COVID Made Us Sick, But Government Responses Crippled Our Liberty

Report author: “The COVID-19 pandemic was a catastrophe for human freedom.”


If you think that panicky and opportunistic pandemic policies have sucked freedom out of people's lives over the past few years, you're right! While the world's political leaders have long been tightening the screws on their suffering populations, COVID-19 gave too many of them an excuse to accelerate the process. According to the latest edition of the Human Freedom Index, published by America's Cato Institute and Canada's Fraser Institute, that makes life worse for almost everybody.

"In the year 2020, 94 percent of the world's population saw a fall in its freedom compared to the year before," Cato's Ian Vásquez, one of the authors of the index, wrote last week. "The annual Human Freedom Index, released today by the Cato Institute and the Fraser Institute, documents how the Covid-19 pandemic was a catastrophe for human freedom."

Grim as that is, it's a predicted acceleration of a preexisting downward slide for liberty. Last year, using data through 2019, Vásquez pointed out that "the vast majority of the world's population (83 percent) has seen a decline in freedom since 2008" and emphasized this is "a disturbing trend that was occurring even before the world experienced the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and political effects."

Now we know—as if we didn't already—that pandemic-era travel restrictions, mandated closures, and lockdowns affected even more people. And that larger proportion is less free than before.

"On a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 represents more freedom, the average human freedom rating for the 165 jurisdictions fell from 7.03 in 2019 to 6.81 in 2020," according to the index. "Most areas of freedom fell, including significant declines in the rule of law and freedom of movement, expression, association and assembly, and freedom to trade. Based on that coverage, 94.3 percent of the world's population lives in jurisdictions that saw a fall in human freedom from 2019 to 2020, with 148 jurisdictions decreasing their ratings and 16 improving."

The world rating compiled by Human Freedom Index scholars hit a peak in 2007, at 7.33, and has declined in fits and starts since then. But it absolutely plunged with the appearance of COVID-19 and, most importantly, political responses to the virus.

Long before 2020, though, the United States had fallen from the top 10 and it slipped another seven positions in the latest edition to 23. Canada fell six positions to 13 (and this is before the Trudeau government weaponized the financial system against Freedom Convoy protesters). With Mexico down three positions to 98, North America isn't looking good.

The current top-ranked countries are Switzerland, New Zealand, Estonia, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Note that these are relative rankings; every single one of the top-ten countries actually saw a drop in its score. The most highly ranked country to improve its score was Bhutan, which jumped 17 spots to 86 with an improvement of 0.03.

Happy 2023, by the way.

To compile the Index, Fraser and Cato scholars use 83 indicators of personal, civic, and economic freedom that measure freedom from government, not politicians' conceits about "freeing" us from daily concerns by fiddling with our lives without individual consent.

"Freedom in our usage is a social concept that recognizes the dignity of individuals and is defined by the absence of coercive constraint," the authors write. "Freedom thus implies that individuals have the right to lead their lives as they wish as long as they respect the equal rights of others."

The Human Freedom Index isn't alone in finding that liberty has been eroding in the world for many years, and that this sad phenomenon was accelerated by pandemic responses.

"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 in 2021.

"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 noted in last year's report.

Even for those who don't value freedom in itself, growing authoritarianism has unpleasant implications. The authors of the Human Freedom Index emphasize that more-free countries have much higher per capita income than less-free countries. Freedom also strongly correlates with greater democracy. Overall, this suggests "that freedom plays an important role in human well-being," they add.

The why of long-term decline in human liberty is a subject of debate among experts. It's worth noting that public support for free speech and liberal democracy are shaky at best in many places, which certainly eases the way for thuggish political leaders.

But the accelerating effect of pandemic responses on the erosion of freedom was both foreseeable and foreseen. Crises often empower governments to increase their reach, and they rarely return to old bounds after the emergency passes.

"The pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus threatens a world-wide wave of sickness, but it's the healthiest thing to happen to government power in a very long time," I warned in March 2020. "As it leaves government with a rosy glow, however, our freedom will end up more haggard than ever." Weeks later, I added that the "virus would threaten to turn the Land of the Free into a command society where what we do is directed and paid for by the state."

It's obvious now that the real plague of the past few years was less COVID-19 than governments' exploitation of public health fears to further expand their already excessive power. Freedom, which was already ailing, shows no signs of improving health.