The World Is Still Getting Less Free. A Distressing Number of People Think That's Fine.

Report: “Half of democratic governments around the world are in decline.”


It's no secret that individual freedom has taken a hit over the past few years. What's more depressing is that pandemic-fueled public health panic only accelerated preexisting decay among liberal democracies.

Even before lockdowns, closed borders, and suppression of "misinformation," personal liberty and open, transparent governance were already losing steam. Now, as the world's population learns to live with COVID-19, the bad news just keeps coming.

"Half of democratic governments around the world are in decline, undermined by problems ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression to distrust in the legitimacy of elections," is how Stockholm's International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance cheerfully summarizes a recent report.

The specifics of the report, Global State of Democracy 2022: Forging Social Contracts in a Time of Discontent, don't get more encouraging.

"Over the last five years, progress has stalled across all four aggregated Global State of Democracy Indices (GSoD Indices) attributes. In some cases, scores are the same as they were in 1990. The stagnation exists in parallel to democratic decline elsewhere. The number of backsliding countries (seven) remains at its peak, and the number of countries moving towards authoritarianism is more than double the number moving towards democracy. As of the end 2021, nearly one half of the 173 countries assessed by International IDEA are experiencing declines in at least one subattribute of democracy."

Without getting too bogged down in IDEA's methodology, the organization draws from measures that include protections for civil liberties like freedom of expression, checks on government power, the independence of political parties, absence of corruption, and the health of civil society independent of the state. It's always possible (even inevitable) to argue with the assumptions and methods behind these reports, but it's clear that International IDEA makes a game attempt to apply consistent assessments of the health of liberal democracy—including protections for individual freedom, not just electoral procedures—over time. What the organization finds is stagnation and decline.

Worse, the decline is not just in the function of free societies, but in public support for the "liberalism, in the free-market European sense" (in the words of economist Deirdre McCloskey) that corresponds most closely with limited government, protections for individual rights, and prosperity.

"The World Values Survey (which covers 77 countries) demonstrates that less than half (47.4 percent) of all respondents believe democracy is important, down from 52.4 per cent in 2017. This is a worrying drop, especially since less than half believe that having a democracy is 'very good'," adds International IDEA.

What sort of government would people prefer? A whopping 52 percent now say they favor "a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections"—up from 38 percent in 2009.

The United States doesn't entirely escape the madness. A related 2020 survey by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group found "one-third (33 percent) of Americans have at some point in the last three years said that they think having 'a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with Congress or elections' would be a good system of government."

In the rankings, the United States is considered a "moderately backsliding" democracy because it's losing ground across several measures. And no, getting rid of everybody's favorite outsider authoritarian president and replacing him with a more mainstream authoritarian didn't solve the problem. "In the USA, threats to democracy persist after the Trump presidency, illustrated by polarization, counter-majoritarianism and the rolling back of long-established rights," notes International IDEA.

If this report was an outlier, it would be disturbing, but easier to dismiss. Unfortunately, it comes as just the latest in a series of assessments from different sources that paint a grim picture of creeping illiberalism across the globe. Last year's International IDEA report specifically placed the blame for worsening erosion of liberty on pandemic measures "that were disproportionate, illegal, indefinite or unconnected to the nature of the emergency."

The latest edition of the annual Human Freedom Index, produced by the Cato Institute and Canada's Frasier Institute, found that "fully 83 percent of the global population lives in jurisdictions that have seen a fall in human freedom since 2008."

Co-author Ian Vásquez emphasized that the data from which the team worked pre-dated pandemic responses and wrote that he and his colleagues "fully expect to see a deterioration in global freedom indicators in future reports."

"The pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented withdrawal of civil liberties among developed democracies and authoritarian regimes alike," cautioned The Economist's Democracy Index 2021. This "compounded many pre-pandemic trends such as an increasingly technocratic approach to managing society in Western democracies, and a tendency in many non-consolidated democracies or authoritarian regimes to resort to coercion."

"As COVID-19 spread during the year, governments across the democratic spectrum repeatedly resorted to excessive surveillance, discriminatory restrictions on freedoms like movement and assembly, and arbitrary or violent enforcement of such restrictions by police and nonstate actors," Freedom House observed last year.

"The present threat to democracy is the product of 16 consecutive years of decline in global freedom. A total of 60 countries suffered declines over the past year, while only 25 improved," the organization added in this year's report.

And now here we are, after years of declining democracy and decaying liberty, accelerated by "public health" dictates, amidst growing support for authoritarianism. And the unfortunate trend continues.

To reverse the global erosion of liberty and democracy, International IDEA makes multiple recommendations, some good ("ensure the protection of freedom of expression") and others weirdly vague ("dedicated spaces … to meaningfully participate in politics"). But most assume the good faith of governments and politicians, as if authoritarianism happens by accident.

Unfortunately, the world is almost certainly becoming less free because many of those in power like it that way. If we're to reverse the recent slide towards an unfree world, the changes are unlikely to come from those who benefit by accumulating authority and control.