Wednesday, June 3, 2009

To what extent are perceptions of freedom based on objective factors?

The Gallup World Poll has asked people in a large number of countries: “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” Recent research has shown that, even after controlling for other relevant variables, people tend to be more satisfied with their lives in countries in which a relatively high proportion of the population are satisfied with their freedom to choose. (See: John Helliwell, Christopher Barrington-Leigh, Anthony Harris and Haifang Huang, ‘International Evidence on the Social Context of Well-being’, Working paper 14720, NBER, 2009.)

This is hardly surprising. People who feel relatively satisfied with their lives could generally be expected to be satisfied with their freedom to choose what they do with their lives. Do the results have more profound implications? Is the proportion of people who are satisfied with their lives related to economic freedom (encompassing personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to enter and compete in markets and protection of persons and their property from aggression by others) and civil liberties? Alternatively, is satisfaction with freedom an emotional state that is unrelated to objective circumstances?

The Figure below has been obtained by matching the Gallup data on satisfaction with freedom with the Fraser Institute’s data on economic freedom and Freedom House’s data on civil liberties for 121 countries, and then ranking countries according to the percentage of people who are satisfied with their freedom to choose what to do with their lives. The results suggest that economic freedom and civil liberties tend to be substantially greater in countries where people are more satisfied with their freedom to choose.

Regression analysis suggests that economic freedom and civil liberties have a positive influence on the degree of satisfaction with freedom in different countries but only explain a modest proportion of the variation in this variable. In some countries (including China) the degree of satisfaction with freedom is much higher than predicted and in some countries (including Hungary) it is much lower than predicted.

In order to test whether there is a link between satisfaction with freedom and emotional states, another data set has been constructed which incorporates data on inner freedom (percentages who feel they have a great deal of choice and control over their lives) from the World Values Survey. Unfortunately the inner freedom data was collected for a smaller number of countries, so the matched data set only covers 70 countries. (Another problem with the inner freedom data is that it does not match very well in terms of the time at which it was collected. It was collected around 2000, substantially earlier than the other data.)

The second Figure, including inner freedom, provides a similar picture to the first one. Countries in which relatively high proportions are satisfied with the amount of freedom in their lives tend to have relatively high proportions who feel a great deal of inner freedom.

Inclusion of the additional variable in the regression analysis results in a substantial increase in the proportion of variation in the degree of satisfaction with freedom explained by the model, but reduces the coefficients on the other variables. This is not surprising in view of the apparent links between economic freedom and inner freedom discussed in an earlier post.

This simple analysis does not enable me to conclude to what extent perceptions of freedom are based on objective factors. The important point that emerges is that all four varieties of freedom tend to go together.

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