People on Earth were on average about as free at the start of 2016 as they were a year earlier, and the average global resident remained much freer than at almost any time in modern history.
That’s one important story we can glean from data recently released by Freedom House, a nonprofit group, mostly funded by the U.S. government, that advocates for democracy and civil liberties all over the planet. Freedom House’s annual report, “Freedom in the World,” routinely shapes the global conversation among policymakers and democracy-promoters about where human rights are lacking. Many scholars use the data set on which it is based to observe variation in civil liberties and forms of government.
But what does the group mean by “free”? Since the early 1970s, Freedom House has assessed freedom in countries along two dimensions: political rights and civil liberties. To measure political rights, it considers how a government is chosen, how well it functions and how citizens participate in those processes. To measure civil liberties, the group assesses the extent of freedoms of speech, assembly, association and conscience, along with the rule of law. Each year, in-house analysts and expert advisers score nearly 200 countries on more than two dozen questions, and those scores are combined and compared to determine how freedom is changing within countries.1
As with any data set, there are a lot of ways to analyze the numbers, and Freedom House itself disagrees with the notion that global freedom is holding steady. That’s because, in its annual report, Freedom House usually focuses on raw totals of countries that advanced or declined on an aggregate measure of political rights and civil liberties.
For the last 10 years, that statistic has implied that freedom around the world is ebbing, and if you look at it that way, 2015 was no exception. Last year, 72 countries saw their aggregate scores decline, while only 43 countries saw net gains. Viewed through that lens, 2015 looks like a pretty bad year, and that’s how Freedom House described things in the topline to the latest edition of “Freedom in the World”:
‘The world was battered in 2015 by overlapping crises that fueled xenophobic sentiment in democratic countries, undermined the economies of states dependent on the sale of natural resources, and led authoritarian regimes to crack down harder on dissent. These unsettling developments contributed to the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”
Freedom House’s statistic of choice, however, is a peculiar one. Imagine describing the stock market’s performance by comparing the counts of advancing and declining stocks with no indication of how much those share prices rose or fell, and without accounting for the market capitalization of each company. A day on which 10 tiny companies saw their share prices fall a fraction while shares in a few giant corporations jumped sharply would look like a lousy one, even though the net worth of most investors would have improved.
To get a better sense of change in global freedom using the Freedom House data, we need to look at the scores themselves, and we need to account for differences in the size of the countries involved. The chart below plots a global freedom score that is weighted for the population of each country. The scores range from 0 to 10, with higher values indicating more political rights and civil liberties.2
In effect, the chart answers the question “How free is the average person in the world, and how has that changed over time?”
Against this yardstick, 2015 looks the same as 2014. The tumult of the past several years has brought the population-weighted global score down from 5.2 in 2011 to 5.1 now, but that decline pales in comparison to the large gains made in the late 1970s and again in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Over the nearly 45-year period Freedom House has observed, this population-weighted global freedom score has ranged almost two points out of 10, from a nadir of 3.6 in 1976 to a peak of 5.3 in 2005. Since that peak a decade ago, however, the global score has fallen by less than two-tenths of a point, mostly in 2014.3
When we count the year-to-year changes in countries, how can it simultaneously be true that decliners have outnumbered advancers for each of the past 10 years, yet the average person was nearly as free in 2015 as ever?
The answer, of course, lies in the highly uneven distribution of the world’s population. Nearly 40 percent of people live in the world’s two largest countries, China and India, while roughly 60 percent live in the world’s 10 largest.
When we consider the freedom of the average person instead of the average country by accounting for these differences in population size, the result we get is heavily influenced by trends in political rights and civil liberties in the relatively small group of very big countries. The plot below shows annual freedom scores for the world’s 10 largest countries since 2002. These scores are the averages of rescaled versions of the raw political rights and civil liberties data, which Freedom House has only published from 2002 onward, instead of the coarser seven-point scales on which the previous chart was based.
As it happens, the needle hasn’t moved a whole lot in those countries in the past decade. China and India, which together account for nearly two-fifths of the global population, have seen very little change in their scores since the mid-2000s. (China is so large, and its score so low relative to the other biggest countries, that even a modest increase in its score would noticeably improve the global average.) The United States — the world’s third-largest country, with about 5 percent of the world’s population — has seen a modest decline in its score since the late 2000s, allowing Japan to pass it near the top of the freedom scale.4 Meanwhile, Russia has trended grimly downward, but Brazil and Indonesia have both trended slightly upward, while Nigeria has zigged and zagged a bit in the middle. Bangladesh and Pakistan saw sharp drops in freedom in 2007 — the former by way of a coup, the latter a state of emergency — but they both recovered those losses and ended the period close to where they started.
Freedom House is an advocacy group based in Washington; its job is to sound the alarm, to draw attention to places where human rights are under threat or have never been protected. For at least the past 10 years, the statistic it has chosen to highlight in its annual reports — a net count of advancers and decliners — has done just that, registering an unbroken streak of annual losses that suggest freedom has receded significantly over that period.
That statistic is of questionable value, however, because it arguably focuses on the wrong unit of analysis. When we switch to a lens that considers the status of individual humans instead of the countries they inhabit, we find only a slight decline in freedom over the past decade. A lot of awful things have happened around the world in the past few years, but a sharp decline in the political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by the average person is not one of them.