Freedom Continues Its Decade-Long Retreat Around the Globe

Populists and autocrats are the rising dual threats to liberty says new Freedom House report



Freedom House is a think tank devoted to promoting the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world. Every year, the organization releases a report updating how political and civil rights are faring in 195 countries. In its latest report, Freedom in the World 2017, the group finds that freedom has been receding for a decade after it peaked in 2006 when 47 percent of countries were free, 30 percent partly free and 23 percent were not free. The Freedom House analysts are particularly worried about the increase in tribalism, uh, nationalist populism, in Europe and the United States and crack-downs by emboldened autocrats, especially Xi in China and Putin in Russia.

Freedom House measures freedom in each country on a scale of 0 to 100. The countries with the worst aggregate civil and political liberties scores included Syria (-1), Eritrea, Uzbekistan, North Korea (3 each), South Sudan and Turkmenistan (4 each). The countries that received the highest scores are Finland, Norway, Sweden (100 each), Netherlands (99), Australia, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Uruguay (98 each). The United States' aggregate score was 89 points. In comparison, China and Russia scored 15 and 20 points respectively.

In its 2006 report, Freedom House noted, "On the whole, the state of freedom showed substantial improvement worldwide, with 27 countries and one territory registering gains and only 9 countries showing setbacks. The global picture thus suggests that the past year was one of the most successful for freedom since Freedom House began measuring world freedom in 1972."

The more somber 2017 report observes, "A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains. This marked the 11th consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements." Overall, the percent of free countries fell to 45 percent and percent of not free countries rose to 25 percent and partly free countries held steady at 30 percent.

Freedom House

Back in 2011, independent political scientist Jay Ulfelder told my Reason colleague Jesse Walker that after period of making major gains the global trend toward greater freedom had plateaued and experienced some "minor slippage." Now Ulfelder acknowledges, "It's now getting to the point that talking about the erosion of freedom around the world is valid." By rescaling and parsing the Freedom House data on a 10 point population weighted scale Ulfelder aims to quantify how the average individual on earth is faring with respect to civil and political liberties. He calculates that global freedom peaked at 5.321 points in 2005 and has now dropped to 5.098 points; that is about back to where it stood at the turn of the millennium.

In a more hopeful contrast, the latest Economic Freedom of the World report (using 2014 data) from the Fraser Institute found that "the economic freedom rating for advanced countries with ratings since 1985 has increased from 6.9 to 7.7 in 2014. The average chain-linked economic freedom rating for developing countries with ratings since 1985 has increased from 5.0 to 6.7 in 2014." However, if autocracy and nationalist populism continue to rise, I predict that this trend will be reversed and more people will soon be both poorer and less free.