In 2019, in an interview published in the Financial Times, Vladimir Putin said that the growth of nationalist populist movements in Europe and America proved that "the liberal idea" had "outlived its purpose," because the majority of people in the West were turning against immigration, open borders, and multiculturalism. He praised Donald Trump for turning America against liberalism, particularly in his attempt to stop the flow of migrants into the United States from Mexico. (I have written about the importance of an open borders immigration policy for Lockean liberalism.)
Putin's intellectual attack on "the liberal idea" has been combined with his military campaigns attacking countries that are moving to liberalism (like Ukraine) and defending illiberal regimes (like Bashar al-Assad's autocratic rule over Syria). The conflict between liberalism and its critics is both intellectual and military, as manifested in the war in Ukraine.
The intellectual debate over liberalism becomes ultimately an empirical question that must be answered by looking at the factual evidence of liberalism's success or failure. Does the freedom secured by liberalism promote human happiness?
The Human Freedom Index 2021 helps us to answer that question, because once we see how countries rank in that index, we can then see whether the countries ranking high in freedom also tend to rank high in promoting human happiness. As I have indicated in some previous posts (here, here, and here), the general pattern is clear: the liberal regimes tend to be high in both freedom and happiness, and the illiberal regimes tend to be low.
Since 1995, classical liberals at the Fraser Institute in Canada 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 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, which follows John Locke's definition: "liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others," so long as one's liberty does not infringe on the equal liberty of others (Second Treatise, para. 57). Consequently, the measurement of such freedom in any country is also the measurement of a country's liberalism.
The Human Freedom Index 2021 uses 82 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom in the following 12 categories:
1. Rule of Law
2. Security and Safety
5. Association, Assembly, and Civil Society
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 covers 165 countries for 2019, which is the most recent year for which sufficient data are available. The data are not collected by the authors but come from 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 82 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 weighed equally.
For 2019, the top 10 freest countries, with two tied for 6th place, were:
2. New Zealand
Other countries rank as follows: United Kingdom (14), United States (15), Germany (15), Taiwan (19), France (34), Ukraine (98), Russia (126), and China (150). At the very bottom are Venezuela (164) and Syria (165).
Although Ukraine ranks far below the freest countries, it does rank above Russia and China; and it ranks far above Venezuela and Syria. Ukraine ranks as low as it does mostly because of its low ranking in two categories: rule of law and legal system and property rights. The rankings there are low because of the pervasive corruption of its government and legal system: people have to pay bribes to ensure public services from police, the courts, and other public officials. If Ukraine is to become a fully developed liberal democracy, the Ukrainians will have to win the war with Russia and rebuild their country. But they will also have to reduce the corruption in their country. Only then will they move more towards those countries with the highest rankings for freedom.
The best model for emulation might be Estonia, which ranks as the 4th freest country in the world. Estonia and Ukraine have similar histories, and they both share their eastern borders with Russia.
George Will has written about Kallas as a classical liberal who learned her liberalism from reading Friedrich Hayek after living as a teenager under the despotism of Soviet rule.
She has to worry that if Putin successfully conquers Ukraine, he might target Estonia next. But as a member of NATO, Estonia would be protected by the principle of collective defense in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.
If Putin's invasion of Ukraine fails, Ukraine will be free to move towards the freedom achieved by Estonia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken Meets with Estonian PM Kaja Kallas