Political Freedom Translates into Economic Freedom

By David R. Francis, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 4, 1999 | Go to article overview

Political Freedom Translates into Economic Freedom


David R. Francis, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Economic freedom begets prosperity and political freedom. And vice versa.

Conservative economists have been exploring and promoting that thesis in recent years.

It is "new groundbreaking research," says Bryan Johnson, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. After ranking 161 nations on their economic freedom, Mr. Johnson concludes: "Those countries that are most economically free generally are also the most politically free. Similarly, those countries that are most economically repressed also tend to be the most politically repressed." James Gwartney, an economist at Florida State University, Tallahasee, figures political freedom and economic freedom advance each other. "Political reform precedes economic reform and makes it more lasting," he says. "Or economic reform, with its higher income levels, leads to a demand for political reform." That's just common sense, many would say. After all, in the post World War II years, nations governed by communist regimes or right-wing dictatorships have mostly done poorly in economic terms. In contrast, democratic, free-enterprise nations have thrived. The cold war ended with the fall of communism partly because it became widely evident in state-planned nations that the relatively free capitalist economies were more successful. Many liberals would agree. "There is evidence that a greater degree of democracy and personal freedom correlates with economic growth and dynamism," says Robert Reich, secretary of Labor during President Clinton's first term. "When people feel they have more control over their future, they tend to be more inventive and expansive in all aspects of their lives." Conservative economists, however, have wanted to make such observations more scientific. They have an agenda behind this effort. If they can prove the correlation of economic freedom with various goodies, such as political freedom, economic growth, stability in a financial crisis, and even greater income equality, they can urge developing countries, former communist countries, and, especially, the United States and other industrial nations to adopt the institutions and policies of free economies. Starting more than a decade ago, with the encouragement of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, these conservative economists have worked to devise a numeric way for defining, measuring, and ranking economic freedom. The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal last month published the fifth annual edition of their research results, the 490-page 1999 Index of Economic Freedom. A month earlier, another conservative think tank, The Fraser Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia, came out with its third version of a separate index on "Economic Freedom of the World." It was compiled with the help of 53 other similar institutions in as many nations around the world. (A third index, published for many years by Freedom House in New York, deals more with political or civil liberty rather than economic freedom.) Mr. Gwartney, one author of the Fraser index, sees it as the best measure of economic freedom. It relies on objective, quantifiable data, whereas the Heritage Foundation index uses some judgmental information, he maintains. This database allows an analysis of trends in economic freedom in a nation back to 1970. That, he says, enables analysts to see the impact of trends in economic freedom on growth and political liberty. But Heritage's Mr. Johnson says there are more similarities than differences in the two indexes, and that the results are highly comparable in ranking economic freedom.

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