada (11), Sweden (13), Germany (16), the United States (17), Japan (27), Romania (28), South Korea (29), Poland (32), France (33), Italy (35), Chile (37), South Africa (68), Mexico (73), Indonesia (78), Turkey (84), Kenya (89), Malaysia (97), India (102), United Arab Emirates (116), Russia (126), China (130), Nigeria (133), Pakistan (141), Saudi Arabia (149), Zimbabwe (146), Iran (154), Egypt (155), Venezuela (158), and Syria which comes in last (See Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Top Five and Bottom Five Countries on the Human Freedom Index 

Source: Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, The Human Freedom Index 2017.

Notably, at the top of the index, Switzerland has replaced Hong Kong, with the territory falling to second place for the first time in the ranking's history due to growing interference from mainland China in its policies and institutions, including infringements on freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary.

Of the 12 major categories that make up the index, all but three have seen some deterioration since 2008. Movement, Expression and Information, and Rule of Law saw the largest decreases since 2008, while Sound Money saw the largest increase (See Figure 3). 

Figure 3: Human Freedom Score by Category (2015) and Changes (2008–2015) 

Sources: Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, The Human Freedom Index 2017; James Gwartney et al., Economic Freedom of the World: 2017 Annual Report.

Specific indicators 

With the observed drops in human freedom in the last report, Ukraine has for the first time moved into the last (fourth) quartile of human freedom, while Hungary has for the first time moved from the first quartile of human freedom to the second.

The personal freedom subindex includes seven indicators that relate to women-specific freedoms: female genital mutilation, missing women, equal inheritance rights, women’s freedom of movement, parental rights, female-to-female relationships, and divorce. Although they surely fall short of capturing a complete measure of women’s freedoms, the indicators cover a large range of important information and are likely correlated with other women-specific indicators of liberty not represented in cross-country data. Here we have averaged the seven components to get average ratings by region of women-specific personal freedom. Following that calculation, Figure 4 shows high levels of women-specific freedom in most regions of the world, with declining freedom in South East Asia (7.60), sub-Saharan Africa (6.85), South Asia (6.13), and the Middle East and North Africa (4.18). Only two regions have seen a decline since 2014: Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean (−0.27) and the Middle East and North Africa (−0.41).

Figure 4: Average Women-Specific Personal Freedom Score by Region, 2015 

Source: Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, The Human Freedom Index 2017.

Freedom by region

Out of 17 regions, the highest levels of freedom are in Western Europe, Northern Europe, and North America (Canada and the United States). The lowest levels are in the Middle East and North Africa, Eastern Europe (Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine), South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa (See Figure 5). Among continents, North America scores the highest and Africa scores the lowest, with primary causes in Africa being civil wars that are decreasing security and safety, repressive authoritarian regimes, or/and the repression of women’s rights in the name of Islam. 

Figure 5: Human Freedom Score by Region (2015) and Changes (2008–2015)

Source: Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, The Human Freedom Index 2017.

Looking at Eastern Europe (Central Europe & Baltics, Eastern Europe, and South Eastern Europe), the highest level of freedom is in Estonia, followed by Lithuania, Latvia, Czech Republic, and Romania, while the lowest levels are in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine (See Figure 6). 

Figure 6: Human Freedom in Eastern Europe 

Source: Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, The Human Freedom Index 2017.

Countries that have high personal freedom tend to exhibit high economic freedom.

Notably, Ukraine (-17), Poland (-10), and Hungary (-6) have lost the most ranks since the last report in 2016. Weak rule of law is a common problem in all former socialist economies in the region. However, in these three countries, the visible weakening of rule of law and the politicization of the judicial system, alongside attacks on press freedom, are posing the main threat to overall freedom, as well as creating a high obstacle to future growth of these economies and the wellbeing of their citizens. With the observed drops in human freedom in the last report, Ukraine has for the first time moved into the last (fourth) quartile of human freedom, while Hungary has for the first time moved from the first quartile of human freedom to the second. 

Figure 7: Mapping Human Freedom in Eastern Europe

Source: Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, The Human Freedom Index 2017.

Last thoughts 

Finally, the findings in the Human Freedom Index suggest that freedom plays an important role in human well-being. As such, countries that have high personal freedom tend to exhibit high economic freedom. The freest countries in the world by quartile enjoy much greater income per person ($38,871) compared to those in the least-free quartile ($10,346).

Figure 8: Human Freedom and income per capita 

Source: Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, The Human Freedom Index 2017.

[1] John Locke, Two Treatises of Civil Government, Second Treatise, 1689, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al., 1764; Liberty Fund, at Online Library of Liberty), http://files.libertyfund.org/pll/titles/222.html.

 
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