Classical liberals argue that human freedom is good, because when human beings are free from coercion, they will voluntarily cooperate in the evolution of spontaneous orders that are more successful in satisfying human desires than any planned order using coercive power to achieve its goals. This is an empirical claim about the evolution of human nature, human history, and human progress that requires empirical confirmation by the measurement of freedom and its consequences.
Since 1995 classical liberals at the Fraser Institute
(a Canadian think tank) have published an annual Economic Freedom of the World
that ranks the countries of the world according to their levels of economic freedom. Beginning in 2012, the Fraser Institute has cooperated with the Cato Institute and the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom to produce an annual Human Freedom Index
that ranks countries according to a comprehensive index of human freedom that combines economic freedom and personal freedom.
As is characteristic of classical liberals, they define freedom in a negative way as the absence of coercive constraint. They use 79 distinct indicators of freedom in the following 12 categories:
Rule of Law
Security and Safety
Association, Assembly, and Civil Society
Size of Government
Legal System and Property Rights
Access to Sound Money
Freedom to Trade Internationally
Regulation of Credit, Labor, and Business
The most recent Human Freedom Index (HFI) covers 159 countries for 2014, the most recent year for which sufficient data are available. The data are not collected by the authors but come from the most credible sources (for example, the World Justice Project, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Freedom House).
For each of the 79 indicators, countries are scored on a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 represents the highest level of freedom. The scores for each of the 12 categories are averaged. These are then averaged for personal freedom and economic freedom. The final score for freedom in general is the average of these two, so that personal freedom and economic freedom are weighted equally.
For 2014, the top 10 freest countries, with three tied for 6th place, were:
1. Hong Kong
3. New Zealand
6. United Kingdom
Other countries rank as follows: Germany (13), Norway (13), Sweden (15), USA (23), France (31), Japan (32), Singapore (40), South Africa (74), India (87), Russia (115), Nigeria (140), China (141), Saudi Arabia (144), Zimbabwe (148), Venezuela (154), and Iran (157). The highest levels of freedom are in Western Europe, Northern Europe, and North America. The lowest are in the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia.
The HFI can be used to study how freedom contributes to human well-being. For example, the highest levels of human freedom are strongly correlated with wealth (higher per capita income) and democracy (except for Hong Kong). The correlation with wealth is what we would expect from Smithian economic theory: the gains from specialization, exchange, and productive efficiency associated with economic freedom should tend to generate higher levels of income and growth rates.
The HFI and the writings of the authors of the report (Ian Vasquez and Tanja Porcnik) suggest to me 10 questions.
1. Is it reasonable to measure only negative liberty?
In his famous essay "Two Concepts of Liberty," Isaiah Berlin distinguished two conflicting ways of defining liberty that had emerged in modern intellectual history. In its "negative" sense, liberty could be defined as not being coerced or constrained by others. Liberty in this sense means liberty from
. This is the individualistic liberty defended by liberals, who want to protect the individual's freedom from coercion by others.
In its "positive" sense, however, liberty could be defined as self-mastery or self-realization, in that one frees oneself from the constraints of one's irrational desires and beliefs, so that one's true self or higher self can prevail. Liberty in this sense means liberty to
. This is the liberty espoused by social reformers who argue that we need to free ourselves from the constraints that we impose on ourselves so that we can find our true selves.
Positive liberty has a benign form that is compatible with negative liberty. For example, in a liberal society, people can choose to join a religious group (like the Amish) or a socialist commune (like the kibbutz) that imposes severe restrictions on its members, but as long as membership is voluntary, and members can choose to leave, this is an exercise of their negative liberty.
And yet positive liberty also has a dangerous form that denies negative liberty. For example, a Marxist socialist community might dictate that people cannot be truly free until they have been liberated from their bourgeois class consciousness, and for this liberation they must be forced to be free, perhaps by being coerced in "re-education" camps. Such socialist liberty becomes the total denial of individual liberty.
The conception of negative liberty is stated by John Locke in the Second Treatise
"The end of Law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge Freedom: For in all the states of created beings capable of Laws, where there is no Law, there is no Freedom. For Liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others which it cannot be, where there is no Law: But Freedom is not, as we are told, A Liberty for every Man to do what he lists: (For who could be free, when every other Man's Humour might domineer over him?) But a Liberty to dispose, and order, as he lists, his Person, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own."
The conception of positive liberty is stated by Thomas Hill Green in his famous 1881 lecture against freedom of contract ("Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract" ):
"We shall probably all agree that freedom rightly understood is the greatest of blessings; that its attainment is the true end of all our effort as citizens. But when we thus speak of freedom, we should consider carefully what we mean by it. We do not mean merely freedom from restraint of compulsion. We do not mean merely freedom to do as we like irrespectively of what it is that we like. . . . we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others. . . . the mere removal of compulsion, the mere enabling a man to do as he likes, is in itself no contribution to true freedom. . . . the ideal of true freedom is the maximum of power for all members of human society alike to make the best of themselves."
Thus, "true freedom" requires that we be forced to do what we ought to do, which is what we "really" want to do, because only this way do we make the best of ourselves. So, for example, Green argued for the legal prohibition of alcohol:
"The citizens of England now make its law. We ask them by law to put a restraint on themselves in the matter of strong drink. We ask them further to limit, or even altogether to give up, the not very precious liberty of buying and selling alcohol, in order that they may become more free to exercise the faculties and improve the talents which God has given them."
Notice that despite the differences between Locke and Green in their defining freedom, they agree that the negative freedom from the restraint of compulsion is not unlimited, because it must be limited by law. After all, the legal protection of negative freedom requires legal constraints on the freedom of those who would interfere with the freedom of others. Under a liberal system of the rule of law, we are free to live as we please only so long as this does not impede the equal freedom of others, and thus legal coercion is justified to enforce this limit.
Green argued that the freedom of contract for workers negotiating with employers could not be a "true freedom" without laws protecting workers from being exploited by employers who were in a superior bargaining position. Even Berlin conceded this point:
"As a plea for justice, and a denunciation of the monstrous assumption that workmen were (in any sense that mattered to them) free agents in negotiating with employers in his time, Green's essay can scarcely be improved upon. The workers, in theory, probably enjoyed wide negative freedom. But since they lacked the means of its realization, it was a hollow gain. Hence I find nothing to disagree with in Green's recommendations; I reject only the metaphysical doctrine of the two selves--the individual streams versus the social river in which they should be merged, a dualistic fallacy used too often to support a variety of despotisms." (Liberty, 2002, pp. 41-42)
Classical liberals like Vasquez and Porcnik are reluctant to concede this point--that the freedom to do something (like finding a satisfying job) requires "the means of its realization" that might be secured by law. Classical liberals argue that it is confusing and incoherent to define the word "freedom" so that the conditions necessary for the successful exercise of a freedom are themselves "freedoms." The freedom to contract with an employer for employment and having a satisfying job are both good things. But they are not the same thing. It might be true that in the long run the negative freedom of contract will generally increase the likelihood that workers will find satisfying jobs, but to decide whether this is true requires clear and precise definitions that distinguish freedom and the consequences of freedom, so that we can see the cause and effect relationships.
Moreover, to define freedom so broadly that it includes the conditions for its successful exercise is incoherent in that the legal coercion to enforce the conditions would deny individual freedom. So, for example, to legally enforce certain conditions of employment denies the employer's and the employee's freedom of contract.
Consequently, classical liberals like Vasquez and Porcnik see many of the international statements on human rights as not providing proper standards for measuring freedom, because they include as "rights" many claims to good things that go beyond and even contradict negative freedom. So, for example, classical liberals might agree with the affirmation in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 that "everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person" (Article 3); but they would disagree with the Declaration's claim that "everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay" (Article 24), because while rest, leisure, and paid holidays are certainly good things, they cannot be legally mandated without infringing on the freedom of employers and employees to contract for the conditions of employment. (Article 24 is one of the articles introduced in the drafting of the Declaration by socialist delegates from Latin America and supported by the communist bloc.) And yet a Human Freedom Index with freedom defined in a purely negative way might show that countries with high levels of negative freedom tend to provide more good jobs for more people than countries with low levels of negative freedom.
While limiting their Human Freedom Index to negative freedom, Vasquez and Porcnik invite the proponents of positive freedom to devise their own indexes of positive freedom, which can then be compared with the index of negative freedom. They point out, however, that people with different ideological commitments will disagree on their standards of measurement for positive freedom
2. In measuring freedom, should we attempt to measure restrictions on freedom designed to enhance freedom?
Vasquez and Porcnik say no. They recognize, as Locke does, that the proper end of law is to preserve and enlarge freedom, and that this requires legal limits on freedom. So, for example, a system of criminal justice and the compulsory taxation necessary to pay for this system restrict freedom, but they do not try to include this in their measurement of freedom.
This points to a general problem for classical liberalism in its commitment to limited government, as opposed to anarchism in its denial that any government can properly constrain freedom. Classical liberals believe that the protection of liberty requires at least some limited government to coercively enforce that protection through the rule of law. But anarchists believe that even a limited government with coercive power will necessarily deprive people of their natural liberty.
3. Does freedom include democracy?
Generally, people measuring the progress of freedom in the modern world have pointed to the increasing spread of democracies around the world. But the HFI does not include democracy as an indicator of freedom. Classical liberals like Vasquez and Porcnik do not regard democracy per se as supporting individual freedom, because the power of a democratic majority can be just as threatening to the liberty of minorities as an autocratic dictator, and actually a dictator who chooses not to interfere much in the private lives of his subjects could be supportive of freedom. A liberal
democracy that is constitutionally limited and dedicated to respecting individual rights is perhaps most desirable.
The HFI can be used to show the correlation between freedom and democracy. As Vasquez and Porcnik indicate, Hong Kong stands out as an outlier. It has the highest freedom ranking, and yet it is not a democracy. It is a unique case. It was a British colony until 1997, and since then it has been under Chinese administration, but with a special status--"one country, two systems." The pro-democracy protests that have broken out in Hong Kong in recent years suggest that the present arrangements are unstable.
As Max Roser has shown (in his essay "Democracy")
, there has been a slow increase in the number of democracies around the world, beginning in 1800 when there were almost no democracies in the world, although this was interrupted during and between the two world wars by an increase in autocracies. After 1945, there was a renewed growth in the number of democracies, but also growth in the number of autocracies. Then, in 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a dramatic shift towards democracy around the world.
Using the data from the Polity IV project, Roser shows that the proportion of the world population of citizens living in democracies has increased from 0.87% in 1816 to 12% in 1900, declined to 9.4% in 1941, and then increased again to 50% in 1994 and 56% in 2015. This is the most stunning turn in the political history of humanity, particularly when one considers that not only were there few democracies in the world prior to 1800, but that in those older democracies (like Athens) the body of democratic citizens was restricted to a small portion of the population as opposed to the expansion of citizenship in modern democracies.
Democracies tend to be richer countries. Autocracies tend to be poorer, with the exception of the autocracies that are rich because of the wealth coming from exporting fossil fuels. Democracies tend to be less violent, both domestically and internationally. And democracies tend to be healthier, as measured by low child mortality.
But still the classical liberals are right to warn that illiberal democracies can suppress freedom. The current rise in the popularity of demagogues promoting ethnic nationalism and other illiberal policies (like suppressing free trade) is an indication of this.
4. In measuring freedom, should we identify not only official or governmental restraints on freedom but also unofficial or social restraints?
Vasquez and Porcnik say no. Here they take the side of Friedrich Hayek against John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty,
Mill thought he had to defend individual liberty not only against governmental coercion but also against social coercion--"social tyranny," the "tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling," or the "despotism of custom." By contrast, Hayek thought the pressure of public approval or disapproval in enforcing moral rules should not be identified as coercion that threatens liberty (The Constitution of Liberty
, 62-63, 146-47, 402, 451, n. 20; Law, Legislation, and Liberty,
vol. 3, 167-68, 170-71).
On the contrary, he thought that in a liberal order, society but not the state would have to enforce moral virtue through customary social norms of conduct. Adam Smith shows how this is done in his Theory of Moral Sentiments
This supports the fusionism of liberal conservatives who can promote the combination of social virtue and political liberty.
5. Does measuring freedom require personal judgment?
Vasquez and Porcnik claim that they have achieved objectivity in their scoring of the indicators of freedom for each country because the collection and analysis of data comes from outside sources. But don't these outside sources depend on the personal judgments of the people involved? In some cases, the dependence on personal judgment might be minimized--as, for example, with the data for homicide rates. But in most cases, won't the scoring depend on human judgment? Even with something like homicide that might be easily measured, we have to exercise judgment in deciding how important this factor is for freedom, which leads to the question of weight.
6. In measuring freedom, how do we weigh the various indicators?
In measuring freedom, classical liberals often assign great weight to economic freedom, as reflected in the Fraser Institute's index for the Economic Freedom of the World.
Some people object to this because it gives no weight to personal freedom, although classical liberals might argue that economic freedom is crucial for our personal freedom. Recently, Andreas Kohl and Juan Pina have produced a World Index of Moral Freedom
that ranks 160 countries for their levels of moral freedom, using an index divided into five categories of indicators: religion, bioethics, drugs, sexuality, and gender and family. If freedom is rightly understood as absence of coercion, they argue, then moral freedom can be defined as absence of moral coercion in these areas of decision-making. So how much weight should we give to these different kinds of freedom?
The Human Freedom Index
of Vasquez and Porcnik combines economic freedom and personal freedom, giving equal weight to each. (What Vasquez and Porcnik call personal freedom includes some of the factors belonging to what Kohl and Pina call moral freedom.) But then the various indicators within these two categories have to be weighed. They accept the weights assigned in the Fraser Institute index for economic freedom. They then must assign weights for the indicators of personal freedom.
The Human Freedom Index is derived from a total of 79 distinct variables (42 from the economic freedom index and 37 from the personal freedom index). To produce the personal freedom index, Vasquez and Porcnik rate each of the 37 indicators on a 0-10 scale, with 10 representing the most freedom. They then average the scores for these indicators as divided into seven categories: (1) Rule of Law, (2) Security and Safety, (3) Movement, (4) Religion, (5) Association, Assembly, and Civil Society, (6) Expression, and (7) Relationships. They then average the scores for the first two categories--Rule of Law, Security and Safety--to get a score for Legal Protection and Security. And they average the scores for the other five categories to get a score for Specific Personal Freedoms. The average of these two scores is the score for the Personal Freedom Index.
The point of this scheme of weighing is to give a lot of weight to Legal Protection and Security. This weight is even greater when one notices, as Vasquez and Porcnik point out, that the Economic Freedom of the World index includes nine variables in the area of "Legal System and Property Rights," which measure "how effectively the protective functions of government are performed." Consequently, the Human Freedom Index gives very heavy weighting to the Rule of Law as fundamental for freedom. Like Locke, Hayek, and other classical liberals, Vasquez and Porcnik emphasize the primacy of equal treatment under the rule of law in protecting individual freedom by limiting arbitrary coercion coming from many different sources.
Thus, their weighing of indicators of freedom depends on their philosophic judgment about what is most important for human freedom.
(7) Does the freedom of parental rights violate the freedom of children?
In measuring freedom in "relationships," Vasquez and Porcnik score three indicators: "parental rights," "same-sex relationships," and "divorce."
In describing their data sources for "parental rights," as coming from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, they write: "Measurement is based on whether women and men have the same right (1) to be the legal guardian of a child during marriage and (2) to be the legal guardian of and have custody rights over a child after divorce" (Human Freedom Index 2016
So they assume that an important element of freedom is parents having the right to be legal guardians of children. But if all people have an equal right to freedom, as Vasquez and Porcnik say, then why doesn't this include children? And if so, does the freedom of children conflict with the freedom of parents to act as guardians of their children?
For Vasquez and Porcnik, one of the indicators of "Security and Safety" is "Women's Security and Safety." And one of the indicators for this is "Female Genital Mutilation," which they measure by "the percentage of women in the country who have undergone any type of female genital mutilation" (HFI 2016
I have written some posts on this (here
, and here
,). Typically, the genital mutilation of women is carried out by mothers on their young daughters. There is no legal coercion. Rather, this is a customary tradition enforced by parents on their children. As indicated above, Vasquez and Porcnik say that they do not regard customary traditions enforced by social pressure as violations of freedom, but here they seem to depart from that position. Moreover, this identification of the genital mutilation of children by their parents as a violation of freedom contradicts their claim that parental guardianship of children should be legally protected as individual freedom.
Classical liberals often have trouble in determining the moral status of children. Classical liberals speak about the human freedom of adults and pass over children in silence. As I have argued in a previous post
, Steven Horwitz is one of the few classical liberals who has tried to give an account of how family life and children fit into the classical liberal understanding of human freedom. He rightly argues that, as Hayek recognized, the human family is not a spontaneous order but a deliberate organization depending on central planning by parents. He also rightly argues that while children cannot properly be treated as full adults with the rights of adults, they should be treated as human beings with the potential for becoming adults with the freedom of adults, and so parents exercise a stewardship over children that can be revoked if the parents abuse or neglect their children.
Locke recognized this in saying that while "all men by nature are equal," children are "not born in this full state of equality, though they are born to it," and parents have a temporary rule and jurisdiction over them until they attain the age and reason that gives them the freedom of adulthood (Second Treatise
, secs. 54-55).
By this standard, we might say that parents do not rightly have the freedom to impose genital mutilation on their children. Once daughters become adults, they might then be free to choose female circumcision for themselves; and indeed some women argued for this.
(8) Does the Human Freedom Index show the success of the Nordic social democracies as capitalist welfare states?
Many classical liberals today warn against welfare state policies as a form of socialism that threatens freedom. Friedrich Hayek did not agree with this. The third part of his Constitution of Liberty
is entitled "Freedom in the Welfare State," and there he argued that while socialism understood as the public ownership of the means of production was the greatest threat to individual freedom, the welfare state was compatible with individual freedom, because the welfare state was not socialism. Some of Hayek's classical liberal friends--like Ludwig von Mises--criticized him for making this argument. But the Human Freedom Index vindicates Hayek on this point by showing that some of the most extensive welfare states today--particularly, the Nordic social democracies (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland)--have some of the highest rankings for human freedom.
For those classical liberals who think Hayek was mistaken, because the welfare state is a form of socialism that must subvert freedom, there must be something wrong with the Human Freedom Index insofar as it incorrectly ranks the Nordic social democracies as having the highest levels of freedom.
As I have indicated in a previous post
on the Nordic social democracies, these regimes are in fact not truly socialist, because they embrace the freedom of liberal capitalism. In the Human Freedom Index, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden rank among the top 15 countries, which puts them above the United States, which ranks at 23rd. Although the United States ranks a little ahead of them in the economic freedom ranking, they all rank far ahead of the United States in the personal freedom ranking. This suggests that these Nordic social democracies should be seen not as socialist countries but as capitalist welfare states.
Socialists (like Bernie Sanders) who point to the Nordic social democracies as their model are showing that they have abandoned true socialism as too great a threat to human freedom.
(9) Does the Human Freedom Index show that human freedom generally promotes human well-being or flourishing?
That seems to be indicated by the strong correlation between the Human Freedom Index and many of the standard measures of human well-being. For example, the Economist Intelligence Unit has developed a "Quality-of-Life Index.",
which includes the results of subjective life satisfaction surveys and objective measurements of GDP per capita, life expectancy at birth, family life (based on divorce rates), political freedom, job security, climate, personal physical security, community life (membership in social organizations), governance (ratings for corruption), and gender equality. Here are the rankings for the top 17 countries with the HFI rankings in parentheses:
1. Switzerland (2)
2. Australia (6)
3. Norway (13)
4. Sweden (15)
5. Denmark (5)
6. Singapore (40)
7. New Zealand (3)
8. Netherlands (10)
9. Canada (6)
10. Hong Kong (1)
11. Finland (9)
12. Ireland (4)
13. Austria (11)
14. Taiwan (26)
15. Belgium (17)
16. Germany (13)
16. United States (23)
Notice that 9 of the top 10 countries on the HFI list are within the top 12 on this list. The one exception is the United Kingdom, which is 6 on the HFI list and 27 on the Quality of Life Index.
Of course, as we always say, correlation is not causation. But such a strong correlation does suggest a strong association between human freedom and human happiness. Such a strong association might be rooted in human genetic and cultural evolution.
10. Is human freedom and its connection to human happiness rooted in human evolution?
I have argued that our evolved human nature includes at least 20 natural desires, and that a liberal social order can be judged as the best social order insofar as it secures the freedom that allows human beings to most fully satisfy those natural desires. Moreover, the desire for freedom itself might be seen as a naturally evolved desire insofar as human beings have an evolved resistance to being dominated by the arbitrary will of others.
I have elaborated my reasoning in my paper on "The Evolution of Darwinian Liberalism,"
which was presented in 2013 at the special meeting in the Galapagos Islands of the Mont Pelerin Society on the theme "Evolution, the Human Sciences, and Liberty."
The Human Freedom Index helps us to judge whether the empirical data about freedom and its consequences can confirm this argument for Darwinian liberalism. That it might has been suggested by Paul Rubin in an essay on "Evolution and Freedom," which was published in the first book on developing the Human Freedom Index--Towards a Worldwide Index of Human Freedom.