Tuesday, June 13, 2023

What determines how much liberty people enjoy in different countries?

 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 graph 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.

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.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

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


The accompanying graph shows that personal freedom tends to be greatest in countries where people hold the most emancipative values (on average). However, it also suggests that in some countries personal freedom is much less, or much more, than might be expected on the basis of the values commonly held by the people. For example, there is less personal freedom in Belarus than might be expected, whereas there is more personal freedom in Armenia and Georgia than might be expected.

Before going further, I need to explain what emancipative values and personal freedom actually measure.

The concept of emancipate values was developed by Christian Welzel to measure the beliefs that people hold about such matters as the importance of personal autonomy, respect for the choices people make in their personal lives, having a say in community decisions, and equality of opportunity. Welzel’s research, using data from the World Values Survey, suggests that larger numbers of people have tended to adopt emancipative values in an increasing number of societies as economic development has proceeded. The strengthening of emancipative values is explained by growth of action resources (wealth, intellectual skills, and opportunities to connect with others) rather than civic entitlements such as voting rights. As emancipative values have strengthened, more people have come to recognize the value of civic entitlements and have used their growing material resources, intellectual skills, and opportunities to connect with others, to take collective action to achieve such entitlements. The process has been ongoing, with people showing greater concern for promoting more widespread opportunities—including greater opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and the disabled—as material living standards have risen and emancipative values have strengthened. (There is more information about Welzel’s research on emancipative values here.)

The personal freedom component of the Fraser Institute’s Human Freedom Index incorporates indicators of rule of law, security and safety, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of association and civil society, freedom of expression and information, and relationship freedom.

As already noted, international differences in personal freedom don’t always reflect people’s values. The reason why that is so is fairly obvious when one looks at the country labels I have shown on the outliers in the graph. What is it that Armenia, Cyprus, and Taiwan have that Egypt, Iran, China, Belarus and Vietnam do not have?   Representative government. 

Two cheers for democracy!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Do people now have greater economic freedom in Sweden than in the U.S. and Australia?


When I think of Sweden, what comes to mind is a big government welfare state, with higher priority being given to economic security than to economic freedom. I was therefore surprised when I saw the Heritage Foundation data reproduced in the accompanying graph, which shows that economic freedom in Sweden is now higher in the United States and Australia. I expect that many readers would be similarly surprised.

The substantial decline which the graph shows for economic freedom in the U.S. and Australia since 2020 is presumably associated with government policies restricting freedom during the Covid19 pandemic. However, economic freedom in Sweden has apparently maintained an upward trend during that period.

In order to come to grips with this new information I thought it might be helpful to consider alternative economic freedom estimates and to take a look at the components of the Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom estimates.  

Comparison of Heritage and Fraser estimates   

 Some of those who feel uncomfortable with the idea that people may now have more economic freedom in Sweden than in the U. S. and Australia might obtain some solace from the fact that the latest economic freedom estimates of the Fraser Institute has Sweden (in 33rd place) ranked far behind both Australia (6th) and the U.S.  (7th).  Some of the differences between the Heritage and Fraser estimates may be attributable to timing. The Heritage estimates for 2023 are based as far as possible on data for June 30, 2022, whereas the latest available Fraser estimates are for 2020. However, there are also differences in the aspects of economic freedom covered by the indexes. For example, the Heritage estimates incorporate Fiscal Health (deficits and debt) which is an aspect of economic management not incorporated in the Fraser estimates.

I was not surprised to see Sweden ranked first in the Fraser Institute’s index of personal freedom, well ahead of Australia (17th) and the U.S. (33rd). The Human Freedom index (which combines economic freedom and personal freedom) has Sweden ranked 6th, ahead of Australia (11th) and the U.S. (23rd).

Comparison of scores on various aspects of economic freedom

The comparison of scores on the accompanying graph indicate that aspects in which Sweden performs relatively well, by comparison with Australia and the U.S. are fiscal health and government integrity. As might be expected from Sweden’s welfare state reputation, the aspects on which Sweden performs relatively poorly include tax burden and government spending.


The answer to the question I posed at the outset depends on which economic freedom index one looks at. The Heritage Foundation’s index clearly has people enjoying greater economic freedom in Sweden than in the U.S. and Australia, but that finding is not confirmed by the Fraser Institute’s index. Whatever Sweden’s current ranking relative to the U.S. and Australia, it is worth pondering how Sweden has managed to maintain relatively high levels of economic and personal freedom, despite having a large welfare state. At this stage, there is not much evidence that Sweden is in grave danger of sliding down the slippery slope to serfdom.