Acton Institute Powerblog

The state of human freedom in 2020

The year 2020 has been the most challenging and demanding year most Americans can remember. How did freedom fare in the United States and around the world over the past year?

The Cato Institute and Canada’s Fraser Institute measured the level of liberty at the national, regional, and global level for the sixth year in a row. “The Human Freedom Index 2020” surveys conditions in 162 of the world’s 193 nations, covering 94% of the world’s population.

Their verdict? Stasis.

“The level of freedom” each nation enjoys – based on data from 2018, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available – “has scarcely improved (0.01) compared with 2017,” wrote report authors Ian Vásquez and Fred McMahon. “On a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 represents more freedom, the average human freedom rating for 162 countries in 2018 was 6.93.”

More than twice as many people globally (34%) live in the least free countries than live in the most free (15%).

The United States fell two positions since last year’s report to tie the United Kingdom as the 17th most free nation in the world. The U.S. earned a Human Freedom Index of 8.44, down modestly (-0.11) from 2017.

“The jurisdictions that took the top 10 places, in order, were New Zealand, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Denmark, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Estonia, and Germany and Sweden (tied in 9th place),” the report notes.

Other significant ratings include Japan (11), the Netherlands (14), Austria and Norway (tied at 15), Taiwan (19), Iceland (20), Lithuania (21), Latvia (22), Malta (23), Czech Republic (24), Belgium (25), South Korea (26), Romania (32), France (33), Poland (45), Hungary (49), Israel (53), Greece (56), India (111), Russia (115), China (129), and Venezuela (160).

Syria ranked last among the nations with publicly accessible data, a category that excludes North Korea and Cuba.

The report generally bears out contentions that freedom in one area of national life strengthens freedom in others – although the extent to which some nations respect each of the 76 indicators the authors monitor sometimes varies significantly. With that caveat, economic freedom generally brings about greater political freedom and overall human flourishing:

Countries in the top quartile [20%] of freedom enjoy a significantly higher average per capita income ($50,340) than those in other quartiles; the average per capita income in the least free quartile is $7,720.

The HFI also finds a strong relationship between human freedom and democracy. Hong Kong is an outlier in this regard. Although Hong Kong’s ratings and rankings have decreased since 2008, the impact of the Chinese Communist Party’s unprecedented interventions in the territory in 2019 and 2020 are not reflected in this year’s report (which, as noted, is based on 2018 data). Those recent events will likely decrease Hong Kong’s score noticeably in the future.

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.

“The correlation between the personal and economic freedom ratings was 0.71 for 2018,” an even higher relationship than the report found in 2017 (0.70).

Over the last decade, freedom of religion and the rule of law have been in retreat globally (-0.63 and -0.31 since 2008, respectively).

Respect for the rule of law and the impartial administration of justice – which protects the innocent and punishes the guilty – undergirds all other freedoms, while lawlessness erodes liberty. “Without security or the rule of law, liberty is degraded or even meaningless,” the authors wrote. John Locke, whose writings the Founding Fathers regularly quoted verbatim, described how properly framed law secures liberty:

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 cannot be where there is not law.

Unfortunately, both religious liberty and standards of justice are likely to continue their slide – not merely in China or Hong Kong, but in the United States, as well.

The report’s rule of law component rates “the criminal justice system on such issues as its impartiality” and “civil justice on such issues as whether it is free of discrimination.” This will diminish further in coming years, as Kamala Harris openly promotes Ibram X. Kendi’s notion of “equity” replacing equality. “Racial discrimination is not inherently racist,” Kendi wrote in his bestseller, How to be an Antiracist. “The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

The report’s focus on overall security and physical safety is another indication that the U.S. may rate lower in the Human Freedom Index in 2022. “[L]ow levels of personal safety and physical security from harm” make it “difficult to exercise other freedoms, or even to survive,” the report stated. In 2020, months of riots destroyed businesses and decimated poor and minority communities, depriving them of essential services, social infrastructure, and employment opportunities. In the midst of this onslaught, political leaders nationwide instructed police departments to stand down and even fired police chiefs like Angela Greene, who attempted to hold violent rioters accountable for the injuries they caused. The report, which “attempts to measure the degree to which people who have not violated the equal rights of others are physically assaulted, kidnapped, or killed,” will note an increase of at least 25 Americans who lost their lives during 2020’s protests and riots.

Similarly, religious liberty will face a significant decline when future researchers look back at 2020. “Free societies respect the right to practice a religion of one’s choosing,” the report stated. “The freedom to associate and assemble with peaceful individuals or organizations of one’s choice” is “an essential part of individual freedom and a basis of civil society.” A series of nationwide lockdowns in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic closed or artificially limited the right of believers to hold religious services. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened churches and synagogues that if they did not comply with his orders, “we will close the institutions down.” California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to ban singing in churches promoted the state’s Russian immigrant community “to recall the era of godless persecutions in the USSR.”

Once again the report’s section on “Identity and Relationships,” which rewards societies that make it easier for couples to divorce, remains its weakest point. Just as societies need strong governments, children need strong families – and researchers have confirmed that “children in married families fare better than children from divorced families.” Equal but overly permissive divorce laws undermine the family, deepen broken families’ dependence on the government, and ultimately erode freedom. Those hoping to measure, much less expand, liberty must never forget the importance of the family.

You can read the 2020 report here. You can read about the 2019 report here.

You can see the interactive global map below:

Rev. Ben Johnson

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