Sadly, America's Not the Freest Country in the World

The U.S. used to come in second or third in rankings, but according to the latest Human Freedom Index it's at 17.


Is America the world's freest country? Sadly, no.

When researchers first started doing detailed international comparisons, the USA came in second or third. This year, however, we ranked 17th.

The comparison I cite is the newly released Human Freedom Index, compiled by the Fraser and Cato Institutes. They compared economic freedoms such as freedom to trade, amount of regulations and tax levels, plus personal freedoms such as women's rights and religious freedom.

Their new report concludes that the world's freest countries are now:

1. Switzerland.
2. Hong Kong.
3. New Zealand.
4. Ireland.
5. Australia.

"The United States used to have one of the freest economies in the world," Index co-author Ian Vasquez says. "It used to be a two, three or four, and then government started to grow [and] spend more."

Republicans and Democrats, under Presidents Bush and Obama, voted for increases in spending and regulation. Obama tried to make tax increases sound harmless. "Those who are more fortunate are going to have to pay a little bit more."

The result was that we fell farther from the top of the freedom ranking. Switzerland now takes first place. It has comparatively little regulation, low taxes, a free press and personal freedoms such as same-sex marriage.

A good ranking matters, not just because freedom itself is a good thing, but because economic freedom allows people to prosper.

Consider the story of Hong Kong, No. 2 on the overall freedom list (but No. 1 in economic freedom). In just 50 years, people in Hong Kong went from being among the poorest in the world to among the richest.

Prosperity happened because Hong Kong's government puts few obstacles in the way of trying new things. It took me just a few hours to get legal permission to open a business in Hong Kong. In New York, it took months. In India, I didn't even try—it would have taken years.

That's a reason India stays poor. Bureaucrats have the power to review and reject most any new idea. Fewer new ideas get tried.

The absolute worst places to live are countries that lack both economic and personal freedom.

Those are the places at the bottom of the freedom ranking:

155. Egypt.
156. Yemen.
157. Libya.
158. Venezuela.
159. Syria.

(Totalitarian North Korea wasn't ranked because the researchers couldn't get accurate information.)

Syria ranked so low mostly because of the war. You aren't free if you worry you might be killed.

Second-to-last place Venezuela was once the richest country in Latin America. Then socialists promised to spread the wealth.

The next three: Libya, Yemen, Egypt—well, the Arab Spring didn't turn out as well as some hoped.

On the top of the list, I wasn't surprised to see New Zealand and Australia. They always do well.

But Ireland? I associate Ireland with poverty. For 150 years after English rulers caused the Potato Famine, Irish people left Ireland to search for a better life.

But Ireland recently changed, says Vasquez.

"They reduced taxes… spending, reduced regulations. They opened up to trade."

Now people want to live there.

You can read the full freedom rankings on the Cato Institute's and Fraser Institute's websites. If you plan to move or start a business in another country, the Freedom Index is a good guide.

Greece is beautiful, but it ranks 60th, mostly because the country lacks economic freedom. China got richer, but because personal freedom is so limited, China ranks 130th.

How do you summarize a free country? I asked Vasquez.

"You can lead your life any way you want as long as you respect the equal rights of others, he answered. You [decide] what job you want to take, what kinds of things you want to do, who you want to marry, what you want to do on your free time, where you want to live."

I suggested that countries don't regulate your free time, but Vasquez set me straight.

"They do." Some countries, he says, "regulate everything!"


Related: How Free Is America?

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  1. Yes but America is the ONLY country on the face of the Earth with FREE SPEECH. This is the basis for everything, because as long as you have it you can fight for other rights. So we have some work to do. But we are more fortunate than Europe and even Canada, where you can be jailed for using the wrong personal pronoun, e.g. ‘ze’.

    1. Dianne Feinstein?

      1. Gah, this got put in the wrong article

    2. Tell that to all the busybodies passing “hate speech” laws. Try saying that the president ought to be assassinated. See how that turns out for you.

      You’re free in America to say anything that is considered goodthinkful. Other stuff may be a bit more iffy.

    3. This is the basis for everything, because as long as you have it you can fight for other rights.

      and how do you use it to fight for other rights? gun metaphors?

  2. Don’t worry! All Congress needs to do is to pass some more laws and then America will be free again! MAGA baby!

  3. Most importantly of all, which country ranks #1 for most open borders?

    1. India?

      1. Shanghai International Settlement.

    2. Cloud City?

  4. The Aussies? Really? Where does the ability to speak freely and/or posses/carry firearms for self-defense apply in the ranking?

    1. The right to keep and bear arms and the right for individuals to speak freely are NOT included in the index. Seriously. The First and Second Amendments? Who needs those?

      The freedom of the press and media is considered, but not the right of individuals not associated with those two categories to speak their mind.

      1. It’s almost as if this index was compiled by leftists with the usual blind spots about certain kinds of freedom not being considered a crucial aspect of liberty.

        1. When they are in fact THE MOST IMPORTANT freedoms of all. These lists are always BS. We have a lot of small, petty freedoms taken by the government, but we are the most free overall because of the BIG ONES being best here.

  5. Freedom means asking permission and obeying orders.

  6. Stossel, disagreeing with you which countries are ahead of the USA. I do agree that the USA is not as free as it used to be.

    1. Switzerland.
    2. Hong Kong.
    3. New Zealand.
    4. Ireland.
    5. Australia.

    Europe has no freedom of speech, right to keep and bear arms, or protections of defendants in criminal cases like the USA.

    Hong Kong is under Communist rule, so it should automatically be moved way down the list.

    Australia grabs guns and just recently allowed gay marriage.

    For all these countries marijuana is illegal and many of the US states have moved to legality again.

    1. Europe has no freedom of speech, right to keep and bear arms, or protections of defendants in criminal cases like the USA.

      Yeah, but the people compiling the report don’t think those things are important. They’re not in the list of freedoms considered. The right to not be under constant surveillance IIRC isn’t in the index either.

      So, sure, if you ignore all sorts of important stuff, Australia and Great Britain are soooo free.

      1. How exactly are these people considered libertarian? Communitarian I can see, but… Switzerland???

        I mean I have nothing against Switzerland, the world would be a better place if every country was Switzerland, does anyone writing this stuff know what it is like to live in Switzerland? Hint: as long as you love doing and thinking the same thing as everyone else in the neighborhood you are completely free.

        1. The Cato Institute should probably just go ahead and change its name to the Gillespie Institute.

    2. It’s interesting that Hong Kong is the ‘freedom zone’ for a massively and pervasively communist dictatorship to continue operating through foreign trade. You know, because if that foreign trade should dry up their entire nation would fold virtually overnight. I’d have been curious to see what Hong Kong would have looked like without the British, but we’ll never really know the answer to that question I suppose.

      Not that this isn’t also true of most other countries, but China is among the most propped up via foreign trade. Their entire economy essentially exists as a producer of goods which is super handy for them since they also don’t believe in little things like patents, intellectual property, or anything else that gets in the way of them stealing all the advances of the 20th and 21st century from those who did all the innovating.

      You’d think that America, who essentially stole the industrial revolution from Great Britain, would be wise to such a tactic. Guess not. I’m not necessarily saying that trade with China is bad, but I do wonder if Hong Kong is ‘free’ as we understand such things in the West. I really won’t pretend to know, I’ve never been there, but I know that China as a whole is not.

  7. It would be nice if Reason addressed the obvious blind spots rather than uncritically reporting this over and over again but I’m not holding my breath.

  8. I think Europe actually has more freedom than the US in many ways. Certainly, I felt freer there -lighter police presence; few hectoring signs like in the US; pot, prostitution legal or unenforced; alcohol consumption at 16-18; kids, generally, are much freer–mine could take the tram to school at grade 3; density of small shops and manufacturing suggests smaller fixed costs to running a business, but perhaps evidence of some kind of state intervention on hours/chains… But, Ireland, where abortion is illegal, is 8th while the Netherlands is 14th? If the Netherlands isn’t in the top 5 I don’t know what to make of this index.

    1. In which country is there lighter police presence?

      Italy has cops all over the place. The Carabinieri (Italian state police) openly carry machine guns.

      Britain has cameras all over. That means that crime is so rampant that they don’t even consider it a priority to hire a bunch of police to catch perps.

      1. Yeah I saw military dudes with assault rifles all over the place when I was there like a month ago. Don’t get me wrong, I am actually glad they are there because I am less worried about military dudes in uniform than random jihadi deciding today is the day to run over tourists. Not that it is common, but hey, still do not like being unable to defend myself at all from knife wielding/gun toting fanatic so I am glad someone is there to shoot them.

  9. So, a report about which nation is freest compiled by people who understand neither what free or ‘nation’ mean is supposed to convey important information?

    The United States of America is the only free country on the face of the Earth.

    And people who understand neither what free or ‘nation’ mean are working hard to undermine that.

  10. the Arab Spring didn’t turn out as well as some hoped.

    And who could have ever possibly seen THAT coming, am I right?

  11. You can always tell when those making comments didn’t really read an article they’re commenting on.

    Stossel is talking about ECONOMIC FREEDOM. Not OVERALL FREEDOM. also, it’s not his ranking. He’s simply relaying the ranking from the Heritage Foundation study, so those who think they’re actually disagree with Stossel aren’t just disagreeing with him.

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