Anyone who has ever made use of the Bloglines search function just to see what people are saying about a particular topic knows that the blogosphere is filled with inane commentary. It is standard practice on blogs to offer attitudes and beliefs in lieu of facts and evidence, but beyond that there is too often a failure to make even a rudimentary attempt to understand what one is talking about. And so it is with much lefty commentary now being offered about the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, released earlier this week by The Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal.
What makes the inanities worth noting is that despite the varied craziness of the commentary, there are some basic patterns of misunderstandings that are worth correcting. This is not to say that reasonable objections to the Index aren’t possible. Merely that there are a few basic and—one would have thought—easily discoverable facts about the Index with which any reasonable commentary should be conversant.
First of all—a minor point here—the Index of Economic Freedom is not published by the American Enterprise Institute. With respect to our friends at AEI, we can’t figure how anyone could get that fact wrong. Perhaps some lefty bloggers are, like the German generals with their von Schlieffen plan, so fixated on attacking in one direction that they can’t disengage from bashing the architects of the surge. Whatever!
On a more substantive level, there is confusion about how the Index is produced and what it means. Matt Yglesias, for instance, says that the Index proves Heritage wants the United States to become more like a dictatorial city state—hence Hong Kong’s perennial ranking as the freest economy in the world.
In the same post, Yglesias also contends that the rankings don’t mean what Heritage thinks they mean, because some of the top-ranking countries have government-run health care and strong labor unions. So, in Yglesias’ imagining of things, the rankings are nothing more than a reflection of Heritage’s preferences—except when they are not.
Other bloggers also concern themselves with identifying examples that somehow “disprove” the rankings. Some lefty bloggers defend the socialist drift in Latin American, while claiming that relatively low rankings for countries like Bolivia and Cuba reveal Heritage’s bias.
In fact, the rankings do not reflect any subjective judgment on the part of Heritage about the merits of particular countries. The rankings reflect the method by which the country scores are calculated. That method is easily discoverable by anyone who bothers to consult the book’s appendix—which is to say, by anyone who can load a Web page on their computer. A casual scanning of the appendix reveals that each of the ten components of the Index is determined either by a formula or a strict set of criteria for assigning scores. In some cases the scoring incorporates calculations from sources such as Transparency International or the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report.
If there is a problem with the rankings, then there must be a problem with the method. What is that problem? The aforementioned bloggers don’t say, because they don’t examine the method. Since Matt Yglesias cites the results approvingly, we can only assume he agrees with the ranking’s emphasis on limited government, low taxes, low regulation, property rights, and labor freedom.
Other lefty bloggers do have issues with the method, but here they reveal their ignorance of the concept of “scope.” Some bloggers, for instance, criticize the Index for failing to incorporate measurements of democratic governance or non-economic human rights into the scores.
But Heritage does not claim that economic freedom is the end-all-be-all of assessing a country’s institutions. Economic freedom is one dimension of freedom. Reasonable people can disagree about whether economic freedom is more or less important than democracy. But to measure one is not at all to say that the other isn’t important, too.
Social scientists consider many interesting questions about the relationship between economic freedom, democracy, and human rights. Do they reinforce each other? Is one more important than the others? In order to assess such questions, one needs first to measure them separately.
Nobody at Heritage denies that Heritage favors economic freedom. So it’s not exactly an exposé for a blogger to point out that Heritage’s Index of Economic Freedom measures economic freedom and not some other thing.
What all this reveals is a deep ignorance by these bloggers about what the rankings demonstrate. Or course, by themselves the rankings don’t demonstrate anything—because they are just a type of data. But producing that data is the first step in answering important questions such as whether economic freedom is good for economic growth, promotes democracy, increases respect for human rights, or leads to greater environmental protection.
These are questions about which lefty bloggers have nothing to say because they are so fixated on bashing Heritage (or AEI!) simply for being a conservative think tank. But, again, it is easily discoverable that economic freedom is highly correlated with measures of human well being. Anybody who wonders whether these connections are robust should consult pages 3 and 5 of the Index to see for themselves. As the charts on those pages show, there is a strong association between economic freedom, economic prosperity, democratic governance, environmental protection, and the U.N.’s human development index (a broad measure of quality of life). Many academics—some at Heritage, some at other think tanks, many working at colleges and universities around the world—have studied the connection between economic freedom scores and other indices of human well being. And they have been studying these questions for many years now. The results of those labors also confirm that economic freedom has many benefits for human beings—both economic and non-economic—and they have been catalogued in a recent Pacific Research Institute monograph, The Sizzle of Economic Freedom: How Economic Freedom Helps You and Why You Should Demand More.
Yo, bloggers: These are the sort of findings that demand your attention. Instead of worrying about whether Venezuela is really worse than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, you should be asking how both of those countries could do better for their citizens by increasing economic freedom.