Think You Live in the Freest Country? Think Again…

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”

In 1883, poet Emma Lazarus wrote these words as part of a sonnet to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. The text of the sonnet, “The New Colossus,” is now mounted inside the pedestal’s lower level.

According to Lazarus, freedom is the single unifying characteristic the “huddled masses” migrating to the US sought. And celebrating that freedom is part of almost every aspect of our culture, from singing the national anthem at stadiums to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Blogger Gabriella Hoffman captured this sentiment when she wrote in 2011, “We live in the freest and most tolerant country in the world. This fact is simply irrefutable. If you don’t like it here, go elsewhere.”

Unfortunately, Gabi is wrong on many levels. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, for instance, lists the US as the 12th freest economy in the world. Instead, Hong Kong and Singapore have long dominated these rankings.

Many commentators – including myself – have criticized the foundation for ignoring political freedom in its ratings. For instance, Hong Kong’s overseer, the People’s Republic of China, has warned politicians not to back independence. In Singapore, authorities suppress political opposition and bring charges against critics of the government, charges such as sedition, defamation, and “wounding religious feelings.”

Then there’s corruption. Transparency International ranks the US as being considerably more corrupt than most other first world countries. Corruption starts at the top: our Congress is the best that lobbyists and donors can buy. It’s no wonder that only 19% of Americans say they trust the government. In 1958, 73% did.

But if a wider measurement taking into account other aspects of freedom became available, wouldn’t the US be at the top?

No, and it’s not even close. According to a recent broad-based study of freedom, the US is only the 11th freest country on earth. In the Legatum Prosperity Index, the US ranks #1 only in one measurement of freedom: health. In other measures – economic, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, social capital, personal freedom, and safety and security – the US trails other countries, sometimes by a wide margin.

Take safety and security, for instance; the US ranks 33rd in the world by this measure. The Legatum study cites political violence and one of the highest rates of property theft in the world as justification for this ranking. The state-sponsored violence in the US – police shootings and capital punishment, for instance – is roughly equivalent to Saudi Arabia or Ukraine.

By other measures, the US has a good, although hardly stellar, performance. It ranks 11th in each of the four categories of economic freedom, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, and social capital. It ranks ninth in education and 15th in personal freedom.

You might think that the Legatum Institute is a left-wing think tank bent on bashing the reputation of the US. It’s not. It was founded and funded by the Legatum Group, a private investment partnership based in Dubai. The Institute’s chairman is Alan McCormick, a former vice president of marketing for J.P. Morgan.

And the Institute isn’t simply lobbing intellectual firebombs into the American political system. It’s also published some influential research into the real issues facing democracies today – with debt constituting one threat, possibly the largest. For instance, in 2012, the Institute published a paper by former president of the American Enterprise Institute, Christopher DeMuth, arguing that, “debt has become a means of pleasing and placating voters while avoiding democratic accountability.” That’s exactly right, and we see this lack of accountability at every level of government, up to and including both candidates for president in the upcoming US election.

If you’re wondering what the freest countries in the world really are, here are the top 10, according to the Legatum study:

  1. Norway
  2. Switzerland
  3. Denmark
  4. New Zealand
  5. Sweden
  6. Canada
  7. Australia
  8. The Netherlands
  9. Finland
  10. Ireland

None of these countries are classic “tax havens” in the sense of imposing ultra-low tax rates on their residents. Indeed, Denmark has what are arguably the world’s highest tax rates. In addition, it’s not easy to qualify for residence in any of these countries unless you either work in an occupation in which a shortage exists or (in a few of them) make a large investment.

If you decide on the investment route, the least expensive option to qualify for legal residence is in Ireland. Under that country’s Immigrant Investor Programme, the least expensive option to qualify for legal residence is to invest €500,000 (about US$544,000) in an approved investment fund.

I suspect that most readers – and I count myself among you – are content living in the US, even if it’s not the world’s freest society by almost any measure. But America’s sinking ratings on various measures of freedom do underscore the importance of coming up with an alternative – a Plan B for investment, legal residence, even citizenship.

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