Which Freedom First: Political or Economic?

Article excerpt

Freedom's hour has arrived.

Despite a century marred by tyrants, holocausts, and wars, human freedom has made historic strides during the past 100 years. Some analysts are calling the 1900s the "Democratic Century."

Just look at the evidence.

*One hundred years ago, the dominant forms of government were monarchies and empires. Hundreds of millions lived under tyrannical rule. Today, the last colonies are gone. So are the empires.

*In 1900, not a single country allowed women to vote. Not even the United States. Today, 62 percent of all nations - with 3.4 billion people - enjoy universal suffrage.

*For centuries, governments - not the people - tightly regulated information. Today, radio and the Internet are undercutting authoritarian controls, and speeding the flow of news and e-mail, even to remote corners of the world.

Everything's not perfect on the freedom front, of course.

Countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea still deny citizens some basic rights. Other nations, like Singapore, are paragons of economic freedom, but fall short in other liberties.

In fact, civil libertarians like Human Rights Watch slap the US on the back of the hand for its failures. For example, Watch criticizes the US - with the world's largest prison population - for the "brutal" tactics of prison guards and police.

The US is also chastised for locking up hundreds of thousands of people (mostly minorities) for nonviolent drug crimes, and for use of the death penalty, even against juveniles. Only four other nations execute juveniles: Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Yet overall, optimism prevails. Two recent studies have detailed the tremendous expansion of human rights around the world. One report was from Freedom House, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting democracy; the other by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Freedom House, based in New York City, surveys the worldwide status of political and civil liberties every year. Its newest findings:

'FREE'

Eighty-five nations are now "free," meaning that they have universal suffrage, maintain political and economic freedom, and respect basic civil liberties. Of these, 27 are ranked as the most free, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Belize, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Finland, and the Scandinavian countries.

'PARTLY FREE'

Fifty-nine nations are rated "partly free," meaning that liberties are often marred by corruption, weak rule of law, ethnic strife, or civil war. Among those nations are Nicaragua, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Jordan, Venezuela, Russia, Turkey, and Malaysia.

'NOT FREE'

Forty-eight nations are rated "not free," meaning that their people are denied basic political rights and civil liberties. …