Indexing freedom and democracy

You’ll need to register here and get them to email you a link for downloading, but it’s well worth doing so to read the latest edition of the Economist’s Democracy Index.

I expressed some thoughts on the whole project back in 2014, where I pointed to a few anomalies and suggested that some of what the Economist was measuring was “edging away from just ‘democracy’ into more ‘quality of life’ characteristics.”

The anomalies are still there. The Comoros is still rated an “authoritarian regime”, despite the fact that Freedom House classifies it as an electoral democracy. Conversely, the Economist still thinks of Malaysia and Singapore as no worse than “flawed democracies”; last year’s election can now justify the description for Malaysia, but it remains unrealistic in relation to Singapore.

Any sort of index, of course, can suffer from the problem of out-of-date data. One country especially worth mentioning is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which finally held a real competitive election a fortnight ago and today (even more surprisingly) announced the victory of an opposition candidate. Next time the index is published, that will no doubt lift the DRC above its current position of third from the bottom.

Overall, the ratings are very stable; once the Economist has made up its mind, it doesn’t change much. Almost half the countries show no change at all from last year’s ratings, including 11 of the top 12 (Finland is the exception, with a small improvement). Only four have changed category, with rises in Costa Rica and Côte d’Ivoire balancing falls in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Although it recorded no overall decline, the Economist’s general survey of the state of world democracy is still fairly downbeat, pointing in particular to disturbing trends in Brazil, Italy, Russia and Turkey. But there are some hopeful signs as well, including “an uptick in membership of political parties and organisations” and strong improvement in women’s political participation.

Even allowing for some bias in the Economist’s perspective, the correlation between democracy and wealth is obvious; as the authors remark, “The almost complete predominance of OECD countries among those ranked as ‘full democracies’ suggests that a low level of economic development is a significant, if not a binding, constraint on democratic development.”

It’s also interesting to look at the correlation, such as it is, between democracy and more general measures of freedom. The Freedom House report, already mentioned, is one measure of this; another, released last month, is the Human Freedom Index, compiled by a group of liberal and free-market think tanks.

The Human Freedom Index gives scores for both personal and economic freedom. Both show a strong correlation with income and with democracy, and to a lesser extent with each other. But the nature of the causal relationships at work is hotly contested.

Its authors express the hope that “Over time, this index could not only track specific gains and losses of freedom, it could also help to identify and explain what links may exist among the assortment of freedoms and other variables.”

Nor does that by any means exhaust the data available. Among last year’s releases you can also check out the World Electoral Freedom Index, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index and the World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders.

All of these provide interesting information and interpretations, and some of the differences between them are fascinating. But it seems to me that their similarities are more significant than their differences, and that in their different ways they convey much the same message: that most of the time, different sorts of freedom tend to rise or fall together.

And that with the world going through dangerous times, none of those freedoms should be taken for granted.



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