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No, America Is Not The Freest Country On Earth

By Taylor Marvin

Fellow UCSD student and conservative political blogger Gabriella Hoffman has a Fourth of July post that reveals an interesting falacy in popular American political thinking:

“We live in the freest and most tolerant country in the world. This fact is simply irrefutable. If you don’t like it here, go elsewhere.”

Well, no. This is actually very refutable. I’m not going to examine the claim about tolerance, which is patently ridiculous, but Hoffman’s assertion that the US is the freest country on Earth is easily testable.

Here’s the 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, jointly produced by the Wall Street Journal and the conservative Heritage Foundation:

While the United States does rank highly in economic freedom by world standards, it doesn’t perform particularly well compared to other developed democracies, and notably ranks lower than many European countries (Denmark, Switzerland) that Americans typically think of as socialistic and un-entrepreneurial. Despite this, America’s overall strong level of economic freedom is encouraging from a very practical standpoint, because economic freedom have been shown to be strongly associated with levels of national wellbeing, as shown in an interesting pape by Will Wilkinson:

However, just because the US ranks relatively highly on the global economic freedom continuum doesn’t mean that it’s the highest. America’s economic freedom is encouraging and something to be proud of, but it isn’t exceptional.

Similarly, America’s levels of political freedom are also high but not exceptional. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which ranks countries by fairness of elections, absence of foreign influence, security of voters and national government capability, ranks the US as the 17th most democratic nation in the world:

Again, the US ranks notably behind the European social democracies conservative Americans tend to dismiss as politically meritless.

However, what I think is really interesting about the state of freedom in the US is how much less practical freedom Americans enjoy compared to nearly every other developed democracy. While economic and political freedoms are certainly important, the US’s clearly unreasonably high legal drinking age likely has a much more immediate effect on the practical welfare of young Americans. Similarly, the fact that the US government incarcerates 743 of its citizens for every 100,000 Americans (for comparison, the next large democracy on the list, Israel, incarcerates 325) means that a much larger portion of Americans have literally no personal freedom than citizens of other large democracies. Many aspects of US public policy, especially drug policy, directly result in lowering Americans practical freedoms, which is a fact many Americans, Hoffman included, seem unwilling to recognize.

Of course, this isn’t entirely unexpected. Just like many modern Chinese nationalists seem unwilling to acknowledge that many of Mao Zedong’s policies directly resulted in mass starvation Americans would like to believe that their country is exception in areas that it really isn’t, because these selective views of reality lend themselves to narratives of national greatness. Human are social animals, and there’s good reason to believe that we are predisposed to employ  many subconscious tricks to ensure that our interpretation of the reality we are presented with corresponds to our favored worldview. We’d like confirmation that America is exceptional in every way, so it’s common to refuse to internalize evidence that it isn’t. This is an extraordinarily common human cognitive bias, but we should be aware of how it affects our thinking. While modern America clearly grew out of a unique history, it’s silly and childish to blindly claim that it’s the freest and morst tolerant country in the world. America is a flawed society, and these flaws continue to inflict very real human costs. Refusing to recognize these faults is a recipe for only perpetuating them.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. lol #

    I lol’d. You people take Gabby Hoffman seriously?

    July 7, 2011
  2. Bogle #

    I’m not sure that using the number of people we had to throw in prison, the high drinking age (face it…American youth NEED that law), and laws about substance abuse can qualify as evidence for a less free country. I’m not backing up America in claiming that it is. But using these specific arguments is ludicrous. The facts are simple, go to bars in America and go to them in Europe…note the unmistakable and gargantuan difference. 21 is a need. Our drunk driving alone is off the chart even with this law. Drug laws? Lack of freedom? Would a country that allows rape also qualify as a freer country? Because by this criteria apparently it would be. I’m willing to listen to this argument and was interested in doing so, but the points which seems to be written by an adolescent 15 year old boy with a rebellious streak has severely tainted any level of trust in its author. Oh we had a lot of criminals and put them in jail…this isn’t a free country now. You can’t make as good a living selling coke here. Oh man, there’s a law saying some of the dumbest and most arrogant kids on earth with an expansive and proven track record of criminal trouble can’t drink until they’re 21. This country is so not free! Wahhhhh! Moving on…

    July 25, 2012

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