Acton Institute Powerblog

The state of human freedom in 2019

Did liberty increase or decrease in each nation, and globally, in 2019? How has the last decade impacted freedom around the world?

The Cato Institute measures the freedom of each nation in the world and publishes the results. “The Human Freedom Index 2019,” written by Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, ranked 162 countries  – and the results are mixed.

“The jurisdictions that took the top 10 places, in order, were New Zealand, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Luxembourg (tied in 6th place), Finland and Germany (tied in 8th place), and Ireland,” the report notes.

The United States rose two points since last year, tying Estonia at number 15 globally. The UK ranks fourteenth.

The data came from 2017, the first full year of the Trump administration and during the administration of UK Prime Minister Theresa May, a Conservative far less accepting of the free market than Boris Johnson. Both nations’ scores may continue to rise for years to come.

Other significant ratings include the Netherlands (11), Austria (13), Norway (17), Iceland (18), Taiwan (19), Malta (20), Czech Republic (21), Lithuania (22), Belgium and Latvia (tied at 23), Japan (25), Portugal (26), South Korea (27), Spain (29), Romania (30), France and the Slovak Republic (tied at 33) Slovenia (35), Croatia (37), Poland (40), Hungary (45), Israel (46), Greece (57), Serbia (58), Moldova (71), and Russia (114).

 

Global freedom scores edged slightly lower over the year and over the decade. On a scale of 0 to 10, the average nation rated 6.89 in 2017. “Since 2008, the level of global freedom has also decreased slightly (−0.07),” the report found, “with 61 countries in the index increasing their ratings and 79 decreasing.”

In addition to tracking the progress of human freedom year by year, Cato’s paper acts as a primer on liberty in two important respects. First, it explains the reasons liberty matters:

Countries in the top quartile of freedom enjoy a significantly higher average per capita income ($40,171) than those in other quartiles; the average per capita income in the least-free quartile is $15,721.

The HFI also finds a strong relationship between human freedom and democracy. Hong Kong is an outlier in this regard.

The findings in the HFI suggest that freedom plays an important role in human well-being, and they offer opportunities for further research into the complex ways in which freedom influences, and can be influenced by, political regimes, economic development, and the whole range of indicators of human well-being.

Second, Cato’s report on human freedom defines economic and personal liberty in compelling terms. Half of the total score comes from its economic freedom, because economic freedom so deeply influences every other aspect of society. The report quotes Fredrich von Hayek, who wrote: “A complete monopoly of employment … would possess unlimited powers of coercion. As Leon Trotsky discovered: ‘In a country where the sole employer is the state, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle, who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.’”

The correlation between economic and personal freedom rests on more than syllogisms and quotations from Austrian Nobel laureates. Empirical evidence shows liberty and laissez-faire facilitate one another. “The correlation between the personal and economic freedom ratings was 0.70 for 2017,” the report found.

The Cato Institute bases the other half of each nation’s score on citizens’ security, political liberty, and personal freedom. Contrary to popular caricature, liberty (and, this report implies, the Cato Institute’s version of libertarianism) is not synonymous with anarchy. Lawlessness produces chaos, which begs an intrusive government to restore order. John Locke wrote, “liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be where there is not law.”

Locke goes on to define the term liberty in terms that echo Lord Acton. “[F]reedom 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,” without being “subject to the arbitrary will of another.”

The report takes into account nations’ respect for their citizens’ religious liberty, as well. The report measures people’s ability to begin new religious organizations and worship without interference from their government or harassment by their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, the report notes that the categories of “Religion, Identity and Relationships, and Rule of Law saw the largest decreases in freedom since 2008.” Sound Money enjoyed the largest improvement.

The weakest section of the report focuses on “Identity and Relationships,” composed of “legal gender,” “same-sex relationships,” and “divorce.” One might quibble with the report’s assertion, for instance, that equal but permissive divorce laws benefit society. Thankfully, that section accounts for only five percent of a nation’s total score.

This year’s annual report, Cato’s fifth, contains a foreword by Fred McMahon of the Fraser Institute, one of the global free-market think tanks that contributed to its compilation. (The others are the Institute of Economic Analysis, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, and the Visio Institut.)

Read the report and join us in praying that the sun of liberty sheds its light on a greater share of humanity in the coming year.

(Photo credit: KOKUYO. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.