How America stacks up according to external sources
Americans don’t have a clear picture of where they really rank in the world. On one side, alarmists flail their arms and declare that the country has descended (or is about to descend) into a fascist nightmare. Jingoists rebut that America is the greatest place on earth for everything. The majority of the world that doesn’t live in the United States roll their eyes and sigh.
Fortunately, somewhat impartial data can tell the story. Independent and international organizations rank countries in the world against each other. International organizations tend to lean left, and sometimes a slight anti-US bias might color the raters. In the end, though, the rankings are reasonable.
Below are rankings of basic freedoms on which most Americans pride themselves.
#1 The health of liberal democracy
The Data: The V-Dem Institute, sponsored by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, ambitiously ranks countries using dozens of separate indicators. These metrics are rolled up into a few key indices, and at the top of the hierarchy lies the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI).
The Rank: #36 of 179. The number seems low. The 2020 democracy report, like previous reports, shows the United States as an ‘autocratizing regime’ due to a drop from a 17th place .81 score in 2016 to a .70 index score for 2019. Using the online tool to drill down to indicators, the ‘Multiplicative Polyarchy Index’ or MPI shows the sharpest decline, while another of other indices show similar but smaller declines.
Analysis: The MPI captures data about elections…government intimidation, vote-buying, voter registration, other irregularities, etc. Shelby County v. Holder, which allowed some states more ability to change election processes, occurred much earlier, in 2013. Voter turnout in 2018 rose sharply from previous years across all demographic groups. It’s hard to see how election freedom deteriorated sharply between 2016 and 2017 when President Trump was elected, then continued to deteriorate, when the opposition party won a resounding victory in the 2018 mid-term election.
Despite V-Dem’s best efforts, the drop may reflect more the political bias of liberal academics who answer questions based on their fears of what might happen rather than any ground truth. Similar small but real effects can be seen in other indicators as well.
A separate ranking chart breaks out the type of regime, from Liberal Democracy at the top followed by Electoral Democracy, Electoral Autocracy, and Closed Autocracy. America is one of 18 countries solidly in the Liberal Democracy bucket. Counting uncertainty, an additional 19 countries are in the grey zone that indicates they could be in the next lower category. Surprisingly, these include some countries that rank much higher on the straight index, like Norway, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Bottom Line: By V-Dem’s analysis, the US remains a healthy liberal democracy.
#2 Freedom of the press
The Data: Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a nonprofit non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Paris, tracks press freedom internationally. It provides education and training to governments, activist groups, and reporters, engages in activism, and of course, publishes the yearly World Press Freedom Index ranking 180 countries.
The rank: #45 of 200. This second tier ranking may seem low to Americans who pride themselves on the First Amendment. The position reflects the grouping of countries with a free press, in a similar way that differences at the top of V-Dem’s LDI rankings don’t mean much in practice. America’s score of 23.85 isn’t much different than #41, Italy, with 23.69, or #35, the United Kindom, with 22.93. Towards the bottom, Russia, Turkey, and China come in at #149, #154, and #177.
Much of the RSF criticism of the United States is directed at the Trump administration’s hostility to journalists. The US also reportedly tracks certain journalists as they cross borders and has charged Julian Assange.
Analysis: The only known central government action in recent years related to press freedom is seizing the phone records of Ali Watkins during a leak investigation. This builds on the previous administration’s legacy of seizing phone records from Associated Press employees, surveilling and targeting James Rosen as a ‘co-conspirator,’ and probably hacking Sharyl Attkisson’s computer.
Local law enforcement poses the greatest threats to journalism at the moment. Police mistake reporters for protestors or rioters and swept them up during crackdowns. This rise of the citizen journalist exacerbates this issue.
A couple of choices on the list raise eyebrows. Burkina Faso comes in at #38. Drilling down, RSF reports on the great progress the country has made in the last few years but ends with:
…the national assembly passed an amendment to the criminal code in 2019 that severely penalizes “false information” and coverage of the security forces that “compromises public order and the conduct of security operations.”…critical or objective coverage of the military’s fight against terrorism could now lead to heavy fines.
In the United States, such a law would be blatantly unconstitutional and unlikely to be enacted in the first place or take effect if ever passed.
Bottom Line: Per RSF’s ranking, the US has a free press, but ranks lower than one would like or expect against other democracies.
#3 Freedom to keep and bear arms
The Data: No easily Googleable database ranks countries by their support for their citizens to bear arms, but a few telling statistics show America’s tolerance for firearms.
The rank: Probably #1?. The United States has about 1.2 firearms for every person in the country, easily the most in the world. There might be countries with even more permissive laws and environments, but this freedom is most often practiced in America.
Analysis: Why include this freedom? America values it widely. According to Gallup, 43% of adults live in households with firearms. The lowest demographic segments for household ownership are self-identified Hispanics at 26%, Democrats at 28%, and blacks and liberals tied at 29%. If anything, all of these estimates are low; many surveyed are reluctant to tell a stranger on the phone that they own guns.
A survey by CBS shows geographic spread. Unsurprisingly, the thinly populated western states have the highest per capita ownership rates, followed by southern states. Oddly, Hawaii has a 41% gun ownership rate. The first large state, Texas, clocks in at 35.7%. Even California with its restrictive gun laws has 19.8% ownership.
Bottom Line: Firearms ownership is widespread and healthy.
#4 Freedom to worship
The Data: The US government itself does much of the research on worldwide religious freedom, so external sources are hard to come by. One source, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) does put together a report by country and classifies them as locations of either Discrimination (Orange) or Persecution (Red). As a Papal Foundation, ACN may be more sensitive to anti-Christian discrimination, but reviewing its reports notes references to the persecution of Islam or other faith.
The Ranking: #5. Lack of data forces a little cheating; US News and World Report, an American publication, provides this ranking. ACN lists the United States as Unclassified, meaning that there is no concern of discrimination or persecution. The ACN’s country report for the United States notes that religious freedom is protected in law as well as in practice.
Analysis: Many on the left and the right in America fume at what they perceive as religious persecution. Arguments about whether the Little Sisters of the Poor should pay for contraception or whether public property can have crosses seem to pale in comparison to Chinese mandates to remove religious symbols from homes and replace them with pictures of Communist Party leadership.
The United States experiences occasional religious-based hate crimes, and anti-Muslim feelings rose after September 11th, 2001. Anti-semitism seems to be rising on both the left and the right. However, there is no state-mandated religion or state prohibition of religion. The typical citizen routinely goes about their religious business whenever and however they want without interference.
Bottom Line: The United States is a good place to worship.
#5 Economic Freedom
The Data: The Fraser Institute, a Canadian think-tank based in Vancouver, publishes a yearly Economic Freedom of the World annual report. The institute describes itself as nonpartisan. It’s well respected in the world as think-tanks go, but is also considered to have a conservative political bent.
The Rank: #5 of 162. The United States comes out near the top on this measure, which looks at indicators around “Size of government, legal system and property rights, sound money, international trade, and regulation.” Some countries that rank highly on other freedom measures do poorly in this index. Italy comes in at #46, France at #50, and India at #79. Autocratic countries generally do poorly, with Russia at #85, China at #113, and Brazil at #120.
Analysis. This rank is unsurprising in that American style pursuit of happiness is nearly interchangeable with the pursuit of property. The United States is an unabashedly capitalist country. The American Dream means that each generation has the opportunity to do better than the last. According to a Gallup poll, 70% of Americans believe they can reach the American Dream, while 29% do not. While 70% creates a sense of success, the country should still examine why 42% of women 18–49 years old do not feel confident.
The Fraser Institute, in cooperation with other think tanks like the CATO Institute (US) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (Germany), also rolls up its rankings into a Human Freedom Index, which combines personal, economic, and civil freedoms. The United States comes in at #15 in the overall ranking, pulled up by its excellent economic score. The country ranks 26th on the Personal Freedom Index and 15th on the Civil Freedom Index. These numbers aren’t too far off from numbers produced by V-Dem and RSF.
Bottom Line: The United States is still one of the best places in the world to make money.
Putting it together
So where does that leave the country? Solidly in the top tier. American freedoms do not rise above the freedoms enjoyed by most other democracies in the world. Despite the doom and gloom, the United States is also not an authoritarian cesspool and a horrible repressive place to live.
Critics also miss the impact of size. Perhaps one strength of the United States is that is has been able to produce freedom at scale with a culturally diverse population.
China, at a little over 1.4 billion people, is not free. India, at a little under 1.4 billion, rightfully proclaims its status as the largest democracy in the world, but it doesn’t place in the top tier of freedoms by most of the measures examined here. The United States, at over 330 million, is the largest country making it into the top categories for freedom, even if sometimes just barely.
The next high-ish scoring country is Japan, the 11th largest at 126 million people. Germany, the 19th largest in the world at 83 million people, is the first large country that consistently outperforms the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, 21st largest at 67 million people.
After all, the whole world can’t live in New Zealand.
Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.