Sunday, January 28, 2018

Measuring the Evolution of Freedom: The Human Freedom Index 2017

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.  Consequently, social orders with more human freedom will be more adaptive in securing human survival and well-being than are those social orders with less human freedom.

These are empirical claims about the evolution of human nature, human history, and human progress that require 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.  This week the third edition of this work has been issued--The Human Freedom Index 2017.

A few points stand out in this new report.  Global freedom has declined slightly compared to last year's report and compared to 2008.  Switzerland is ranked first for the first time since the rankings began.  Hong Kong has fallen from first place for the first time.  The U.S.'s 17th ranking is an improvement from its previous ranking of 24th.

As is characteristic of classical liberals, the authors of this report define freedom in a negative way as the absence of coercive constraint.  They use 79 distinct indicators of freedom in the following 12 categories:


(A) Legal Protection and Security
(1) Rule of Law
(2) Security and Safety

(B) Specific Personal Freedoms
(3) Movement
(4) Religion
(5) Association, Assembly, and Civil Society
(6) Expression and Information
(7) Identity and Relationships


(8) Size of Government
(9) Legal System and Property Rights
(10) Access to Sound Money
(11) Freedom to Trade Internationally
(12) Regulation of Credit, Labor, and Business

The most recent Human Freedom Index (HFI) covers 159 countries for 2015, 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.  For personal freedom, the two categories under "Legal Protection and Security" and the five categories under "Specific Personal Freedoms" are averaged; and then the average of these two is the score for personal freedom.  The score for economic freedom is the average of the five categories under economic freedom. The final score for freedom in general is the average of these two scores, so that personal freedom and economic freedom are weighted equally.

The top 10 countries, with two tied at 9th place, are as follows--with the Personal Freedom (PF) and Economic Freedom (EF) rankings in parentheses:

1. Switzerland (PF: 6, EF: 4)
2. Hong Kong (PF: 26, EF: 1)
3. New Zealand (PF: 9, EF: 3)
4. Ireland (PF: 13, EF: 5)
5. Australia (PF: 11, EF: 9)
6. Finland (PF: 2, EF: 17)
7. Norway (PF: 1, EF: 25)
8. Denmark (PF: 5, EF: 15)
9. Netherlands (PF: 4, EF: 19)
9. United Kingdom (PF: 16, EF: 6)

Some other countries rank as follows: Canada (11), Sweden (13), Germany (16), the United States (17), Japan (27), France (33), Russia (126), China (130).  The bottom four are Iran (154), Egypt (155), Venezuela (158), and Syria (159).

And since Trump recently pointed to Norway as the one country where he wanted increased immigration to the U.S., it should be noted that Norway is 7th on the overall freedom index and number 1 on the personal freedom index

The regions of the world with the highest levels of freedom are Western Europe, Northern Europe, North America (Canada and U.S.), and Australia/New Zealand.  The regions with the lowest levels 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.

In November and December of 2016, I wrote a series of posts on "The Empirical Data for Human Progress through the Liberal Enlightenment," which concluded with a post (here) on the previous edition of the Human Freedom Index

In that post, I reflected on 10 questions that came to mind as I read this report:

(1) Is it reasonable to measure only negative liberty? 

(2) In measuring freedom, should we attempt to measure restrictions on freedom designed to enhance freedom? 

(3) Does freedom include democracy? 

(4) In measuring freedom, should we identify not only official or governmental restraints on freedom, but also unofficial or social restraints? 

(5) Does measuring freedom require personal judgment?

(6) In measuring freedom, how do we weigh the various indicators? 

(7) Does the freedom of parental rights violate the freedom of children? 

(8) Does the Human Freedom Index show the success of the Nordic social democracies as capitalist welfare states? 

(9) Does the Human Freedom Index show that human freedom generally promotes human well-being or flourishing?

(10) Is human freedom and its connection to human happiness rooted in human evolution?

Ian Vasquez--the lead author of the Human Freedom Index--wrote a response to my post, which I posted.

Other than the changes in the rankings, the one new point in the latest report is the conclusion that overall levels of freedom have fallen since 2008, and this fall continued between 2014 and 2015.  This might seem to deny my argument for "human progress through the liberal enlightenment," because it might be interpreted as showing a decline in liberalism around the world and a rise of illiberal social practices, including populist authoritarianism.

My response, however, is to point out that the decline in this measurement of freedom reported here is so slight as to be hardly noticeable.

Vasquez and Porcnik report:
"On a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 represents more freedom, the average human freedom rating for 159 countries in 2015 was 6.93.  Among countries included in this report, the level of freedom decreased slightly (-0.05) compared with 2014, with 61 countries increasing their ratings and 97 decreasing.  Since 2008, the level of global freedom has also decreased slightly (-0.12), with about half of the countries in the index increasing their ratings and half decreasing" (p. 5).
In the previous report (in 2016), Vasquez and Porcnik said that the average human freedom rating had remained "about the same" since 2008 (p. 5).  What they now call a "slight decrease" looks like "about the same" to me. 

Moreover, in the new report, they say that if one compares only the 141 countries for which data are available from 2008 to 2015--the HFI surveys 18 more countries in 2015 than in 2008--the average human freedom rating decreased only by 0.05, with personal freedom falling from 7.36 to 7.20 and economic freedom increasing from 6.74 to 6.81.  Also, some 68 countries increased their overall freedom ratings from 2008 to 2015, while 69 countries decreased their freedom.

Well, if freedom is increasing slightly in about half the countries while decreasing slightly in about half the countries, I don't see that as showing any discernable decline.

If there has been any slight decline in freedom scores since 2008, it seems to have arisen mostly from three regions--Eastern Europe (-0.52 change in score), Middle East & North Africa (-0.46), and Central Asia (-0.29)--as opposed to Western Europe (0.09 increase), Northern Europe (-0.06 decrease), and North America (-0.09 decrease) (p. 27).

The overall pattern is clear: the Human Freedom Index shows clear empirical evidence for the triumph of liberalism in the progress of freedom around the world, which refutes all the recent talk about the supposed decline or failure of liberalism.

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