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Legatum’s Mismeasure of Freedom in the United States

“The U.S. isn’t one of the top 10 most free countries in the world, study says.” So blares the headline of a recent McClatchyDC story. If a “study” says it, it must be true, right? Well, not exactly. But, even though the study in question is deeply flawed, clearly people in the United States are not fully free by the standard of individual rights. How free are we, really?

I’ll focus on the study in question, the 2015 Legatum Prosperity Index, which ranks the United States fifteenth in the world for personal freedom. A summary of key data is offered in a forty-one page pdf document. (I’m not sure why this is in the news in October of 2016, given the pdf is marked with a 2015 copyright. I heard of the news headlines when a radio station out of Houston called me for comment, based on a 2012 article I wrote about a previous version of the study.)

Personal freedom is one of the eight things the study purports to measure. But, as Legatum’s methodology report reveals, the study makes some pretty ridiculous assumptions.

A good tip-off that the study is essentially bogus comes when Legatum claims the United States is less free than Uruguay and Costa Rica. That doesn’t pass the laugh test. Although other higher-ranking countries (including Canada, Sweden, and Germany) do have a high degree of freedom, it’s hard to believe that people in those countries really enjoy a higher degree of personal freedom by any objective standard.

Objective standards are precisely what Legatum rejects. Instead, the study is driven largely by subjective survey results, and those results are only tangentially related to personal freedom, anyway.

Oz’s curtain comes down with the description of the five variables the study uses to calculate personal freedom (see page 50 of the methodology report). Four of these five variables depend explicitly on subjective survey data. For the fifth variable, “civil liberties,” Legatum relies on a report from Freedom House.

So does Freedom House offer an objective analysis of personal freedom? Hardly (although it offers a wealth of interesting information). I’ll offer just one indication of the problems.

Freedom Houses’s 2016 Freedom in the World report (see the pdf download) claims that the United States is docked in its scoring system, in part, because of “a disturbing increase in the role of private money in election campaigns.” In other words, Freedom House deems us less free because we have a robust First Amendment that protects freedom of speech. Presumably Freedom House would score us “freer” if politicians instead censored political speech.

“Censorship is freedom” would fit well in 1984, but it hardly makes for a sound estimation of personal freedom. (Readers who may be confused about this issue should see Steve Simpson’s excellent discussion.)

The survey-dependent “variables” are also deeply problematic. One question asks people, “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” Others ask, “Is the city or area where you live a good place or not a good place to live for immigrants” or “racial and ethnic minorities?”

Obviously, the results of such subjective questions cannot possibly lead to accurate international comparisons. Consider a few of the resulting absurdities:

  • If a religious zealot living under sharia law reports that he is “very satisfied” with his “freedom to choose what to do with [his] life,” the study counts that as an indication of high personal freedom. So, for example, if people are well-satisfied with their “freedom” to “choose” to live under Islamic totalitarianism, or to hang homosexuals or beat their wives, then that increases their country’s score on the “freedom” index.
  • If people in one country express extreme dissatisfaction with a relatively modest amount of police abuses against minorities—because they demand a consistently rights-respecting police force—they are deemed by this study as less free than people who express satisfaction with a much higher degree of police abuses.
  • People in an area with severe restrictions on immigration might report that their area is a great place for immigrants to live, whereas people who welcome many more immigrants might report their area is only a modestly good place for immigrants to live. But obviously the second place, on net, offers many more opportunities for immigrants.
  • If people in a nation with a large welfare state report that they are well-satisfied with their ability to “choose” to quit work and go on the dole, this study takes that to indicate a high degree of personal freedom. But of course the “freedom” to become a moocher is not what some of us have in mind when we talk about personal freedom.

It’s almost comical to read the Legatum study, with all its variables, data, and regression analyses, and then realize the study is built largely on the nonsense assumption that subjective survey results can lead to meaningful international comparisons. What a sham. Yet many supposed journalists lap up this nonsense.

Of course, the Legatum study is not totally meaningless; what it reveals (largely) is how people in different parts of the world answer subjective survey questions. That’s not useless information; it’s just not very useful in determining actual levels of personal freedom. At best, how satisfied people say they are about their “freedom” is a very poor proxy for how free they truly are.

Another problem with the Legatum results is that its questions only tangentially relate to personal freedom, and the study underplays many things that are directly related to personal freedom—such as oppressive laws on the books of a nation’s government.

I want to clarify something I said to KTRH radio. I pointed out that Legatum’s “personal freedom” index does not (directly) include anything about economic liberty. It is true that Legatum acccounts for aspects of economic liberty in other sections. But part of my point is that economic freedom is essential to “personal freedom” and an aspect of it, so it’s misleading to artificially segregate the two.

So how free are people in the United States, really?

I have a couple of preliminary observations about this. First, figuring out whether we are more free or less free than others is not very helpful. The proper goal is to achieve a consistently rights-respecting society; that’s what freedom means in a political context. That other governments violate people’s rights is no excuse for our government to do so.

Second, any objective international comparison would be very hard to come by. We’d have to look not only at how different countries protect or violate rights, but how consistently they do so. So, for example, until relatively recently, many U.S. states had anti-sodomy laws on the books. Yet, in most places, these laws were rarely if ever enforced (at least after a certain point). So how should those laws have been evaluated in terms of personal freedom?

Here’s a good illustration of the sorts of problems involved. Canada, according to Legatum the freest nation on earth, has on its books blasphemy laws, “hate speech” laws, and restrictive gun laws. In these ways, Canadians enjoy less personal freedom than do people in the United States. Yet, to Legatum, such facts are irrelevant.

Obviously we in the United States are not perfectly free. Consider just a few examples. Government violently assaults people in their homes and locks people in cages for consuming the “wrong” drugs. Sometimes police officers harass or physically harm people for no good reason. In many ways government violates people’s freedom of association, especially regarding business relationships. Government forcibly confiscates vast amounts of people’s wealth. Government sometimes takes people’s property by force. Prosecutors regularly effectively deny the right to a jury trial by inflating charges and threatening severe overpunishment. We have a very long way to go to achieve a consistently rights-respecting society.

At the same time, by historical and global standards, we in the United States enjoy an almost unprecedented level of freedom. To a substantial degree, we can can come and go as we please, believe and say what we want, associate with others by consent, pursue the work we want, and choose how to live our lives.

So how does the United States rank relative to other nations in terms of personal freedom? Obviously we rank at or near the top. In some ways we’re more free than others; in other ways, less free. Beyond that, I cannot say with much certainty. (The Heritage Foundation offers some good leads regarding economic freedom.)

What I can say with certainty is that the Legatum Institute has little idea what freedom is or how to measure it.

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