Free Markets and Human Rights

I am not a political scientist. I’ll just get that out of the way right now. However, trolling the intraweb for data, I managed to find the CIRI Human Rights Dataset (http://ciri.binghamton.edu/faq.asp), a store house of data for more than 200 countries, grading each according to it’s record of recognizing human rights. The dataset includes a number of measures of human rights practices, including free speech, religion, freedom of assembly and movement, voting and the respect of government for women’s rights. Not only is there information for all of these countries, but there’s also year by year data to track human rights status over time. It’s a fascinating data set. Let’s check out how countries do.

Free speech: A societies willingness to exchange and respect conflicting ideas is measured by its tolerance for free speech.  Predictable, the US does exceedingly well (we just don’t shut up), along with Japan, NZ, Iceland and Finland all scoring perfect grades. In addition, Grenada, Nauru, Palau, Samoa and the Dominican Republic all score perfectly. At the bottom of the list are China, Iran Libya, Angola, Laos and the DPRK. At the very bottom is Cuba. Like, a zero. Not missing, Cuba scored a mean of 0 over the past 30 years. So much for the American left’s fascination with Cuba.

If you don’t want to be killed or tortured by your government, you should consider living in the Netherlands, Palau, San Marino or Grenada. If you wanted to be killed and tortured, then most certainly consider Iraq, Libya, India, China, Cambodia, Iran or Russia as a destination. Cuba and Burma may not kill you, but they will certainly be willing to take a power sander to you, along with the DPRK and our friends in Mexico.

In my opinion, a society can be judged in terms of how it respects women’s rights to economic, political and social participation. If they hold the rights of women to be free and outspoken participants in society, they they have respect for human rights in general, I would say. Surprisingly (or maybe not), the US did not top the list for any of the three women’s rights categories. In fact, it was San Marian, Palau, Sweden, Monaco and Finland who stood at the top and the US didn’t even make the top 20. The worst places to be a woman are:  Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Pakstian, Yemen, Burkina Faso and, topping the list: Saudi Arabia. We can be pretty sure that those are places that no woman would want to live, given a choice, but clearly, outside of possibly the very rich who appear on television to tell us how wonderful it is to be a woman in Saudia Arabia, very few have much of a choice to do much of anything, besides produce and raise children. A noble job, but not every woman wants to do it.

So what does this have to do with free markets? Well, apparently everything. I combined the Human Rights database with a dataset of economic freedom by country that had been posted on a the Heritage Foundation’s web site, sponsored in conjunction with the Wall Street Journal (http://www.heritage.org/index/Explore.aspx). From their site:

“Economic freedom is the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property. In an economically free society, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please, with that freedom both protected by the state and unconstrained by the state. In economically free societies, governments allow labor, capital and goods to move freely, and refrain from coercion or constraint of liberty beyond the extent necessary to protect and maintain liberty itself.”

Countries are measured on a scale from 0 to 100, 100 being a measure of complete economic freedom. Not surprisingly, the US scores very high, but still under Singapore, Japan and Ireland (!). The worst on the list are the DPRK, Cuba, Eritrea and Zimbabwe.  The freedom to be able to open your own lemonade stand and determine your own destiny is likely linked to other freedoms and rights, but the question for me is, which ones?

I decided to explore the link between economic freedom, but comparing overall freedom scores with various human rights variables from the CIRI dataset. Knowing that free speech is likely important to economic freedom and that torture likely isn’t, I constructed the following:

We can see that countries which have free speech and do not torture their citizens (very much) have high levels of economic freedom. In it appears to be pretty much a prerequisite for  a free economy to not torture people! It was interesting that this relatinship is graded. The more free speech you have and the less you torture people, the higher the amount of economic freedom to let people sell magazine subscriptions, bananas or whatever they may want.

Let’s look at women’s rights:It is not surprising that women’s economic freedom and overall economic freedom highly correlate. Women’s social rights also seem to be tightly related to an economically free society. However, it was fascinating that even countries which have low respect for women in politics, also have high economic freedom. Presumably, this would include wealthy middle eastern countries who treat their women like shit, but let whoever (except women) sell whatever they please to improve their livelihood. However, you have to wonder what kind of future they have if they are treating their women like baby machines. However, it can be seem that the countries with the highest respect for women, also are the most economically permissive and thus the most respectful of individual freedoms.

Now, taking all of the data and running a regression tree analysis, I sought to determine which variables had the strongest connection to economic freedom. I found the following:


Free speech is the most important factor associated with economic freedom. We can see that countries which have little respect for free speech, also have piss poor records of economic freedom. Thus their people not only have to sit there and shut up, they have little opportunities for social advancement, mobility or self discovery. Cuba and the DPRK are in this category. China is one of the dots farther up on the far left box plot, but they can still do better. On the positive side, we find that the second most important variable in determining economic freedom is respect for the political rights of women. It is not surprising that the most permissive of societies are also the most respectful of women.

Many people I know make the claim that free markets and capitalism are the root of all evil and only serve to enslave and destroy citizens, but I have found that free markets are, in fact, associated with postive human rights outcomes all around, while poor human rights records are associated with restrictive governmental policies against property ownership, freedom to buy and sell, and, as a consequence, the freedom of self determination. While the positives and negatives can certainly be argued, within countries this seems to be the case.

Between countries this might play out very differently, as egalitarian and human rights conscious countries may choose to economically support and/or participate with countries that maintain little respect for human rights. The ongoing partnership of the US and Saudi Arabia immediately comes to mind. While the US has a high level of economic freedom and human rights, it creates a surrogate economic zone in one of the most medieval of all countries in the world. However, I think that, regardless of foreign policy, freedom of self determination speaks loads about the level of respect that societies give to their citizens to make responsible choices. Human rights does not imply free economies and respect for property rights, nor vice versa, but it can be seen that these things occur in the same spaces. one may imply the other in practice, but it is likely the case that the absence of one, may necessarily lead to losing the rest.

Now, I am tired…. have to go….. more later…..

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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