An obvious answer to the question posed above is that governments determine how much liberty people enjoy. But that response may be too glib. Some argue that much restriction of liberty reflects prevailing values of people who see individual autonomy and personal choice as a threat to collective interests of groups and nations.
When I began the research which led to this article, I sought to explore the extent to which international differences in personal and economic freedom can be explained by deep-seated cultural values. My conclusion is that there is a large residual variation which is attributable to ideologies of governments that support or oppose free markets and personal liberty.
This conclusion is illustrated in the graph shown above. However, you will need more information about how the graph was constructed before you can get the picture.
- The graph shows the levels of economic and personal freedom for 85 countries using the Fraser Institute’s latest data (for 2020). There are 165 jurisdictions covered by the Fraser indexes, but relevant data on values from the latest round (2017-22) of the World Values Survey (WVS) was only available for 85.
- The vertical axis of the graph is in reverse order – low values of personal freedom at the top, high values at the bottom. The reason stems from use of personal political compass data which is constructed in that way in an earlier article on this blog.
- The horizontal and vertical axes are positioned at the median levels of economic and personal freedom for the 165 jurisdictions covered by the Fraser indexes. The countries not covered by the WVS tend to have lower freedom ratings than those which are covered. The median ratings for the 85 countries represented in the graph is 7.2 for economic freedom and 7.6 for personal freedom.
- I have only labelled data points that have freedom ratings that are substantially different from predictions based on deep-seated cultural values. The methods used to obtain predicted values for personal and economic freedom were explained in preceding articles on this blog (here and here). If you live in a high-income liberal democracy, that country is likely to be represented by one of the unlabelled points in the south-east quadrant - with relatively high levels of economic and personal freedom.
- The colour of the labelled points depends on whether freedom is greater than or less than predicted on the basis of values – green if greater than predicted, red if less than predicted. The size of the labelled points is larger if both personal and economic freedom are greater than or less than predicted.
It is apparent from the
It is apparent from thegraph that it is difficult to explain why countries have low personal and economic freedom ratings simply by reference to prevailing values in those countries. Most of the countries in that category have freedom ratings that are lower than predicted on the basis of values. The political ideologies followed by the governments of those countries provide an obvious explanation for their suppression of liberty.
The graph also shows that a substantial number of countries with relatively high personal and economic freedom are performing better in that regard than can readily be explained on the basis of prevailing values.
More detailed information for the countries which have freedom ratings substantially different from predicted levels is shown in the graph below.
Of the 34 countries with freedom ratings that are substantially different from predicted levels, Argentina is the only one to have one category of freedom greater than expected and the other category of freedom less than expected.
Questions to ponder
Are relatively high levels of human freedom less secure in countries in which freedom is greater than prevailing values seem to support? If a high proportion of the population feels that existing policy regimes are not aligned with their personal values, these regimes could be expected to be fragile, other things being equal. However, much depends on those “other things”. The growth of economic opportunities could be expected to be greater in the presence of relatively high levels of economic freedom. That could be expected to foster values that support economic freedom. The growth of economic opportunities also tends to encourage development of emancipative values which support personal freedom.
Are relatively low levels of human freedom less likely to persist where prevailing values support greater freedom? Again, policy regimes giving rise to such outcomes could be expected to be fragile, other things being equal. Unfortunately, however, the “other things” often include use of coercion to suppress opposition to existing policy regimes.
Postscript: 16 June, 2023
I have now made an effort to explore whether some of the above speculations have empirical support. This involved repeating the exercise of obtaining predictions of personal freedom - using WVS data from the 2010-14 to obtain predictions of personal freedom for 2012. It was possible to obtain matching data for only 53 countries.
There is some evidence that personal freedom is less secure in countries in which freedom is greater than prevailing values seem to support. Of the 6 countries in which personal freedom was much greater than predicted in 2012, only one had higher personal freedom in 2020, another had unchanged personal freedom and the other 4 had lower personal freedom.
The exercise provided no support for the proposition that relatively low levels of personal freedom are less likely to persist when prevailing values support greater freedom. Of the 6 countries in which personal freedom was much less than predicted, none had higher personal freedom in 2020, and 2 experienced a further decline in personal freedom. Unfortunately, over this period none of the repressive regimes were displaced or became more responsive to prevailing values of the people.