This piece originally ran in 2007.
RALEIGH – Is the definition of freedom a cultural construct?
Some apologists for socialists, fascists, Islamists, and petty dictators would have us think so. They employ terms such as “freedom” and “democracy” in Orwellian fashion, suggesting that using the power of government to coerce private individuals or rig elections can advance real freedom or democracy by reducing the power or resources of “undesirable” elements (be they capitalists, religious minorities, Americans, or opposition figures of all stripes).
Don’t be fooled. Freedom is not an arbitrary concept or term. It does not change its meaning from continent to continent, country to country, or culture to culture. While there is plenty of room to debate specifics and measures, its basic elements are unmistakable. Freedom means the ability of human beings to interact with each other without interference by thugs with guns. Freedom is sustained where governments protect individual rights to life, liberty, and property – both those of their citizens and of foreign visitors and investors – and limit their role to providing true public goods, operating an effective system of courts to resolve disputes, and combating truly fraudulent behavior through well-defined and effectively enforced rules of disclosure.
Political and economic freedom ought to go together. In the long run, we can hope that they do – that economic liberalization in China and India will result in greater electoral and personal liberty (in the former) and less corruption and bureaucracy (in the latter). In the short run, however, there are countries with one and not the other. Political and economic freedom can be and are separately measured. Let’s take a brief look at a good measure of each, and discuss some of the implications.
The annual survey by Freedom House does the best job, I think, of measuring and ranking the extent of political freedom and civil liberties around the world. Its research methodology generates three broad categories of countries: free, partly free, and not free. About 3 billion people, or nearly half the world’s population, live in free countries. Another 1 billion people or so live in partly free countries. The remaining 2.5 billion people live in unfree countries. About half of them reside in China.
There is a cultural pattern to the distribution of political freedom (though that does not make it a cultural construct.) Free countries are found primarily in the Americas and Europe, plus Southern Africa, the Pacific Rim (Indonesia, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand), and India. Most non-free counties are in Africa and Asia.
As far as economic freedom is concerned, I think the best measure is the Index of Economic Freedom produced by The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation. Based on 10 numerical measures, it generates a final percentage score and five categories of countries: free, mostly free, moderately free, mostly unfree, and repressed. Unfortunately, the majority of the world’s population resides in mostly unfree or repressed countries. However, average economic freedom has been improving over time in most of the world – as have living standards, which is no accident.
Again, economic freedom isn’t distributed evenly across the globe. The Anglosphere encompasses all of the free countries – the U.S. the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, and the former British colonies in Hong Kong and Singapore. Of the 23 mostly free countries, all but Japan and Taiwan are in Europe or the Americas. Most of the unfree and repressed countries are in Asia and especially Africa, a particularly tragic case.
Of all the regions on Earth, only sub-Saharan Africa has failed to make significant progress on economic liberalization over the past three to four decades. That’s one reason why it is also the only region that has failed to achieve strong economic progress during the same period. In 1970, the three poorest regions were East Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Each had a poverty rate (as measured by the World Bank, not comparable to the U.S. poverty line) of about 35 percent. By 2000, the poverty rate in East Asia (including China and Indonesia) had plummeted to 2 percent. It fell to 2.5 percent in South Asia (including the Indian subcontinent). But in Africa, poverty rose to 50 percent by 2000. Among the handful of countries bucking the poverty trend were Mauritius and Botswana, which happen to be ranked 1st and 2nd respectively in economic freedom among African countries.
Why do my colleagues and I fight for freedom? Because it matters a great deal to us, and to everyone else. Freedom brings progress, opportunity, and happiness. Its absence brings stagnation, suffering, and desperation. The aspiration to freedom exists in every culture (though Islamic countries appear to have the greatest difficulty achieving it). Countries with relatively high ratings in both political and economic freedom include El Salvador, Uruguay, the Czech and Slovak republics, South Africa, Taiwan, and South Korea – all places that, at one time or another, seemed unlikely candidates.
In short, freedom is well worth fighting for. Won’t you join us?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.