Can Freedom Really Be Measured by One Number?

Writing by Jamie McDonald. Illustration by Juliet Richards.



Freedom House is a US-based non-profit organisation, famous for its annual ranking of nations based on their democratic and social freedoms. Students of Politics will recognise it as the website wheeled out at any given opportunity to compare the vast diversity of the world’s political systems on an easily digestible 100-point scale.


Those 100 points are split into two categories. Nations can score a maximum of 40 points for ‘political rights’, on questions such as ‘does the government operate with openness and transparency?’ and ‘do the people have the right to organise in different political parties?’. 60 points are available for ‘civil liberties’, on questions like ‘do individuals enjoy freedom of movement?’ and ‘are individuals able to exercise the right to own property?’ [1]. These scores are combined to give a total out of 100, and then countries are awarded green for ‘Free’, yellow for ‘Partly Free’ and purple for ‘Not Free’.


It will not come as a surprise to learn that the three Nordic neighbours – Norway, Sweden and Finland – all score a perfect 100. The UK gets 93, the US lags behind with 83 and India falls into the ‘Partly Free’ category with 67. At the other end of the scale, Russia gets 20, China 9, Saudi Arabia 7; Tibet and Syria are both awarded 2021’s lowest score of 1.


The problem with Freedom House is the way in which it attempts to take something deeply subjective – what is freedom? who is free? – and turn it into an objective score. Whether a country is ‘free’ or not relies on a subjective definition set by the people choosing what ‘freedom’ means. Freedom House is based in the United States and receives a large investment from the US government. A 2014 study found that they, unsurprisingly, over-award US strategic allies and under-award belligerents. [2] The questions, too, are geared towards identifying a particular kind of freedom prized by liberal capitalism: a thin ideological veil of liberty rather than substantive and truly functional freedom.


One example of this dichotomy lies in how the UK scores a maximum 4/4 for the freedom to protest, despite protestors having to ask kindly for it beforehand. Although the UK is supposedly 93% of the way to true freedom, organisers of public marches must, by law, notify the police of the date, time and route of any march more than six days before they begin. [3] We are free to criticise our own government, fight for climate justice, or oppose racist deportations - of course we are - but only if doing so doesn’t inconvenience the authorities.


The question ‘do people have the right to organise in different political parties… and is the system free of undue obstacles to the success of these parties?’ is particularly amusing in the context of the US and UK, who, incidentally, both score a perfect 4/4. In the UK, the last time a party other than Labour or the Conservatives won an election was in 1906, and the last time a US president took office without the support of the Democrats or the Republicans was in 1850. So, citizens indeed have the right to organise into different political parties in theory, but at election time only have two ideologically similar choices that could realistically take office. Freedom House’s perfect score also masks the cost - for many candidates, prohibitive cost - of US elections in particular, with $14 billion being spent in 2020 alone. [4]


The German philosopher Theodor Adorno identified the difference between actual freedom and freedom as ideology, writing in 1945 that “where freedom occurs as a motif in political narratives today […] the outcome always appears decided in advance by high politics, and freedom is manifested only ideologically, as talk about freedom” [5]. The freedom ranked by Freedom House is a specific style of ideological, purely surface-level freedom. It’s a helpful metric to understand a nation’s progress on breaking through landmark, symbolic barriers to equal rights – same-sex marriage, or women’s suffrage, for example. Where it fails is in considering the type of freedom that cannot be granted by the passage of a single law - genuine individual freedom.


This is the core problem with Freedom House. An arbitrary score out of 100 allows liberals to heap praise on flawless Scandinavian social democracies and pour scorn on Eastern autocracies. The metric encourages observers to assume that ‘free’ countries will be generally superior to ‘not free’ countries – that a higher score might mean a healthier society. The ranking system makes it too easy to conclude that Finland’s perfect score for freedom is responsible for its admirable achievements – such as the fact that just 4,341 Finns were without homes in 2021. [6] This propagates the idea that accountable, freely-elected governments will focus on the wellbeing of their citizens. However, Jordan, a monarchy with a freedom score of just 34 [7] has eradicated homelessness entirely. [8]


The example of Jordan serves well to highlight what Freedom House cannot quantify. The complete lack of homelessness (just 12 cases were recorded between 2000 and 2017, and all were subsequently housed) is not because of any policy implemented by a government. A 2017 study found that Jordan’s remarkably strong family-based social structures meant the potentially homeless could seek refuge with relatives rather than sleep on the streets. [9] The guarantee that you will never at any point be forced to sleep on the street is as powerful an indication of freedom as an unregulated press.


Freedom House’s goal is to further a specific form of Western, liberal, democratic freedom. These rankings are certainly important – they’re used within the US government to decide where to allocate certain types of foreign aid. [9] Whether a country is ‘free’ or ‘not free’ depends on so much more than political and social indicators, but a non-profit based in and funded by the West will inevitably find it difficult to account for this. The US could conceivably argue that it is ‘more free’ than Jordan, because it has an electoral process, and stronger accountability measures in place. In the same way, Jordan could argue it is ‘more free’ than the US because its culture and strong family ties have allowed it to house all its citizens. Further, China and the United Arab Emirates could argue that they are ‘more free’ than the US because they have a lower rate of extreme poverty. [9]


The difference is that Jordan, China and the UAE don’t fund world renowned non-profit organisations that rank countries for their progress, or lack thereof, on freedom from homelessness and poverty – and then use those rankings to decide who is worthy of foreign aid. The point is that it is easy to choose one form of freedom to promote globally. To distil both an entire country and the wide and varied concept of freedom into one single number is inherently a subjective process – and one that will, by its nature, exclude a wide range of different experiences and understandings. It is therefore unwise to use these rankings solely and unquestioningly - as academics, policymakers and the press are all too quick to do.

Sources/Further Reading:


Countries’ scores for 2021 can be found here: https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores

  1. https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/FreedomInTheWorld_2021_Methodology_Checklist_of_Questions.pdf

  2. Nils D. Steiner (2016) Comparing Freedom House Democracy Scores to Alternative Indices and Testing for Political Bias: Are US Allies Rated as More Democratic by Freedom House?, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, 18:4, 329-349

  3. https://www.gov.uk/protests-and-marches-letting-the-police-know

  4. https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/cost-of-2020-election-14billion-update

  5. Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. Essay 94: All The World’s Not a Stage. 1951.

  6. https://www.ara.fi/en-US/Materials/Homelessness_reports/Report_2021_Homelessness_in_Finland_2020(60242)

  7. https://freedomhouse.org/country/jordan/freedom-world/2021

  8. Ahearn, Joshua, "Homefulness: The Cultural Safety Net in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan" (2017). Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection.

  9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/11/07/why-do-we-trust-certain-democracy-ratings-new-research-explains-hidden-biases/

  10. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.DDAY

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