Updating freedom and democracy

If you’re looking for cheery news this afternoon, best not to turn to Freedom House’s annual report on “Freedom in the World”, released last week. Its reports have been generally downbeat for several years now, but this, as it relentlessly points out, is the worst yet. In 2020, it says, “democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny. … The long democratic recession is deepening.”

Freedom House echoes, but in bleaker tones, some of the same themes from the Economist’s annual “Democracy Index”, which came out last month. The Economist reports “by far the worst global score since the index was first produced in 2006,” but it mostly stays away from the more explicit doomsaying.

The difference in tone is most noticeable as regards the biggest issue of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic. The Economist puts it front and centre, noting the loss of civil liberties that it has involved and chiding governments for their failure to be open with their citizens about the choices involved. Freedom House, however, points out what the Economist’s results also show but it chooses not to emphasise: that most of the damage has been done in places where democracy was already ailing.

The Economist almost seems to want to have it both ways, counting anti-Covid measures as a cost to democratic freedoms but also giving credit to those countries (such as Taiwan) that implemented them most rapidly and effectively. Freedom House, on the other hand, makes it clear that the real cost of the health crisis is not the counter-measures implemented in good faith, but the use of them as a pretext by authoritarian states, plus the devastation caused in countries with unresponsive and inept governments.

We’ve compared the two indices and their competitors before: here’s my look at the Economist’s report from a year ago, and here I am last December on the most recent edition of the “Human Freedom Index” (HFI), produced by the Cato Institute and the Fraser Institute. All three use different methodology and produce somewhat different results.

Nonetheless, the level of agreement between them is quite striking. I did a comparison on the 156 countries that are covered by all three, and the median difference between the rankings given by Freedom House and the Economist is only six places. Nine countries are common to the top ten of both, and six are in both of the bottom tens.

There are a few big discrepancies. Malaysia, for example, is 39th on the Economist’s list but way down at 94 on Freedom House’s. Neighboring Thailand (73 vs 120) and the Phillipines (55 vs 86) show similar gaps. But if the Economist has a soft spot for South-East Asia, it’s the other way around in West Africa: Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Togo come in at 68, 100 and 103 for Freedom House, but the Economist has them at 101, 141 and 136.

Bringing the HFI into the comparison reveals some bigger differences, partly because its data is older and partly because of its greater emphasis on economic freedom. (So Singapore, for example, comes in at number 27 on the HFI, compared to 74 for the Economist and 95 for Freedom House.) It’s also less pessimistic: rises outnumbered falls in its last report, although not by much. But there’s still a large measure of agreement.

While I think that Freedom House’s pessimism is not entirely justified, its warnings are absolutely necessary and deserve to be taken seriously. I’ll leave it with the last word:

The enemies of freedom have pushed the false narrative that democracy is in decline because it is incapable of addressing people’s needs. In fact, democracy is in decline because its most prominent exemplars are not doing enough to protect it. Global leadership and solidarity from democratic states are urgently needed. … If free societies fail to take these basic steps, the world will become ever more hostile to the values they hold dear, and no country will be safe from the destructive effects of dictatorship.

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