- The Measure of Freedom
As the world adjusts to post-Cold War realities, with sobriety and realism replacing the initial euphoria, the latest edition of Freedom House's annual look at the state of freedom around the world comes as a timely, painstakingly thorough, yet concise assessment of how liberty is faring in our time.
Freedom House, which was founded in 1941, began its annual efforts to measure the progress of freedom at the height of the Cold War in 1955. After gaining increasing prominence in the 1970s, the Survey took [End Page 127] on new significance with the dizzying changes after 1989. Compiled with assistance from Freedom House regional experts, journalists, international consultants, a variety of nongovernmental organizations, and human rights specialists, the Survey covers all of the world's countries and related territories.
Although the idea of attempting to measure freedom may seem overly ambitious, the Survey is proof that it can be done. Freedom—defined as "the chance to act spontaneously in a variety of fields outside the control of government and other centers of potential domination"—is broken down into the two major categories of civil liberties and political fights, and each country is rated in each of them on a scale of 1 to 7 (1 being the most free and 7 the least). Countries are then classified as "free," "partly free," or "not free" on the basis of their aggregate scores. Aside from the rankings, there is a brief yet remarkably informative narrative section on each country, along with data on population, purchasing power parities, life expectancy, and ethnic composition.
In his overview, Freedom House executive director R. Bruce McColm notes that 72 countries changed their ratings in 1992 alone. This represents unprecedented dynamism, even when compared with the revolutionary year of 1989, when only (!) 27 countries changed ratings.
The surprisingly virulent, if predictable, new challenge before the world is extreme and aggressive nationalism, which has clearly brought into question the ability of democratic institutions to cope with the daunting, often paradoxical problems of the emerging world. Forces inimical to liberty were unleashed by rapid political change, suggesting—writes McColm—that a diplomacy which "places democracy and human fights at its center" is necessary in order to create a world environment that is not only more free and prosperous but also more secure.
The methodology used by the Survey rightly assumes that "without a well-developed civil society it is difficult, if not impossible, to have an atmosphere supportive of democracy" since "a society that does not have free individual and group expression in nonpolitical matters is not likely to make an exception for political ones." It comes as no surprise that no country rates low on civil liberties and high on political rights.
The Survey's approach is not political in any narrow sense of the term: ratings are not meant as commentaries upon any particular government, since a congeries of politically relevant forces—including some things that government has little control over—determines the evaluation. Nor does the designation "free" imply that a country may not have serious problems or that human rights organizations will have nothing to do there.
Although the Survey is impressively accurate and objective, it is possible to find the occasional debatable evaluation. Thus Estonia, for example, is described as merely "partly free" on the ground that there [End Page 128] are "ethnic limits" to voting eligibility. This is too harsh, since few countries allow foreign citizens to vote in national elections. Estonia's requirements—which include three years' residence (starting on 30 March 1990), taking an oath of allegiance, and having a working knowledge of approximately 1,500 words of Estonian—hardly seem unreasonable. The general secretary of the Council of Europe, Catherine Lalumiére, is reported to have described Estonia's citizenship law as one of the most liberal in Europe.
Latvia is less liberal in this respect than Estonia, yet the two are rated the same in political rights and civil liberties. Latvia's citizenship requirements have yet to be decided...