Wednesday, June 7, 2023

To what extent do international differences in economic freedom reflect people's values?


This is a companion piece to the preceding post in which I considered the extent to which international differences in personal freedom reflect people’s values.

The extent to which international differences in economic freedom reflect different values is of interest because it has bearing on the extent of popular support likely to be given to policy proposals involving expansion or restriction of economic freedom. If people feel that existing economic policy regimes are aligned with their personal values, they are less likely to support radical change.

The accompanying graph suggests the existence of a positive relationship between an index of facilitating values and economic freedom. As suggested in the label of the horizontal axis, the index of facilitating values reflects the priority that people in different countries place on autonomy, and the extent of interpersonal trust in different countries.


I am not aware of any other index of values facilitating economic freedom similar to the one I constructed in preparing the graph, even though there has been a substantial amount of previous research undertaken on cultural values supporting economic growth and institutional change. (Nicholas Moellman and Danko Tarabar have referred to some relevant literature in their article, ‘Economic Freedom Reform: does culture matter?’, Journal of Institutional Economics (2022), 18, 139-157.)

The priority people place on autonomy seems likely to be important in facilitating economic freedom because respect for individual autonomy implies respect for individuals engaged in commerce, particularly innovators. Trust of strangers seems likely to be important in facilitating economic freedom because it reduces the tribal instinct to seek to use the powers of the state to advance the interests of group members at the expense of other groups.

I have used Christian Welzel’s autonomy index to measure autonomy. This index uses three items in the World Values Survey (WVS) which ask respondents their views about desirable child qualities. Autonomy is considered to be valued more highly by those who independence and imagination as desirable child qualities but do not consider obedience as such a quality. (See: Christian Welzel, Freedom Rising, 2013). I used an updated version of the index based on the latest round of the WVS (2017-2022).

Welzel’s generalized trust index was used to measure interpersonal trust. This index gives higher weight to trust of strangers than to trust of family. I reconstructed the index for the latest round of the WVS by combining items covering close trust (trust of family, neighbours, and people you know personally), unspecified trust (whether most people can be trusted) and remote trust (trust of people you meet for the first time, people of another religion and people of another nationality). Unspecified trust was given double the weight of close trust, and remote trust was given three times the weight of close trust.

In constructing the facilitating values index, autonomy was allocated 75% of the weight and generalized trust was allocated 25%. Those weights were chosen on the basis of regression analysis using the autonomy and generalized trust indexes as explanatory variables to explain economic freedom. (Researchers seeking further information about the methodology used in constructing this index are welcome to contact me.)

 The Fraser Institute’s economic freedom index incorporates a large number of indicators relating to size of government, legal systems and property rights, sound money, freedom of international trade and regulation.


My focus is on the outlier data points in the accompanying graph, and particularly on those countries which have substantially lower or higher economic freedom than might be predicted on the basis of values facilitating economic freedom.

One of the first things readers may notice in the graph is that values facilitating economic freedom are shown to be higher in China than in the U.S. and Australia. That may seem surprising if Geert Hofstede’s analysis, or your knowledge of cultural heritage, has led you to expect Chinese people to be much less individualistic than Westerners. If you need to be persuaded that many Chinese people have an individualistic perception of human flourishing, you might like to read an article I wrote on that topic in 2021.

While you are thinking about China, you might like to compare economic freedom in that country with that in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The most obvious reason why the latter jurisdictions have greater economic freedom is because they have adopted market-friendly ideologies.

Similarly, adoption of market-friendly ideologies explains why Albania has substantially greater economic freedom than Iran and Libya, and why Chile has greater economic freedom than Argentina and Venezuela.


The existence of values facilitating economic freedom helps to explain why some countries have higher economic freedom than others. However, it seems that a substantial part of international differences in economic freedom can be explained more directly in terms of prevailing government ideologies which either support or oppose free markets.

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