The excellent Freedom in the World report, published annually by Freedom House, is an important indicator of the state of liberty in the world. And its verdict this year is a damning, if unsurprising, indictment of increasingly reactionary states:
“In a year marked by an explosion of terrorist violence, autocrats’ use of more brutal tactics, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of a neighboring country’s territory, the state of freedom in 2014 worsened significantly in nearly every part of the world.”
It was the ninth consecutive year that the report had shown a decrease in global political rights and civil liberties. So disturbing is the trend, the report has been subtitled 'Discarding Democracy: Return to the Iron Fist'.
Although - as Max Roser at the excellent Our World in Data has highlighted - authoritarianism has been in long-term decline as liberal democracy has increased around the world, the report makes clear it is currently under greater threat than at any point since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
In fact, since the gains to freedom made after the fall of the Soviet empire, the number of electoral democracies has seen almost no shift.
Events cited to have contributed to this year’s decrease include Russia’s thinly-veiled invasion of Eastern Ukraine and subsequent joke of a referendum in occupied Crimea, China’s communist party resorting to tactics reminiscent of Chairman Mao such as televised confessions and arresting activists for criminal activities, the increasing number of political prisoners taken in states like Venezuela and Azerbaijan, the coup and subsequent junta in Thailand, and authoritarian misrule leading to chaos and disaster – such as the twin evils of Assad and ISIL in Syria.
The crackdown on internet freedom is also rightly underlined as contributing to a decline in international freedom. Proposals for global governance of the internet or coming under state control as a public utility in America highlight that this is not just a problem for countries traditionally considered less free. Turkey has seen a depressing decline in social media freedom under President Recep Erdogan. The report gives these examples of free and developed nations dabbling in techno-authoritarianism:
“After the Sewol ferry accident in South Korea in April and related criticism and rumors surrounding the president, the government began routine monitoring and censorship of online discussions. Israel also featured a stricter environment for discussion on social media this year, especially regarding controversial views on the situation in the Gaza Strip.”
While democracy is necessary but not sufficient for a free society, and can also be counter-productive when too much power is concentrated in the hands of politicians who have an incentive to throw public money back at the electorate in the hope of votes, the decline in freedom in the world is worrying news for those of us who believe that the free market and innovation have the power to make the world a better place.
Aside from the humanitarian crises caused by war and insurgence, authoritarian leaders and states are predisposed to a heavy amount of central planning and restriction of private economic activity – anathema to the conditions required for what Milton Friedman called “the variety essential for that experimentation which can bring tomorrow’s laggards above today’s mean.”
Long-term the world has indeed become a safer and better place to live. There have no doubt been some worrying setbacks for global freedom in the last decade but individual cases highlighted by the report give us reason to be optimistic still – for example, the remarkable success story of Tunisia, particularly given the descent of neighbouring Libya into what is now effectively two separate countries at war. Kosovo, Nepal, and Guinea-Bissau were also praised for successful elections, and Madagascar moved to a more stable parliamentary government after a previous coup. Even some countries with recent declines have seen positive movements since, such as the surprise election defeat of Sri Lanka’s increasingly authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaska.
The recent stall of global freedom is a disturbing trend. It will not help conditions for the world’s poorest people whose lives are improved by global free trade and free societies that foster entrepreneurial, risk-taking capitalism. With events continuing to bring bad news from across the globe in the early part of this year, there is faint hope that the 2016 report will make any better reading. We certainly cannot afford another decade of reversals.
(All graphs from the Freedom in the World 2015 report).