Cato’s “Economic Freedom of the World” study is out
If you’re not already aware of this important study, I’d like to direct your attention to Cato’s yearly rankings of the freest countries in the world, the “Economic Freedom of the World” study. See an executive summary here. The study is brand new for the end of 2010, but it deals with data from 2008, which is the latest available. 2008, as we all recall, was a difficult year for the world economy, and responses to the crisis, as they are often wont, were generally more anti-freedom than pro-freedom. It seems that the response to a crisis, even in highly centralized, bureaucratic, and regulated nations, is more centralization, bureaucracy, and regulation.
Sadly that means that the world, on average, regressed in terms of freedom for the first time in decades, with an average index number of 6.67 (scale of 10, with 10 being free), down from 6.74 the year prior. This is truly unfortunate, but it isn’t the end of the world. Bright spots in the study included Hong Kong, which retained its top spot at 9.05, and Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Chile rounding out the top 5. The United States and Canada came in at 6 and 7, respectively.
However, rather than comment on the specific policies that were adopted or revoked in order to change these numbers, I’d like to take a moment to identify an underlying theme often found in social history – namely, inevitability. Given that the gradual march toward freedom has halted and regressed this year, we ought to determine whether said march toward freedom is a deliberate phenomenon or an inevitability. I maintain very strongly that it is the former.
Among the methods which intellectuals use to justify a social phenomenon such as the progress or regress of capitalism is the “Social Darwinian” model, or more accurately, the inevitable progress of the culturally fit. This leaves out the definition of “culturally fit,” but it is perhaps best defined by a philosopher/historian of some note (in unpublished correspondence) as “vaguely, those social conditions that are most conducive to human well-being.” Although capitalism’s admitted triumph over Soviet Communism some 20 years ago is held out as prime evidence of the ascendancy of the culturally fit, history is filled with examples of great cultures falling into decline and collapse.
In my view, history is filled with human misery and chaos – and quite often the events that make up the fabric of history are produced by chaos – but that history is punctuated by periods of spectacular achievement and productivity, often as a result of the advancement of the culturally fit. The author Thomas Sowell has written history which seems to offer as its thesis the idea that, for many cultures, being conquered is a net positive, because the more fit conquering culture imbues the conquered with positive values that expand the cultural fitness of those left alive. There is a certain level of truth to this from the bird’s eye view, although it doesn’t much help the Amerindian killed by smallpox, or the Gaul made a slave to a Roman master. Neither does it indicate any level of inevitability, because for every Roman empire or Pax Britannica, there is at least one Vandal horde or blitzkrieg.
On the other side of the argument, one finds Karl Marx arguing from a theory of inevitability as well. He posited the inevitable collapse of capitalism (albeit with the requirement that revolutionaries “help the process along”) to be followed by a classless proletarian paradise. As the aforementioned philosopher/historian has noted, “linking a promised-land utopia to the inevitable march of history may be good rhetoric for the masses, but it is historical rubbish.” As Karl Popper noted, there is considerable poverty in historicism.
This brings me to my final point, which is a gentle criticism of F.A. Hayek (I consider myself an “Austrian” so any criticism of Hayek will tend to be gentle). In my view, Hayek tended toward a theory of inevitability, even if it was never expressed as inevitability per se. Certainly, much of history, especially recent history, has seen a gradual march toward free enterprise, but as the Cato study indicates, the march is not unbroken nor is it irreversible. Freedom must be supported by people, not assumed as a corrollary of temporal progression. Freedom is hard work.
I also see Hayek tending toward a theory of inevitability in “The Road to Serfdom,” where he views every infringement on liberty as a step down the path to socialism. And while it is true that government programs once instituted are notoriously difficult to eradicate, it is not impossible. The gradual march to utopia is a historical pipe dream, but the gradual march to mass slavery is not an inevitability. The road to serfdom can be a two-way street.
And that should give us plenty of cause for optimism.