Column: Is the way we measure freedom all wrong?

The Statue of Liberty, an emblem of freedom in the United States, and the New York City skyline. (Flickr/Anthony Quintano)

While Americans love to claim that the United States is the “freest country in the world,” statistics are proving otherwise. Freedom House, an NGO that releases an annual freedom index called the Freedom in the World Report, recently announced that the United States had lost two freedom points in 2015.

The report, which gives countries a score out of 100 and sorts them into three categories – free, partly free, and not free – is only one example of modern freedom indexes that attempt to quantify a country’s level of freedom. But is this approach truly realistic? Today, it seems that the concept of the freedom index has developed into nothing more than an uneven playing field that has only led to an atmosphere of senseless competition between nations.

The problem with the indexes is that there is so much room for bias and inaccuracy within their methods, especially because so many are developed in the United States and the United Kingdom. Freedom House, for example, is based in the United States, and though it is technically registered as an NGO, its concept of freedom is founded off the American notion of liberty. In fact, the NGO claims to be founded originally as a propaganda organization to encourage popular support for U.S. involvement in World War II before tackling new enemies such as Communism in the 1950s. Therefore, Freedom House’s index, like so many others, can at best see freedom through a lens, and at worst be openly influenced by local politics.

The sources of these indexes also determine what factors are considered in the freedom score. Freedom House focuses on analyzing “the electoral process, political pluralism and participation, the functioning of the government, freedom of expression and of belief, associational and organizational rights, the rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights” but includes no consideration for economic freedom. The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, on the other hand, focuses solely on economic liberties. A third example, the CIRI Human Rights Data Project, hosted by the University of Connecticut, lends a more focused approach, specifying physical integrity rights and women’s and workers’ rights as some of its considerations. None of these projects, however, can encompass all aspects of freedom alone, leading to a wide range of discrepancies in each of the rankings between countries.

Because of the many aspects that are taken into consideration for the score, it is easier for some dips in freedom to be overshadowed by increases in another area. For this reason, a high incarceration rate will be overshadowed by a law that legalizes gay marriage, or a government surveillance policy will be ignored due to breakthrough in free speech. History provides numerous examples of this; in 1863, Abraham Lincoln was able to suspend habeas corpus in some areas while he was working toward a war that would gain freedom for African Americans. The fact of the matter is that freedom is a very abstract concept, and people cannot hope to capture it in one simple design.

The usefulness of the freedom index, therefore, lies not in the superficial rating, which can only fail to compare countries across the board, but in an individual country’s year-to-year shift in freedom score. For the United States, a score of 90 is meaningless, but the drop of two points is enough to get people talking about what has changed and who has lost some of their liberties. Freedom House, for example, attributes the United States’ downward trend to “flaws in the electoral system” and “legislative gridlock,” as well as the presence of private money in campaigns and a rise in racial discrimination.

But if American citizens did not consider these individual occurrences to be a threat to their liberties, they might pass unnoticed, and the general public would be rather uninformed regarding the nation’s trend toward freedom or censorship. Thus, this quantification of freedom, however trivial it may seem, has the ability to oversimplify issues in a way that may not be accurate, but can still serve as an alert system for the citizens of any country.

The way I see it, freedom cannot be likened to a competitive sport between nations, and its scores cannot be used to provide accurate comparisons on the international level. But the freedom index can be used for the purpose of reflection and improvement within a nation, to keep people on their toes as to where their liberties are. So the next time you wonder what the freest country in the world is, consider the fact that maybe you are asking the wrong question.


Alex Oliveira is a contributor to the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.