Living Free

By Eric Crampton 10/04/2013


Frances Woolley says we should ignore the aggregate indices of economic freedom and look instead to whether people experience freedom. She points to the World Values Survey question asking whether people think they have freedom of choice and control over the way their lives turn out.

The survey question asks:

V46.- Some people feel they have completely free choice and control over their lives, while other people feel that what they do has no real effect on what happens to them. Please use this scale where 1 means “none at all” and 10 means “a great deal” to indicate how much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out.

Results? I’ve pulled them into a Google spreadsheet; I’m rather sure I don’t believe the numbers. Colombia ranks about the highest on the table, with 52% giving an answer of 9 or 10. 42% of Mexicans give an answer of 10. If we rank by medians, here are some of the values (so long as I haven’t messed up taking the median on ordinal data):

  • Mexico: 9.2
  • Colombia: 9.0
  • New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Argentina, Trinidad: 8.3
  • USA, Canada, S. Africa, Australia, Brazil, Romania, Uruguay, Jordan, Andorra, Guatemala: 8.2
  • China, Finland, Switzerland, Slovenia, Turkey, Ghana, 8.1
  • Zambia, Malaysia: 7.0
  • VietNam, Iran: 6.9
  • Germany: 6.8
  • Netherlands, Serbia 6.7
  • Rwanda: 6.0
  • Ethiopia, Mali, Hong Kong, Egypt: 5.9
  • India: 5.5
  • Burkina Faso, Iraq 5.0
  • Morocco: 4.9
I can kinda understand having fairly nominally unfree countries right at the top if it’s cheap to buy off the police: worst would then be the meddling countries that enforce things. But Iran beating Hong Kong? Finland matching China? 
I sympathise with Frances when she writes:
This is why I start fuming when people start talking about freedom. It’s how people live their lives that matters, not abstract ideology.

But I still expect that the Human Freedom Index provides a better proxy for experienced freedom than the WVS measure. It’s pretty easy to imagine someone agreeing that they have a great deal of control over their lives because they know what things to avoid doing if they don’t want to have the police shoot them.