Back on the freedom train

Just a quick post to alert readers to the release of the latest edition of the Human Freedom Index (HFI), compiled every year by two mainstream libertarian thinktanks, the Cato Institute and the Fraser Institute. You can download it here.

Cato offers the following introduction:

Human freedom is a social concept that recognizes the dignity of individuals and is defined here as negative liberty or the absence of coercive constraint. Because freedom is inherently valuable and plays a role in human progress, it is worth measuring carefully. The Human Freedom Index is a resource that can help to more objectively observe relationships between freedom and other social and economic phenomena, as well as the ways in which the various dimensions of freedom interact with one another.

I’ve discussed this index and its rivals or counterparts on a few occasions – here’s one from the beginning of last year. The most interesting thing in my view is the way that even when they seem to be measuring quite different things, they show strong correlations. As I said, “most of the time, different sorts of freedom tend to rise or fall together.”

That’s borne out by this year’s HFI, which brings together ratings for 76 different components across 162 countries, consolidating them into scores for both “personal” and “economic” freedom as well as an overall ranking. One disadvantage of the degree of detail in the HFI is that it takes time to gather that much data: these scores reflect the situation as of 2018.

A lot has happened in the world since then, so they shouldn’t be taken as a record of where countries stand today. (Hong Kong, with a number three ranking overall, is probably the most obvious example of this.) But they nonetheless allow us to look at some trends. Once again there’s a strong tendency for the two broad sorts of freedom to go together, both in their absolute level and their direction of movement.

I looked at all the movements since the previous year’s report of more than 0.1 points (on a ten-point scale). A total of 21 countries improved their overall score by that much, while 12 went backwards. Performance in economic freedom, with 27 rises and 16 falls, was slightly better than personal freedom, with 24 rises and 20 falls.

Large overall movements in either direction usually involved personal and economic freedom both shifting the same way. But not always: five of the 162 saw the two sorts of freedom moving to a significant extent but in opposite directions. Angola and Turkey gained in personal freedom but lost in economic freedom, while in the Central African Republic, Libya and Venezuela it was the other way around.

There were other anomalies as well. Egypt, for example, saw a big gain in economic freedom (0.47 points, second only to Venezuela) but no movement at all in personal freedom. Nearby Algeria, by contrast, gained substantially in personal freedom (0.34 points, second behind Iraq) but stagnated in economic freedom.

Despite those occasional cases, it is fair to say that the data gives little support to the idea, popular on both left and right, that there is a trade-off between personal and economic freedom. Very few countries have been able to purchase one by the sacrifice of the other; on the contrary, the lack of personal freedom tends to undermine economic freedom, and vice versa.

Not surprisingly, the most freedom is enjoyed in wealthy capitalist democracies, and that remains true even if we cast the net wider than the freedoms that Cato and Fraser consider important. There is still no consensus on the nature and direction of the causal relationship, but its study can only be helped by the continued collection of good data.

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