Global Freedom Is on the Decline

A new report says 83 percent of the world's population is less free today than it was in 2008, and the gap between the world's most and least free countries is growing.


The vast majority of the world's population is less free today than it was about a decade ago—and all residents of the world's 10 most populated countries have seen their freedoms decline over the same period.

That's the most worrying takeaway from the annual Human Freedom Index, an annual report produced by the libertarian Cato Institute and the Frasier Institute, a Canadian think tank. This year's index, released Thursday, ranks the United States as the world's 15th most free country out of the 156 jurisdictions included in the analysis.

The top five freest countries are Switzerland, New Zealand, Denmark, Estonia, and Ireland. Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Venezuela, and Syria are at the bottom of the rankings, which take into account 82 indicators of economic, personal, and civil freedoms.

Somewhere has to be considered the freest place in the world, but the global trends are moving in the wrong direction. Since the first report was published in 2008, the authors of this year's version note that about 83 percent of the world's population has seen freedom decline. The gap between the most and least free has also widened, with some 40 percent of the world's people now residing in countries that rank in the bottom 20 percent for overall freedom.

"The decline in fundamental rights represents a disturbing trend that was occurring even before the world experienced the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and political effects," writes Ian Vásquez, vice president of international studies at Cato. "The areas that saw the largest falls globally were freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of association, assembly, and civil society. Although our report does not yet pick up freedom data from 2020, we fully expect to see a deterioration in global freedom indicators in future reports."

Freedom in the United States is on the decline in both absolute and relative terms, according to the new report. In 2008, the U.S. ranked seventh in the world but has steadily slipped lower, though it still ranks well ahead of the global average:

United States of America

But the decline in freedom in the United States is nothing compared to what has happened in Hungary—a country now routinely (and wrongly) held up by segments of the nationalist right as an example that America should seek to emulate. Hungary ranks 59th in this year's index, down from a high of 29th in 2009. Recent efforts by strongman dictator Viktor Orbán to curtail freedom of expression and erode the rule of law are clearly reflected in the ratings, with Hungary now ranking considerably less free than its European neighbors:

Hungary (Source: Human Freedom Index 2021)

As Reason noted last month, the twin threats of political populism and the COVID-19 pandemic have triggered an erosion in democratic values across the globe. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a nonprofit based in Sweden that has been tracking democracies around the globe since 1975, warns in a new report that the number of countries that are becoming "more authoritarian" by the group's calculus is three times the number of countries that are moving toward democracy. This year is the fifth consecutive year in which the trend has been moving in that direction.

Freedom and democracy are not necessarily synonymous—and sometimes can be quite in tension—but democratic governments throughout history have done a better job of protecting and promoting freedom than more authoritarian regimes. Now, the two values seem to be declining in tandem.