Saturday, April 22, 2017

Fred McMahon of the Fraser Institute: The Human Freedom Index 2016

Introduction to "The Human Freedom Index 2016 - a global measurement of personal,civil, and economic freedom".

The great third wave of freedom is receding and, despite hopes for the Arab Spring, no fourth wave is in sight—or at least so it seems. 

Samuel Huntington famously coined the phrase “Third Wave Democracy”. Waves of democracy, defined here as political freedom, overlap with waves of personal freedom as nations moving toward democracy also typically pledge to protect the personal freedoms of their citizens and tend to keep those pledges, at least initially.

The first wave began in the early 19th century as nations began to broaden the electorate to most males. At its peak, 29 nations were democracies, virtually all offering high levels of freedom, at least for the time. The wave came crashing down with the rise of Fascism in Europe, and the number of democracies dropped to 12. 

The defeat of Fascism and decolonization led to the second wave, peaking with 36 democracies in 1962, falling back to 30 in 1974, just as the third wave got underway with nations in Latin America and Asia beginning to establish democracies that also enshrined personal freedom. Then came the collapse of communism and the further extension of democracy. These developments altogether about doubled the number of democracies in the world. Almost all protected freedom in word, and usually in deed. 

Most “new” democracies, even the backsliders, have maintained the outward manifestation of democracy— voting with majority rule. But many, including the most powerful, have backtracked on freedom, making a mere ceremony of democracy. Without the free contest of ideas and freely available information for citizens, democracy is meaningless. Voters may hear only one view and little but false information to support the official position. Thus, as freedom declines, so does the quality of democracy. 

But how do we know that this description of a receding third wave of freedom is accurate? How sure are we that we are getting information that reflects reality, and that perceived backsliding has occurred? 

That is why the Human Freedom Index is so important. It creates a direct measure of freedom, rather than relying on proxies. The index can help reveal whether our perceptions are based on prejudice, or the fad of the moment, or reality. It is built exclusively with third-party data—in other words, data not produced by the authors. This means their subjective views do not cloud the data they use to construct the index, making this the most reliable and objective measure of freedom available. 

So what do the data tell us about freedom developments? 

 The index contains data on 140 nations and Hong Kong going back to 2008, with the most recently available data from 2014. In recent years we have lost some personal freedom while gaining some economic freedom, while the overall score has remained unchanged. Human freedom is a composite measure combining personal and economic freedom. 

2008                 7.23                                6.78                              7.01 
2014                  7.17                                6.86                              7.01 

But this is not the whole picture. In 2008, 69 nations had human freedom scores above 7.00. In 2014, that had fallen to 64 nations. Moreover, the last two years have been a long time in the history of freedom and, when the 2016 data are available, they will provide important information. Here we’ll take a quick look at the three most significant backsliders, China, Russia and Turkey, all of which have obvious importance for the broader world. 

Xi Jinping became the supreme leader in China in 2012 and moved to consolidate his power internally over the first year or so. Over the past two years, this has intensified into much-increased efforts to suppress freedom among the population as a whole. The effects were already evident in 2014. China’s personal freedom level, low to begin with, fell by 0.27 points between 2008 and 2014, while its overall human freedom index fell by just 0.03 due to an increase in economic freedom. The data from 2014 to today are likely to show a further lessening of freedom. Xi’s government has suppressed the little freedom the media had and has arrested thousands of dissidents, lawyers, and journalists. 

In Russia, the media had long been suppressed, but in 2014 the government passed an even more severe media law. In 2015, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered. As with China, these trends were already evident in 2014. Russia, again from a low level, fell 0.28 points in personal freedom between 2008 and 2014, and 0.07 points in overall human freedom, the fall in personal freedom being slightly offset by an increase in economic freedom. Russia under Putin seems intent on attacking freedom not just at home but along its borders. In 2014, Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and it is now supporting a vicious dictatorial regime in Syria. 

Turkey’s personal freedom increased significantly, by 0.62 points, between 2008 and 2014, with an overall gain in human freedom of 0.25. The increase in personal freedom was somewhat offset by a decrease in economic freedom. Developments since 2014 are hugely worrisome. Suppression of the media and media arrests were already increasing when elements of the military attempted a failed coup in July 2016. Since then, 35,000 have been arrested in a nationwide purge, including journalists who were already under significant pressure prior to the coup.

Freedom is also under attack in advanced nations, which have had high levels of freedom for over half a century and some for much longer. Populist politicians have targeted minorities and call for rolling back trade and other economic freedoms. They also support increasing police powers and state intrusions to the point where personal freedom may be threatened. Worrying developments have occurred in a number of other nations such as Malaysia, Ecuador, Poland, Hungary, Vietnam, and most Arab Spring nations. Yet positive developments have also occurred in Tunisia, Georgia, Myanmar, Taiwan, a number of African nations, and those Latin America nations that are turning away from populism. 

And that gives cause for hope over the longer term. Each wave crest is higher than the previous crest, and each trough is also higher than the previous one. If history is a guide, waves of freedom surge and then recede and are then followed by another wave that flows further up the shore. 

But it is crucial to have an accurate gauge of these movements and what buoys them and what drags them down. This is why getting a direct measure of freedom, as freedom seems to recede, is so important. This index and the authors, Ian Vásquez and Tanja Porčnik, provide the invaluable service of quantifying freedom in detail and directly rather than through proxies. In future years, it will tell us whether each wave crest does indeed get higher and each trough a little shallower. 

Read the full Fraser and Cato Institute report HERE.

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