Is freedom increasing or decreasing?

Last week, Freedom House released its 2020 annual report on global freedom. The report documents trends in every region of the world of declining political and civil freedom: “In every region of the world, democracy is under attack by populist leaders and groups that reject pluralism and demand unchecked power to advance the particular interests of their supporters, usually at the expense of minorities and other perceived foes.”

The report compiles a freedom index for countries based on an average of two indices for political rights and civil liberties, composed of numerical ratings and descriptive texts for each country. The 2020 index adds to a time series for countries that extends back to 1972.  I’m interested to see to what extent the time series upholds the view of Stephen Pinker that there has been sustained long-term improvement in both political rights and human rights globally and this will continue (Enlightenment Now, Chapters 13 and 14).

The graph below shows time trends for the number of countries falling into three broad categories of the freedom index, labelled as Free (green shades), Partly free (orange shades) and Not free (purple shades). The graph includes 185 countries. 11 very small countries with populations less than 90,000 in 2015 are not included.

Trends in numbers of countries by broad freedom category

The report’s methodology is derived in large measure from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The index is based on the premise that these standards apply to all countries and territories, and operates from the assumption that freedom for all people is best achieved in liberal democratic societies. The Freedom Index is an average of the scores for Political Rights and Civil Liberties and ranges from 1 (Free) to 7 (Not free). Three broad categories are defined as follows, and I’ve broken each into two subcategories for displaying trends in graphs here.

     Freedom Index       Category                Upper subgroup     Lower subgroup

            1.0 to 2.5            Free                         1.0                              1.5 – 2.5

            3.0 to 5.0            Partly Free            3.0 – 3.5                   4.0  – 5.0

            5.5 to 7.0            Not Free                 5.5 – 6.0                  6.5 – 7.0

The graph above shows numbers of countries by these three categories (and also distinguishing two levels within each category defined as show in the third column above. The following graph shows the proportion of the global population in each category, by weighting each country score by its total population.

Trends in proportions of global population by freedom category

Over the last 14 years, 25 of the 41 established democracies have experienced declines in their freedom indices. This can be see in the diminishing width of the green zone from around 2006. Though there is a long-term trend of increasing global freedom until around 2005-2010, this trend has ceased and there are declining levels of freedom in the last decade. Comparing changes in the freedom index between 2015 and 2020, the gap between setbacks and gains widened compared with 2018, as individuals in 44 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties while those in just 24 experienced improvements. The negative pattern affected all regime types, but the impact was more visible near the top and the bottom of the freedom scale.

At the bottom of the scale, large countries like Russia and China are intensifying their suppression of domestic dissent and at the top of the scale many freely elected leaders are also taking steps to reduce existing human or political rughts. The Global Freedom Report notes that “such leaders—including the chief executives of the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies—are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.”- The Freedom House Report goes into more detail about the trends and changes for individual countries in each region.

In the following graphs, I have plotted trends in the proportions of regional populations falling into each of the freedom categories. Because large populations dominate, and crossing one of the freedom thresholds will shift that entire population to another area, these graphs are more spikey than if I had plotted numbers of countries rather than people. For example, the large discontinuity in the purple sub-areas for East Asia and Pacific from 1977 to 1988 reflects the freedom score for China decreasing from 6.5 to 6 in that period. Similarly, the graph for North America shows the decrease in freedom from 2016 onwards in the USA with the index increasing one step from 1 to 1.5.

Finally, I also calculated a population-weighted average freedom score for regions and the world, shown in the following graph.  This also highlights the recent declines in freedom in most regions in recent years, but perhaps in a more comparative way than the regional plots above (where the population proportions relate only to the categories relevant to each region).

Is Pinker right that freedom is increasing and will continue to increase?  Maybe, he is taking a longer view than the last decade, and in the big picture there has been an overall increase in global freedom. But the reversal is worrying and may continue if populist responses continue to attack political and human rights, and humans increasingly turn away from evidence-based approaches to global issues such as pandemics, refugees, overpopulation, and the climate crisis.

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