The Land of the Free – Mostly

America is The Land of the Free. It says so right in our national anthem.

Since 1995, the Heritage Foundation has been quantitatively measuring the degree of economic freedom across countries, in four areas:

1)    Rule of law and corruption

2)    Regulatory efficiency and economic stability

3)    Restraint on government spending and taxes

4)    Open competitive markets

 Yes, Heritage is considered a “conservative” think tank, and promotes an agenda in all four areas. And certainly these four are not the only components of freedom. But again, Heritage is talking here only about economic liberty, and it’s hard to deny that the four criteria are very important. And if Heritage is biased, the aim is merely to track how countries stack up on these measures – so which way might the bias cut (if at all)?

In the latest (2012) survey, the U.S. scored 76.3 out of 100, placing it tenth among all 184 countries. Not too shabby, you might say. But to be categorized as a “fully free” country requires a score of 80. Only five nations made the grade this year — Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Singapore. (Again, this is economic freedom; the last two countries have some big issues in other aspects of liberty.)

So, tough luck, Uncle Sam. We did make 80 as recently as 2009, but we’ve declined since. So now we’re relegated to the “mostly free” category.

What caused this fall from grace? Government spending now gobbles up 42.2% of GDP, and debt exceeds 100%, with no glimmer of hope for getting this under control. Another factor is taxes – not so much high as ill-structured to be a drag on the economy. And a real biggie is the ballooning of costly government regulation like Dodd-Frank, stifling economic activity.

 But if we are no longer the land of the (fully) free, are we still the home of the brave? A 2012 survey by Canada’s Dudley Dooright Institute gave the U.S. a bravery score of 68.8, ranking it 32nd in the world, in the “somewhat squeamish” category. Though individual Americans did still score impressively, the nation’s overall performance was dragged down by that of the political class. And while we did rack up points by killing bin Laden and helping to nail Qaddafi, we lost quite a few by doing nothing substantively to stop the Syrian carnage. (Syria’s populace ranked #1 on bravery.)

3 Responses to “The Land of the Free – Mostly”

  1. Gregg Millett Says:

    I privileged this weekend to attend two college graduation ceremonies and witness those powerful institutions doing their good work (more or less) and listening to “god bless us all” and land of the free and the brave. The god bless was even extended to one veteran graduate who had survived the Iraq war. Seeing the teachers and students was a wonderful experience; hearing these platitudes made me wince. Then I read my e-mail to get some rankings on free and brave! Just to mention that stability and encouraging free-enterprise are probably two of China’s main concerns. I’m not going to do a disertation on this but off the top of my head freedom seems to be wrapped up with cultural depth and diversity; relatively equitable distribution of wealth and access to health, education and jobs. The BRAVE thing is just ridiculous. I’d say the suicide bombers are pretty brave and Japanese soldiers were certainly known for their bravery in WWII.

  2. Lee Says:

    These four metrics are good metrics of proper economic policy only to the extent that they correlate with how well the economy is serving the people. I’d instead focus on more direct measures of the latter — I would like to know how our standard of living compares to other countries at, say, the 10, 50, and 90 percentile levels within our population compared to the same percentiles in other countries.

    And whatever the countries that measure better by this more meaningful metric are, we should consider emulating some of their policies, whether or not such constitutes a move in the Heritage/conservative direction.

    [FSR comment: “Serving the people” is the kind of rhetoric that too often justifies politically based economic policies that wind up disserving “the people,” or at least most of them.]

  3. Lee Says:

    I meant serving individuals; I did not mean the communist rhetoric that justifiably concerns you.

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