Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Does the modern world offer opportunities for people to live in harmony with nature?

Living in harmony with nature is one of five basic goods of a flourishing human. That is the opinion expressed in an earlier article on this blog. However, some further explanation may be required to persuade some readers that living in harmony with nature meets the criteria of a basic good.

Meeting criteria
Living in harmony with nature is obviously closely linked to survival of hunter gatherers and subsistence farmers, but it might appear less important in the modern world. That is debatable, given the potential for environmental impacts of some human activities to be detrimental to human health and well-being.

It is also beside the point. Living in harmony with nature would not be a basic good if it served only as a means to a long and healthy life. Basic goods are not a means to some other good.

Similarly, the question of whether living in harmony with nature is integral to psychological well-being is beside the point. Basic goods are not components of other goods.

Basic goods are final goods.  As I see it, living in harmony with nature is an indispensable final good of flourishing humans because humans have deep-seated intuitions about their kinship (relatedness) to other living things. Anyone who doubts whether flourishing humans have such intuitions should look at some videos of animals meeting challenges of various kinds. Could any flourishing human not be pleased that this video of ducklings climbing steps has a happy ending?

The nature of kinship
The kinship that flourishing humans feel toward other living things is similar to their positive relationships with other humans. In fact, people often value the lives of household pets more highly than the lives of other humans. Some research by Jack Levin et al suggests that adult victims of crime receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full-grown dog victims. The explanation offered for adult dogs receiving more empathy than adult humans is that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves while adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable, not unlike puppies and children.

Living in harmony with household pets may not be the first example that comes to mind of living in harmony with nature. Nevertheless, the sense of kinship with some animals living in the wild seems to be similar. Steven Pinker suggests in The Better Angels of our Nature that species that are lucky enough to possess the geometry of human babies may benefit to a greater extent from our sympathetic concern than other mammals (p 580).

Environmentalists have suggested that this results in disproportionate concern for a few mammals. Nevertheless, some environmentalists make the most of every opportunity to exploit fears that cute mammals are becoming endangered species. Koalas are a prime example. There would be few Australians who do not feel sadness about the large number of koalas killed in recent bushfires in eastern Australia, but claims that the koala population is now “functionally extinct” are probably exaggerated.

Opportunities offered by the modern world
The concept of an expanding circle of empathy, developed by Peter Singer, suggests that humans are likely to continue to expand their sense of kinship to encompass more living things. Singer suggests that altruism began as a genetically based drive to protect one's family and community members, but our capacity for reasoning has enabled an expanding circle of moral concern to develop. Those concerns seem likely to result in increasing numbers of people deciding to forgo meat products, without hectoring by climate change zealots claiming that we need to do so to save the planet. In my view, rising incomes play an important role in enabling people to give practical effect to their empathy for animals, for example by being willing and able to pay to ensure more humane treatment.

It is often observed that the move toward urban living has tended to separate people from the natural environment, but that lifestyle is likely to be more in harmony with nature than a lifestyle in which large numbers attempt to live in natural environments, but end up destroying the natural qualities that attracted them. As discussed on this blog a few years ago, the idea of locating human activities away from the natural environment, makes sense to decouple human development from adverse environmental impacts.

In How Much is Enough, Robert and Edward Skidelsky suggest that gardening provides a practical illustration of living in harmony with nature. They suggest that a good gardener “knows and respects” the potentialities of nature:
“His relation to nature is neither vulgarly instrumental nor grimly sacrificial. It is a relation of harmony”.

Gardening offers some potential to live in harmony with nature even in an urban environment. For example, it is often possible to select ornamental trees and shrubs, and to construct water features, with a view to attracting native birds into a garden. Even vertical gardening offers some scope to live in harmony with nature. On a larger scale, the story behind the mistletoe pictured at the beginning of this article illustrates some possibilities. An experiment is being conducted in Melbourne to use mistletoe to turn common street trees with no biodiversity benefits, London plane trees, into virtual wildlife sanctuaries.

The gardening concept may also have some relevance to the preservation of natural habitat. The idea that wilderness can be preserved merely by declaring an area to be a national park is a myth. Wilderness areas have not been free of human intervention in the past and may require careful monitoring and management to maintain existing biodiversity. For example, in Australia, the traditional custodians of the land used fire to create an environment suitable for the animals they hunted and to avoid a build-up of undergrowth that could fuel destructive bush fires.

Living in harmony with nature is one of the basic goods of a flourishing human because humans have deep-seated intuitions about their kinship with other living things.
The sense of kinship that people feel toward some animals living in the wild is like their feelings toward household pets. Human reasoning seems likely to expand this sense of kinship to encompass more living things. Rising incomes make people more willing and able to afford more humane treatment of animals.
Living in harmony with nature is consistent with urban living both because there is potential for substantial biodiversity in urban environments and because of the potential it offers for larger areas of natural wildlife habitat to be set aside and protected from the adverse effects of human activity. Ongoing monitoring and management is necessary in those areas to maintain existing habitat that is an outcome of past human interventions.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Which are the countries in which people have the best opportunities for psychological well-being?

This might seem like an odd question, so I will begin by explaining why I think it is worth considering.

Psychological well-being was identified in a recent post on this blog as one of five basic goods that a flourishing human would be expected to have. The post listed a range of aspects involved in psychological well-being: emotional stability, positive emotion, satisfaction with material living standards, engagement in doing things for their own sake and learning new things, perception of life as meaningful, a sense of accomplishment, optimism, resilience, vitality, integrity, and self-respect.

It seems reasonable to expect that opportunities for individuals to experience some of those aspects of psychological well-being might be greater in some countries than in others.

In compiling my list of aspects of psychological well-being, my starting point was the definition of psychological flourishing adopted by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So in their article ‘Flourishing Across Europe’ (published in Soc.Indic.Res. in 2013). These authors view psychological flourishing as lying at the opposite end of a spectrum to depression and anxiety. They identified 10 symptoms of flourishing (competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality) as the opposites of internationally agreed criteria for depression and anxiety (DSM and ICD). The study has previously been discussed on this blog.

My main modification to Huppert and So’s list is the addition of satisfaction with material living standards. In my view, people who feel miserable because they are dissatisfied with their material living standards are deficient in psychological well-being, even though they may not be suffering from the symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Despite my desire to modify the measure of psychological flourishing constructed by Huppert and So, it strikes me as providing a good basis for international comparison of psychological well-being. Unfortunately, this measure is only available for European countries, and for one year, 2006. That leads me to consider whether life satisfaction is a satisfactory alternative measure.

Is life satisfaction good enough?
The chart shown above suggests that, at a national level at least, the percentage of people who are satisfied “with how life has turned out so far” (ratings of 9 or 10 on a scale of 0 to 10) is a good predictor of psychological flourishing. In a simple linear regression, the percentage with high life satisfaction explains 83% of the inter-country variation in the percentage who are flourishing. (The chart was constructed using life satisfaction data from the 2006 European Social Survey used by Huppert and So to construct their psychological flourishing indicator.)

The idea that life satisfaction could a good enough measure of psychological flourishing might appear to be at variance with the findings of Huppert and So.  As discussed in an earlier post, Huppert and So found that only 46.0% of people who met the criterion for flourishing had high life satisfaction, and only 38.7% of people who had high life satisfaction met the criterion for flourishing.
However, the appropriateness of life satisfaction as an indicator of psychological flourishing depends on the purpose for which the indicator is to be used. If you want to know about an individual’s psychological well-being, it is hardly surprising that a single question about life satisfaction has been found to be a poor indicator. If your focus is on average psychological well-being at a national level, life satisfaction seems to be a good enough indicator because much of the measurement error at an individual level washes out in calculating national averages.

The countries with highest average life satisfaction
Average life satisfaction data from the Gallup World Poll is published annually in the World Happiness Report. This data set covers many countries and measures life satisfaction according to the Cantril ladder scale, with a rating of 10 being given to the best possible life and a rating of zero is given to the worst possible life.

In the 2018 survey, average life satisfaction ratings were greater than 7 in 15 countries: Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Sweden, New Zealand, Luxembourg, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany and Czech Republic. Average ratings tend to be fairly stable from year to year, but a decade earlier, Ireland, Spain, U.S, Israel, Belgium and France had average ratings above 7, and U.K, Costa Rica and Germany had ratings below 7.

Regression analysis undertaken by John Helliwell et. al. show that almost three-quarters of the variation in national annual average life satisfaction scores among countries can be explained by six variables: GDP per capita, networks of social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption. That list of variables has a strong overlap with determinants of other basic goods in my list of the five basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have. (See other posts in this series, here, here and here.) Apart from GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy, however, the data used in the analysis of Helliwell et al are based on perceptions of survey participants rather than objective measurement. (The analysis is a pooled regression using 1704 national observations from the years 2005 to 2018.)

Since my focus is on identifying countries where a person chosen at random would have the best opportunities, the median life satisfaction for each country would be a better criterion than the mean. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to such data at a national level. Estimates of median life satisfaction for broad regions (based on data here) suggest that median life satisfaction is typically lower than the mean. The difference between mean and median tends to be small for countries with relatively high life satisfaction: Western Europe (6.6 for mean cf. 6.4 for median) and North America and ANZ (7.1 cf. 6.9). The difference more substantial in some other parts of the world e.g. South East Asia (5.4 cf. 4.8).

Avoiding and reducing misery
In considering which countries offer the best opportunities for psychological well-being, countries with high average life satisfaction would be less attractive to risk averse people (most humans) if a relatively high proportion of the population of those countries nevertheless lived in misery. However, available evidence suggests that factors that lead to high life satisfaction also tend to reduce misery. For example, it is apparent from the graph below that the regions of the world with highest average life satisfaction tend also to have the lowest percentages with low life satisfaction.

A study by Andrew Clark et al for the World Happiness Report 2017 used data for the U.S., Australia, Britain and Indonesia to examine how much misery would be reduced if it was possible to eliminate one or more key determinants. The factors considered were poverty, low education, unemployment, living alone, physical illness, and depression and anxiety disorders. The authors found that the most powerful impact would come from the elimination of depression and anxiety disorders.

Life satisfaction is not a particularly good indicator of individual psychological well-being, but it seems to be a good enough indicator to use in international comparisons.
Countries with the highest average life satisfaction are characterised by relatively high income levels and life expectancy, accompanied by perceptions of strong social support, freedom and low corruption. The percentage of the population who are dissatisfied with life tends to be relatively low in such countries.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Why do opportunities for positive human relationships differ among countries?

Positive relationships with family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and trading partners was identified in a recent article on this blog as one of the five basic goods that a flourishing human would be expected to have. Positive relationships make contributions to individual flourishing that are universal, indispensable, not entirely incorporated in other basic goods such as physical and mental health, and they do not serve just as a means to a more basic good.

The meaning of positive in this context refers to motivations. Positive relationships are motivated by love, compassion, mutual benefit, or benign personal benefit, rather than by malice, or seeking personal gain at the expense of others. The dividing line between positive and negative motivations occurs at the point where there is an intention to infringe natural rights (as discussed here).

Opportunities for individuals to have positive relationships are more constrained in some countries than in others. That occurs to some degree because of constraints on liberty. Positive personal and business relationships of some kinds are not permitted in some parts of the world. Such constraints impinge on the capacity of individuals for self-direction, the basic good discussed in the preceding post.

Perceptions of the extent to which others can be trusted have a major differential impact on opportunities for positive human relationships in different countries. The following discussion makes use of the concept of generalized trust, as defined by Christian Welzel in Freedom Rising (2013). As Welzel explains, generalized trust “derives from trust in close others and then extends to unspecified others to eventually include even remote others”. In order to capture that idea, he combines variables from the World Values Survey representing close trust (trust of family, neighbours and people you know personally), unspecified trust (whether most people can be trusted, and whether most people try to be fair) and remote trust (trust of people you meet for the first time, people of another religion and people of another nationality). In the index construction, all variables are converted to a 0 to 1 scale, close trust is given a weight of 1, unspecified trust and weight of 2 and remote trust a weight of 3. 

The vertical axis of the accompany chart shows values of generalized trust for 58 jurisdictions included in the 2010-14 wave of the World Values Survey. Of those, the 5 jurisdictions with highest generalized trust were Sweden, Australia, Netherlands, Hong Kong and United States.

If you want to explain why trust levels vary between countries, it makes sense to look for reasons why people in some countries might consider their compatriots to be untrustworthy, such as the incidence of crime. The accompany chart shows the jurisdictions with highest levels of generalized trust also score highly on the World Bank’s rule of law index. That index incorporates data relating to the likelihood of crime and violence as well as information on the quality of contract enforcement, property rights, the police and the courts. In a recent article on this blog, I suggested that by penalising plunder rule of law encourages trust and improves incentives for mutually beneficial trade, as well as enabling societies to avoid the violence associated with do-it-yourself (DIY) justice.

The association between trust and rule of law might also reflect causation running from trust to incidence of crime. Societies with high levels of generalized trust could be expected to have stronger incentives for mutually beneficial, rather than predatory activity, a lower incidence of crime and hence, higher rule of law index scores.

The chart also suggests that higher levels of generalized trust tends to be associated with greater endorsement of emancipative values, as indicated by the size of the bubbles. Christian Welzel’s index of emancipative values incorporates twelve items from the World Values Survey covering values relating to autonomy, choice, equality and voice (e.g. protecting freedom of speech and giving people more say in government and workplace decisions). Emancipative values remain relatively dormant when people are poor, illiterate and isolated in local groups, but emerge strongly as people acquire more action resources (wealth, intellectual skills and opportunities to connect with others).

Since emancipative values involve greater tolerance of diversity it is not surprising that people holding such values would be more likely to trust people of different religions and nationalities. Welzel’s analysis in Freedom Rising shows that at an individual level people who endorse emancipative values tend to have higher levels of generalized trust, and that this impact is amplified in societies where those values are more prevalent.

In addition to trust, positive relationships are reflected in networks of individuals who can rely on each other for social support when they need it. Responses to a Gallup World Poll question which asks people whether they have relatives or friends to count on for help when they are in trouble, suggests that support networks tend to be stronger in relatively high-income countries. Of 136 countries in the data set used, 8 of the 10 with strongest support networks are relatively high-income countries: Norway, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Slovenia, Australia, Netherlands and Ireland. (The other 2 countries in the top 10 are Turkmenistan and Mongolia.) Some relatively high-income countries also appear well down the rankings, e.g. U.S.A. in 37th place, Japan, 48th place and Greece in 89th place.

Positive human relationships can be motivated by love, compassion, mutual benefit, or benign personal benefit. The extent to which others can be trusted has an important impact on the opportunities for positive human relationships. Trust levels tend to be higher in countries with relatively low crime rates. Trust improves incentives for trade and other mutually beneficial activities.
Generalized trust, which gives greatest weight to trust of people who have just met and people from different religions and nationalities, tends to be greatest where people hold emancipative values, involving greater tolerance of diversity.
Networks of individuals who can rely on each other for social support tend to be strongest in high-income countries.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

What determines the opportunities for individuals to develop a capacity for self-direction?

A capacity for wise and well-informed self-direction was identified in a recent post on this blog as one of five basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have. A flourishing human could be expected to have developed that capability because it is integral to the process of human flourishing. The nature of humans is such that as individuals mature, they have a unique potential to direct their own flourishing in accordance with values they endorse and goals they choose.

Wise and well-informed self-direction helps individuals to maintain other basic goods of human flourishing that are necessary to their pursuit of chosen goals.  The exercise of practical wisdom helps individuals to live long and healthy lives, maintain positive relationships, manage their emotional health, and live in harmony with nature.

How do individuals develop a capacity for wise and well-informed self-direction? It is possible to teach people about the virtue of practical wisdom, but it doubtful whether anyone has ever learned to exercise much practical wisdom without having responsibility to make choices in the real world. Individuals have the strongest incentive to learn how to make wise and well-informed choices in an environment that provides both great scope for freedom of choice and an obligation to accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make.

However, the opportunities for individuals to be well-informed also vary among countries depending on the knowledge that is readily available to them. Some of that knowledge is obtained through formal education, some is obtained on-the-job and some is absorbed through less formal interactions with family and friends. Individuals could be expected to have better opportunities to make well-informed choices if they live in countries where workforce skill levels are relatively high. That increases the chances that individuals will have easy access to relevant information for the important decisions they must make.

In what follows I consider how individual opportunities vary among countries, first in respect of freedom to choose, and then skill levels.

Freedom to choose
The accompany graph shows scores for perceived freedom and the Human Freedom Index for 126 countries for which matching data are available. Perceived freedom is the national average of positive responses to the Gallup World Poll (GWP) question: “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” The Human Freedom Index (HFI), developed by the Fraser Institute, incorporates 79 indicators of personal, civil and economic freedom to provide an objective measure of the state of freedom in each of the countries covered.

The graph shows that the countries ranked most highly using the HFI are also ranked highly in terms of perceived freedom. (Matching perceived freedom data is not available for Hong Kong, which was still one of the most highly ranked countries in the most recent HFI.) Switzerland, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, U.K. and Canada are presented as relatively free according to both indicators. However, perceived freedom also appears relatively high in some countries that more objective measures suggest are relatively unfree e.g. China. This may be a consequence of the binary nature of the GWP question. It would be more difficult for a survey respondent living under an authoritarian regime to tell a questioner that they are unsatisfied with their freedom to choose, than to give a moderately low score if asked to rate how much freedom they enjoy on a numerical scale. China’s score was close to the average in the 2010-14 World Values Survey (WVS) which asked respondents to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 “how much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out”.

If you want a reliable indication of differences in human freedom among different countries it makes sense to use objective indicators, where possible. However, perceptions can sometimes provide useful information. For example, if women and men have different perceptions about the amount of freedom in their lives, that might reflect a gender equality issue. In fact, WVS data indicate that in most countries women and men have similar perceptions of the amount of freedom of choice in their lives. The few jurisdictions in which women rate the amount of freedom in their lives substantially lower than do men include Pakistan, Palestine and India.

Skill levels
The indicator of skill levels constructed for the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) provides an appropriate basis for international comparisons of the knowledge that people are likely to be able to access readily in making important decisions. The GCI skills indicator incorporates perceptions of participants in a survey of executives coving questions relating to staff training, skillsets of graduates, digital skills of the population, ease of finding skilled employees and critical thinking in teaching, as well as education statistics such as years of schooling.

The top 10 ranked countries in terms of skill levels (for a data set of 118 countries) were Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Sweden, U.S., N.Z. and U.K. If that list looks familiar it might be because it overlaps strongly with the list provided earlier of the countries ranked most highly in the Human Freedom Index. A simple regression shows a strong association between skills and human freedom (R2 = 0.50).

It seems unlikely that much of that association can be explained by direct causal links between freedom and skill acquisition. The most likely causal linkage is via the link between economic freedom and economic development. Economic development increases the demand for skilled labour.

Individuals have strong incentives to learn how to make wise and well-informed choices in countries where there is a great deal of economic and personal freedom. They are likely to have easier access to relevant information in countries with relatively high skill levels.
There is a strong overlap between the countries ranked most highly in the Human Freedom Index and the skill levels indicator of the Global Competitiveness Index. Both measures rank Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and U.K. among the top 10 countries. 

Monday, December 2, 2019

What determines opportunities for a long and healthy life?

This post is about the reasons why opportunities for people to live long and healthy lives are much greater in some countries than in others. In the preceding post the prospect of a long and healthy life was identified as one of five basic goods of a flourishing human.

So, which are the countries in which an individual chosen at random would be likely to have the best prospects of a long and healthy life? The OECD’s Better Life Index gives top ratings on health to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Israel and Ireland. The health indicator used in that index may not be reliable, however, because it incorporates self-reported health along with life expectancy at birth to take account of the quality of life as well as its length. Self-reported health seems to be unduly influenced by cultural factors. For example, while life expectancy in Japan is among the highest in the world (more than 2 years greater than in Canada) less than 40% of people in Japan rate their health as good or very good (the comparable figure for Canada is 88%). 

Objective evidence published in The Lancet articles on Global Burden of Disease indicate that the difference between life expectancy and healthy life expectancy (the number of years people can expect to live in good health) is about the same in Japan and Canada (13 years for females and 10 years for males).

The Lancet study, which covers 195 countries and territories, indicates that healthy life expectancy (HALE) is highest in Singapore and Japan, but also relatively high in other high income countries. 

HALE is strongly correlated with life expectancy (LE). The difference between HALE and LE rises somewhat as LE rises: on average from 6.4 years for a country with LE of 50 years, to 10.8 years for one with an LE of 80 years. The difference is typically about 2 years greater for females than males, but LE for females is about 5 years greater than for males in middle and higher income countries.
The accompanying graph shows that substantial increases in HALE have occurred in many countries since 1990. The increases have generally been most pronounced in countries with relatively low life expectancy.

There seems to be little support for concerns that additional years of life are frequently not worth living. For countries with low LE in 1990, average increases in LE of 12 years were associated with increases in HALE of 10.5 years. For countries that already had high life expectancy in 1990, average increases in LE of 5 years were associated with increases in HALE of 3.7 years. It seems likely that many individuals would consider an additional year of life to be preferable to the alternative, even if accompanied by some ill-health.

Research seeking to explain differences in longevity among countries suggests that health care spending, higher income and education have beneficial impacts. An OECD study of 35 countries (mostly high-income) found that health expenditure made the greatest contribution to increased longevity (42 months) over the period 1990 to 2010, followed by education (15 months) income growth (13 months) and reduced smoking (5 months). The study found the impact of increased health spending to vary between countries, with relatively small gains in longevity experienced in the U.S. despite large increases in health care spending.

War and violent crime have a major impact on life expectancy in some parts of the world. For example, life expectancy among men who live in the north of Mexico apparently declined by about 3 years in the period 2005 to 2010 as a result of an increase in the homicide rate associated with drug wars.

Some of the important drivers of increased longevity have a common cause: health care spending has tended to account for a higher share of GDP as per capita GDP has risen. Econometric studies have suggested that this increased spending may be driven largely by demographic and technological factors, but income growth makes it possible.

The more fundamental determinants of opportunities for a long and happy lives are the factors contributing to the economic development that has led to high average income levels. There are virtuous circles involved in this process. As previously discussed on this blog, a plausible story of economic development also needs to take account of virtuous circles involved in interactions between culture and economic freedom. Where culture and economic freedom support markets, people have added incentives to gain reputations as being worthy of trust others in order to obtain the benefits of mutually beneficial exchanges. As people become more trustworthy and trusting, and more respectful of the rights others, they could be expected to support greater economic freedom. Economic freedom, and a culture supporting innovation, result in further economic development and economic development promotes a culture supporting greater economic and personal freedom. As part of this process, improvements in population health could be expected to contribute to higher labour productivity and further enhance income levels.

The economic development story outlined above implies that we should expect healthy life expectancy (HALE) to be higher, on average, in countries with higher levels of economic and personal freedom. In order to test that, HALE data for 155 countries have been matched with data from the Fraser Institute’s Human Freedom Index. The chart below shows that average HALE is about 10 years greater for the countries in the fourth quartile, with the highest freedom levels, than for countries in the first quartile, with the lowest freedom levels.

The countries in which a person chosen at random seems likely to have the best prospects of having a long and healthy life are characterised by high average income levels. Estimates of healthy life expectancy (HALE) published in The Lancet’s global burden of disease project are highest in Singapore and Japan. Since 1990, there have been substantial increases in HALE in most countries.
Health spending, income growth and education have contributed substantially to increased longevity. The more fundamental determinants of opportunities for people to have long and healthy lives are the cultural and institutional factors that have contributed to economic development. Evidence that high HALE is associated with high levels of human freedom supports an economic development story taking account of virtuous circles involving market freedom, cultures supporting freedom and health improvements.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

What are the basic goods of a flourishing human?

A good place to begin is with the discussion of the basic goods of “the good life”, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky in their book How Much is Enough (2012). The relevant discussion is in Chapter 6, entitled ‘Elements of the Good Life’. I published a somewhat critical review of the book on this blog some years ago, but I saw some merit in the authors discussion of human flourishing.

The authors adopt the following criteria to identify basic goods:
Universality: not specific to eras or cultures;
Finality: not just serving as a means to a more basic good;
Sui generis: not incorporated in some other good;
Indispensability: lack of the good leads to loss or harm.
I accept those criteria.

The authors identify the following seven basic goods:
  • Health: ‘‘the full functioning of the body, the perfection of our animal natures”.
  • Security: ‘‘an individual’s justified expectation that his life will continue more or less in its accustomed course, undisturbed by war, crime, revolution or major social and economic upheavals”.
  • Respect: an individual’s feeling that others ‘‘regard his views and interests as worthy of consideration, as things not to be ignored or trampled on”.
  • Personality: ‘‘the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good”.
  • Harmony with Nature: ‘‘a sense of kinship with animals, plants, and landscapes”.
  • Friendship: ‘‘all robust, affectionate relationships”, including work relationships etc. as well as family relationships.
  • Leisure: “that which we do for its own sake”, not just time off work.

That list summarises 17 pages of discussion, so it may not do justice to the authors’ deliberations. Nevertheless, it provides a basis to consider whether items have been identified appropriately, and whether anything important has been left out.

Health is obviously an essential characteristic of a flourishing human. The authors want to discourage “an obsession with longevity”, but it is reasonable to assert that flourishing involves living healthily for the term of one’s natural life.

Security is important, but it serves as a means to other goods, including a long and healthy life and psychological well-being (an important omission from the authors’ list of basic goods).

Having others respect of one’s views and interests feels good, but it isn’t indispensable to individual flourishing. Respect for one’s natural rights (life, liberty and property) is certainly indispensable, but serves as a means to other goods, including the ability to live a long and healthy life, interact with others for mutual benefit, and to the acquire human and physical capital that contributes to flourishing.

“Personality” does not seem to capture adequately the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good. The authors use the term personality, rather than autonomy or practical reason, because it implies “spontaneity, individuality and spirit”. Those aspects of personality could be more appropriately incorporated under psychological well-being. The basic good corresponding to framing and executing a plan of life seems to me to be best described as accepting responsibility for self-direction.

Living in harmony with nature is important to human flourishing, and not just because of environmental impacts on human health and well-being. As I see it, the motivation for living in harmony with nature stems from deep-seated intuitions about our kinship with other living things.

Friendship doesn’t seem the most appropriate word to capture the wide variety of relationships that the authors put under this heading. The relevant basic good seems to me to be positive relationships.

Leisure is usually thought of as time off work, rather than engagement in doing things for their own sake. Martin Seligman uses the term ‘engagement’ to refer to the relevant basic good in his book Flourish (2011).

The other four elements of well-being identified in Seligman’s PERMA acronym (discussed here) are positive emotion, relationships, meaning and achievement. Of these, Skidelsky and Skidelsky only directly acknowledge relationships as an element of the good life. It seems to me that positive emotion and a sense of achievement are essential characteristics of a flourishing human.

Meaning requires a little more discussion. Seligman defines ‘meaning’ as belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self. This makes sense if serving the self means pursuit of personal pleasure. Those who see their lives as meaningful could be expected to value more things in life than their own pleasure.

So, here are the basic goods that I would expect a flourishing human to have:
  1.  The prospect of a long and healthy life.
  2. Wise and well-informed self-direction.
  3.  Positive relationships with family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and trading partners.
  4. Psychological well-being: emotional stability, positive emotion, satisfaction with material living standards, engagement in doing things for their own sake and learning new things, perception of life as meaningful, a sense of accomplishment, optimism, resilience, vitality, integrity, and self-respect.
  5. Living in harmony with nature.

What do I plan to do with this list? My interest is in the factors that lead to differences in opportunities for human flourishing in different countries. For example, which are the countries where some person chosen at random is likely to have the best prospects of a long and healthy life? How can we explain why the prospects for that individual are better in those countries?
Such questions will be explored in later posts.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What is it important to know about freedom, liberty and natural rights?

Dear readers, this article summarises the conclusions of a series of recent posts on this blog relating to freedom, liberty and natural rights.

It might help you in reading the article to think of it as an outline of the chapter on freedom in a book about freedom, progress and human flourishing. It would help me if you could provide comments below, or by email, on whether you think the article captures adequately what it is important to know about liberty.

The meaning of freedom, liberty and rights. 

Freedom sounds good, but the meaning of the word depends on context. For example, when people talk about freedom from fear, or freedom from want, they may have something important to say about human flourishing, but it isn’t necessary related to personal freedom or economic freedom, which are aspects of liberty. My focus in this post is on liberty.
Liberty has a more precise meaning than freedom. I adopt Friedrich Hayek’s definition of liberty as “a state in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as is possible in society”. In the civic republican tradition, liberty is sometimes defined more broadly to encompass political freedoms, including the right to political participation. To avoid confusion, however, I think it best to stick with Hayek’s definition.
Rights refer to things that one is morally or legally entitled to do or have. As with freedom, the precise meaning depends on context and qualifier words. A negative right is a right not to be subjected to an action of another person or group whereas a positive right is an entitlement to have another person or group do something. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights encompasses not only the negative right to liberty and positive legal rights (including political freedom) but also economic and social aspirations that cannot necessarily be met by anything that a person or group might do.   
My focus here is on natural rights, including the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - as famously proclaimed in the United States Declaration of Independence. The inclusion of “pursuit of happiness” as a right in the Declaration might appear to be redundant since pursuit of happiness is encompassed in our understanding of liberty. In 18th century America, however, an inalienable right to liberty could have been interpreted in civic republican terms. At that time, pursuit of happiness was widely perceived as the activity of human flourishing, as perceived by Aristotle. (Further explanation is provided in an earlier post.)

Liberty is worth having.

Anyone who lives in a liberal democracy should ask themselves from time to time what it would be like to live without liberty. What would your life be like if you lived in a country where you didn’t have freedom of religion, where you could be jailed for expressing views not approved of by political leaders, where you could be subject to arbitrary arrest, where your property could be arbitrarily seized by the government, or where your freedom to  move around was restricted? Such countries are still easy to find.
The right to freedom of speech is particularly important because free speech helps to protect liberty more generally. Some restrictions on freedom of speech have long been widely accepted as desirable, for example to discourage incitement to violence. However, recent efforts in some liberal democracies to make it a crime to offend others based on identity characteristics - such as ethnicity, religion or gender - have potential to curtail freedom of speech substantially. Even when people strive to be respectful in the way they present their views, some people with opposing viewpoints are likely to claim to be offended if they can thereby stifle debate on controversial topics.

Norms of liberty make it possible for individuals to flourish in different ways.

As explained by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl: 
“Individual rights are … needed to solve a problem that is uniquely social, political and legal. … How do we allow for the possibility that individuals might flourish in different ways … without creating inherent moral conflict in … the structure that is provided by the political/legal order? How do we find a political/legal order that will in principle not require that the human flourishing of any person or group be given structural preference over others? How do we protect the possibility that each may flourish while at the same time provide principles that regulate the conduct of all?”  (Norms of Liberty2005, p 78).
A discussion of views of other authors who have also advanced metanormative arguments for individual rights was posted on this blog some years ago.
Moral intuitions support natural rights.

Natural rights are inherent in human nature. They have traditionally been seen to be endowed by God, but widely-held intuitions about natural rights can also be explained in terms of the evolution of the ethics of respect. Moral intuitions that it is good to respect the lives and autonomy of others provide support for norms of liberty that maximize the opportunities available for all to flourish. As discussed in a recent post, it seems reasonable to suppose that the ethics of respect evolved because of the benefits that voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit brought to individuals and communities.  
Those who seek to deny the existence of natural rights tend to argue that individual rights are bestowed by governments, so it is legitimate for governments to remove them if that serves what they see as the “greater good”. There are times when individual rights do need to be compromised (e.g. via compulsory land acquisition) to prevent a community being held to ransom by an individual, but this should not be done lightly and fair compensation should be provided.

Respect for the rights of others has been advocated as an ideal since ancient times.

In ancient Greece, the poems of Hesiod, which appear to date from the 8th or 7th century BCE, urge people to comply with rules of just conduct rather than to seek to benefit via predation. In his poem, Works and Days, Hesiod advises his brother Perses, to “put away all notions of violence” for “fish, and wild animals, and the flying birds” may “feed on each other, since there is no idea of justice among them,” but “to men [Zeus] gave justice,” which is the “best thing they have.”  Hesiod condemns both force and fraud: the grabbing of goods either by “force of hands” or by “cleverness of … tongue.” (Further discussion here.)

Perceptions of natural law have not always supported universal human flourishing.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was the great philosopher of individual human flourishing. His emphasis on the natural capacity of humans to use reason to guide themselves and exercise appropriate moderation in their behaviour provides a basis for understanding human flourishing to be an essentially self-directed activity.
Nevertheless, Aristotle argued that it was natural to make slaves of defeated enemies. He viewed the system of conquest and slavery as a natural system governed by internal sources of change. By identifying the whole system as natural he was able to disregard the use of force at the heart of it.
The perception of what was natural of Cicero, the Roman statesman, lawyer and philosopher who lived from 106 BC- 43 BC, was more supportive of liberty. He argued that “nature made us just that we might participate our goods with each other, and supply each others’ wants”.
(Further discussion here and here.)

Reason and spontaneous legal processes both played a part in recognition of natural rights.

Beliefs and values supporting natural rights of individuals to life, property and liberty seem to have travelled from Cicero to the modern world through both the spontaneous evolution of rules and evolution of reasoning about the natural law. Those different transmission processes interacted. There were periods when reasoning about natural law held back recognition of individual rights to participate in mutually beneficial activities e.g. lending and borrowing. Eventually, however, reasoning about natural law reinforced and extended individual rights recognised under common law. (Further discussion here and here).

Rule of law protects natural rights and enables people to live in peace.

From the 12th century onwards, with the advent of centralised monarchies in Europe, homicide came to be viewed as an offence against the crown, rather than a civil matter. That enabled societies to avoid the violence associated with do-it-yourself justice. More effective justice systems penalised plunder, and thereby promoted peacefulness and improved incentives for mutually beneficial exchange.  
Evolution of the rule of law provided greater protection to natural rights by requiring people to refrain from initiating or threatening any forceful interference with other individuals or their property.  (Further discussion here.)

Systems of government preferment are an infringement of natural liberty.

Adam Smith argued that it was an unjust infringement of natural liberty for the powers of government to be used to assist some economic groups at the expense of others. Smith’s ideal of everyone being free to pursue their own interests in their own way is consistent with Francis Hutcheson’s earlier explanation of the right to natural liberty in terms of pursuit of happiness. (See this post).

In The Law, published in 1850, Frédéric Bastiat foresaw the potential for the universal franchise to endanger natural rights. He was concerned about the use of the power of the state by some groups to seize and consume the products of the labour of others. Legislation that seriously endangers natural rights is difficult to reconcile with rules of just conduct that have evolved to foster mutually beneficial interactions. (See discussion here.)

The right political participation should be viewed as a natural right.

Moral intuitions supporting the right to political participation presumably evolved because human flourishing has always required individuals to participate actively with others in decisions relating to provision of collective goods. Such involvement is less active in modern societies in which many collective goods are provided by remote government agencies and citizen involvement usually involves little more than voting.
The exercise of voting rights provides citizens with some protection against tyranny, but increasing numbers of people in the liberal democracies nevertheless feel unhappy about the outcomes of democratic political processes. That unhappiness may stem to an important extent from unrealistic expectations of what political processes can deliver. It seems likely to increase as low productivity growth reduces government revenues and demographic change increases political demands on governments.
Technological advances that enhance opportunities to seek mutual benefit in cooperative enterprises offer hope that people will in future be able to exercise their natural political rights in ways that give them more involvement in decisions that affect them.
(More discussion here and here.)

For liberty to prevail the ‘real constitution’ must be pro-liberty.

It is illusory to think of political institutions as external to society. The rules of the game exist only insofar as they are continually maintained in existence by human agents acting in certain systematic ways. The constitution of a free society is a pattern of interactions in which people give one another incentives to act and keep acting in ways that tend to maintain liberty. It is not the rules per se that gets disputes resolved, but rather the incentive structure that makes the system’s administrators likely to act in accordance with such rules.
Sheldon Richman defines the real constitution as the set of dispositions that influence what most people will accept as legitimate actions by the politicians and bureaucrats who make up the government. He derives support for this concept from Roderick Long’s observation that “government is not some sort of automatic robot standing outside the social order it serves; its existence depends on ongoing cooperation, both from the members of the government and from the populace it governs”.
It follows that for liberty to prevail the real constitution must be pro-liberty. As a corollary, tyranny cannot persist in any jurisdiction when the real constitution is pro-liberty.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Can any of the positive rights listed in the UDHR be considered natural rights?

A statement made last year by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) prompted me to take another look at it  In her statement, Ms Bachelet suggested that the UDHR has “withstood the tests of the passing years” and “has passed from being an aspirational treatise into a set of standards that has permeated virtually every area of international law”.

The UDHR is not a document that I look at often. My reason for largely neglecting the document has been the perception that it is aspirational, and involves a large element of wishful thinking. Ms Bachelet’s suggestion to the contrary reminded that Friedrich Hayek had asserted that by proclaiming social and economic aspirations to be rights, the UDHR was playing “an irresponsible game with the concept of ‘right’ which could result only in destroying the respect for it” (Law, Legislation and Liberty, p 105).

After re-reading the UDHR, there are a couple of points I would like to make about it.

First, Hayek was right!
Hayek’s warning about the confusion of the concept of right in the UDHR was appropriate. For example, consider Article 15:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

Article 15 seems to tell everyone that the world owes them a living. But who will pay? Nature has different imperatives. Human flourishing depends on what people can do individually and collectively to help themselves and each other. Governments may help by defending the natural rights that enable people to better their own condition and help others. Although they often promise to ensure that everyone has an adequate standard of living, governments can’t themselves generate the wealth needed to keep such promises.

Governments can redistribute wealth, but their redistribution efforts tend to discourage wealth creation. What happens when redistribution is pushed too far is obvious from the recent experience of Venezuela. The policies followed by the Venezuelan government were presumably intended to contribute to the human flourishing aspirations underlying Article 15, but they have had the opposite effect of impoverishing many people in that country. The incoming Venezuelan representative on the UN human rights council would do us all a favour if he or she could acknowledge the consequences of the Venezuelan government’s efforts to comply with Article 15.

The UDHR would have provided a more coherent defence of human rights if its framers had given more attention to the insights of Frédéric Bastiat about natural rights and the role of law. In The Law, published in 1850, Bastiat makes the point that everyone has a natural right to defend their person, their liberty and their property, and asserts that the law should be viewed as “the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense”:
“When law and force keep a person within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing but a mere negation. They oblige him only to abstain from harming others. They violate neither his personality, his liberty, nor his property. They safeguard all of these. They are defensive; they defend equally the rights of all”.

Second, some of the positive rights in the UDHR are worth supporting.
I am referring to various legal rights relating to natural justice, or procedural fairness, and the right of political participation in Article 21:
“Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives”.

People who live in liberal democracies tend to take that right that for granted, and many are even disillusioned about it, but it is a right that people seek persistently when it is denied to them. Tyrants understand that well; although they often claim to be adored by citizens, they are rarely willing to allow their popularity to be fairly tested in fair elections. The recent protests in Hong Kong show that the right to political participation is keenly sought even when people live under a regime that, for the time being, provides individuals with greater economic freedom than is enjoyed in most liberal democracies.

Friedrich Hayek argued in favour of recognition of such political rights in the following terms:
“Since we are all made to support the organization of government, we have by the principles determining that organization certain rights which are commonly called political rights. The existence of the compulsory organization of government and its rules of organization does create a claim in justice to shares in the services of government, and may even justify a claim for an equal share in determining what government shall do” (LLL, p 102).

Is political participation a natural right?
It seems to me that the right to political participation should be viewed as a natural right for much the same reasons as I have argued that humans have a natural right to exercise the self-direction that is central to their flourishing. It is part of human nature to seek mutual benefit by participating actively with others in decisions relating to provision of collective goods because provision of such goods is, and has always been, necessary to human flourishing. As Aristotle said, “man is by nature a political animal”.

The context in which Aristotle made that observation is worth quoting because what he described seems to an essentially voluntary process of people coming together for mutual benefit:
When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.
Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal” (Politics, Book 1, Part 2).

The political participation of a citizen in a liberal democracy, which usually doesn’t involve much more than voting, has little in common with the participation of citizens in the functioning of the city states that Aristotle wrote about. Perhaps that helps to explain the disillusionment that many currently feel about the exercise of their democratic rights. Responses to surveys suggest that many people want more involvement in decisions that affect them.

Many people are also unhappy about the outcomes of democratic political processes. In my view that unhappiness stems to an important extent from inflated expectations generated by UDHR and other authorities which assert that people have the right to expect politicians to deliver them a standard of living they consider to be adequate. Another important source of disillusionment is the ‘plunder’ that Frédéric Bastiat foresaw as a likely outcome of the universal franchise. Bastiat was referring to the use of the power of the state by some to seize and consume the products of the labour of others. These days economists refer to that as rent seeking and usually consider it to be a major obstacle to productivity growth.

It seems likely in the decades ahead, that low productivity growth will reduce the rate of growth in government revenues in many democratic countries, at the same time as an increase in the proportion of elderly people places increased political demands on governments. Consequently, governments are likely to be forced to reduce their involvement in provision of services that can be supplied either privately, or via voluntary cooperative activity.
Fortunately, as I have previously discussed, technology is developing in ways that are likely to enhance our opportunities to seek mutual benefit in cooperative enterprises.

The right to political participation should be viewed as a natural right which evolved because human flourishing required individuals to participate actively with others in decisions relating to provision of collective goods. Such involvement is less active in modern societies in which many collective goods are provided by remote government agencies.

The positive right to political participation is nevertheless an important right recognised in the UDHR. It differs from social and economic aspirations - that are also claimed to be rights in the UDHR - because it is a right that governments can comply with. The exercise of voting rights provides citizens with some protection against tyranny.

The disillusionment that many people in the liberal democracies feel about the exercise of their democratic rights seems likely to increase as low productivity growth reduces government revenues and demographic change increases political demands on governments. Technological advances that enhance opportunities to seek mutual benefit in cooperative enterprises offer hope that people will in future be able to exercise their natural political rights in ways that give them more involvement in decisions that affect them.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

How does liberty promote peacefulness?

People who understand that self-direction is essential to their own flourishing have no difficulty grasping how liberty has potential to promote peacefulness. Such people usually advocate the non-aggression principle, which requires them to refrain from initiating or threatening any forceful interference with other individuals or their property. They are likely to see that principle as an application of the Golden Rule of treating others as you wish to be treated, the Kantian imperative, the ancient virtues of justice, temperance and loving-kindness, a matter of honor and integrity, the ethics of respect, norms of reciprocity, or some combination of the above.

The extent of adherence to the non-aggression principle is a determinant of both liberty and the peacefulness of a society.  A society in which 100% of the population adhered to the principle would be entirely peaceful. A democracy in which 90% of the population adhered to the principle could be expected to be more peaceful than one in which a lower percentage of the population did so, other things being equal.

The proviso is important. One “other thing” that also has an important influence on the peacefulness of outcomes is the way perceived aggressions are dealt with. In particular, outcomes in countries where do-it-yourself (DIY) justice is the norm are likely to be less peaceful than those in countries governed by rule of law. The problem with DIY justice is that it is often perceived to be biased, and hence results in family feuds and further retribution.

John Locke recognised DIY justice as a flaw in his vision of humans being “perfectly free …  subject only to limits set by the law of nature”. He noted that it would be seen to be “unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases” because:
 “self love will make men partial to themselves and their friends; and on the other side, that ill-nature, passion, and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others; and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow: and that therefore God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men” (Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 2).

In writing that, John Locke was possibly mindful of the historical experience of DIY justice in England and Europe.  

Historical explanations of the growth of peacefulness

In attempting to explain the long-term decline in homicide rates in Europe, shown in the accompanying graph, Steven Pinker follows the reasoning of Norbert Elias who suggested that the advent of centralised monarchies, replacing a patchwork of baronies and fiefs, played an important role in encouraging people to display greater self-control (a modern word with a similar meaning to the ancient virtue of temperance). In England, King Henry I, who reigned in the early 12th century, redefined homicide as an offence against the state rather than as a tort. That changed the rules of the game. As Pinker puts it:
A man’s ticket to fortune was no longer being the baddest knight in the area but making a pilgrimage to the king’s court and currying favour with him and his entourage” (The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011, p 75).

The advent of centralised monarchies also improved incentives for mutually beneficial trade by penalising plunder. When people are engaged in mutually beneficial trading, they have an added incentive to refrain from murdering their trading partners. Given appropriate incentives, the ancient virtue of prudence helped people to exercise the Christian virtue of loving their neighbours rather than murdering them.

In case anyone is wondering, the thought in the preceding sentence wasn’t borrowed from Steven Pinker. Pinker doesn’t claim that the Christian virtues played a positive role in the civilisation process. He suggests, with some justification, that in the middle ages Christianity was more concerned with saving souls than with the sacredness of life. Nevertheless, at a couple of points in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker acknowledges the importance of the various versions Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions.

If you are sceptical about the ability of an autocratic monarchy, a Leviathan, to play a positive role in defending rights and promoting peace, it may help to think of the advantages of stationary bandits replacing roving bandits, as suggested by Mancur Olson. Even if the motives of a stationary bandit are entirely selfish it can still be in his interests to enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with his subjects. In exchange for taxes he may use his power to give them the incentive to attempt to accumulate wealth, for example by recognising property rights and enforcing contracts. There is further explanation here.

In historical terms, monarchies that were prepared to use their coercive powers to defend the rights of citizens were a step in the direction of rule of law – a set of institutions protecting individual rights and ensuring that no-one is above the law.

Steven Pinker notes that a humanitarian revolution occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries resulting in a reduction in barbarity of punishments, a greater willingness to allow heretics to go to hell rather than to persecute them to save their souls, and a reduction in the power of kings. Pinker attributes this revolution to enlightenment humanism. I have previously argued that Pinker is broadly correct to present this as a coherent world view in terms of its impact on public opinion, despite the disparate views of leading thinkers.

Other factors which Pinker sees as contributing to the peacefulness of societies include: growth in the power of women; an expansion in the circle of sympathy to encompass people in other communities and other countries; and ‘the escalator of reason’, which involves detaching oneself from a parochial viewpoint. I have discussed those processes previously, so I will not dwell on them here. It is worth noting, however, that the circle of sympathy and escalator of reason also promote freedom via greater recognition of human rights and enabling widespread adoption of emancipative values.

So, has the greater liberty of the western democracies made them uniquely peaceful?

The answer isn’t obvious. Homicide statistics suggest that some countries with autocratic governments are also relatively peaceful. It seems likely, however, that may reflect suppression of violence rather than genuine peacefulness. That view is supported by the explosion of violence that occurred in eastern Europe following the collapse of communism in eastern Europe.

Research by Tapio Lappi-Seppälä and Martti Lehti, using an extensive international data base, suggests that the level of lethal violence is heavily dependent on the rule of law, the extent of corruption, the level of democracy, and social and economic equality. High crime societies are characterised by stronger authoritarian and conservative moral views, more collectivist cultures, and short-term cultural orientations (‘Cross-Comparative Perspectives on Global Homicide Trends’,  Crime and Justice 43(1): 2014).

The relationship between rule of law and homicide rate, as depicted in the graph at the beginning of this post (borrowed from the article by Tapio Lappi-Seppälä and Martti Lehti) is particularly pertinent to the question of how liberty promotes peacefulness. The rule of law index used (the World Bank’s index constructed by Daniel Kauffman, Aart Kraay and Massimo Mastruzzi) captures “perceptions of the extent to which agents have confidence in and abide by the rules of society, and in particular the quality of contract enforcement, property rights, the police and the courts, as well as the likelihood of crime and violence”. I have previously noted that the index covers similar ground to the legal component of an economic freedom index.


Liberty promotes peacefulness because it requires people to refrain from initiating or threatening any forceful interference with other individuals or their property. The rule of law that protects liberty also promotes peacefulness by enabling societies to avoid the violence associated with do-it-yourself justice.