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Archive for the ‘Free Markets’ Category

The Index of Economic Freedom is my favorite annual publication from the Heritage Foundation. It’s a rich source of information, using dozens of data sources, about economic liberty around the world.

I first wrote about the Index back in 2010 and shared the bad news that the U.S. score dropped dramatically in Obama’s first year.

Well, the new Index lets us see the net effect of Obama’s entire tenure. The worse news is that the U.S. score has dropped to 75.1 on a 0-100 scale. And the worst news is that this represents America’s lowest score in the twenty-plus years that the Index has been published.

The United States is ranked #17 in the latest Index. We’re only in the “Mostly Free” category, behind Luxembourg and the Netherlands and tied with Denmark.

The top-ranked jurisdiction, once again, is Hong Kong. And what’s really amazing is that Hong Kong actually increased it score. Indeed, all five nations in the “Free” category managed to increase overall economic freedom.

So congratulations also to Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Australia.

Here’s a map showing the entire world. The worst nations are in red, with North Korea at the very bottom, followed by Venezuela and Cuba.

By the way, Cuba jumped 4.1 points last year, so maybe Fidel’s death is the beginning of some much-needed liberalization.

For more information on the United States, here’s the breakdown of America’s score. As you can see, our worst category is “government size.” In other words, we tax too much and spend too much.

America’s best score is for “regulatory efficiency,” which helps to explain why the U.S. gets a top-10 score from the World Bank’s Doing Business.

Let’s close by comparing the United States with Hong Kong. This charts shows how our scores have changes over time, and also shows the average score for the entire world.

The biggest takeaway is that the U.S. basically is halfway between Hong Kong and the world average.

The great unknown, of course, is whether America’s score will go up or down under Trump.

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When trying to educate people about the superiority of free enterprise over statism, I generally show them long-run data comparing market-oriented jurisdictions with those that have state-driven economies. Here are some of my favorite examples.

It’s my hope that when readers look at these comparisons, they will recognize the value of economic freedom because it is very obvious that ordinary people become far more prosperous when government is small.

But there’s also another way of determining which approach is superior. Just look and see what happens when people are allowed to vote with their feet. Or, just as important, look at places where people are not allowed to vote with their feet.

The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, for instance, existed to prevent people from escaping the horror of Soviet communism. Likewise, people in North Korea and Cuba don’t have the freedom to emigrate.

Totalitarian governments realize that their citizens would escape en masse if they had the chance.

In free countries, by contrast, there’s no need to imprison people.

And that’s why this Imgur image is not only funny, but also a good summary of population shifts around the world.

I’ll definitely have to add this to my collection of libertarian humor.

To be sure, not everybody who moves from a statist hellhole to a prosperous capitalist society is motivated by an appreciation for liberty. They may simply want a better life and have no idea that national prosperity is a function of economic liberty.

And they may not even want to earn a better life. They may simply want to get on the gravy train of government handouts (which is why I’m not a fan of America’s dependency-inducing refugee program).

But I’m digressing. The simple moral of today’s story is that decent societies don’t have to imprison their citizens. That only happens in place where government is not only big, but also evil.

P.S. Unlike some libertarians, I like borders.

P.P.S. People also vote with their feet inside nations, and the lesson to be learned is that smaller governments attract more people.

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All things considered, I like small businesses more than big businesses.

Not because I’m against large companies, per se, but rather because big businesses often use their political influence to seek unearned and undeserved wealth. If you don’t believe me, just look at the big corporations lobbying for bad policies such as the Export-Import Bank, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, bailouts, and the green-energy scam.

It’s almost as if cronyism is a business model.

By contrast, the only bad policy associated with modest-sized firms is the Small Business Administration. And I suspect the majority of little firms wouldn’t even notice or care if that silly bit of intervention was shut down.

Rather than seeking handouts, small businesses generally are more focused on fighting back against excessive government.

That’s because taxes and red tape can be a death sentence for a mom-and-pop firm. Literally, not just figuratively.

The Daily News reports on the sad closing of popular restaurant in New York City.

For 25 years, China Fun was renowned…the restaurant’s sudden Jan. 3 closing, blamed by management on suffocating government demands. …“The state and municipal governments, with their punishing rules and regulations, seems to believe that we should be their cash machine to pay for all that ails us in society.” …Albert Wu, whose parents Dorothea and Felix owned the eatery, said the endless paperwork and constant regulation that forced the shutdown accumulated over the years. …Wu cited one regulation where the restaurant was required to provide an on-site break room for workers despite its limited space. And he blamed the amount of paperwork now required — an increasingly difficult task for a non-chain businesses. “In a one-restaurant operation like ours, you’re spending more time on paperwork than you are trying to run your business,” he griped. Increases in the minimum wage, health insurance and insurance added to a list of 10 issues provided by Wu. “And I haven’t even gone into the Health Department rules and regulations,” he added. …“For smaller businesses like China Fun, each little thing that occurs makes it harder,” said Malpass. “Each regulation, each tax — you put it all together and it’s just a hostile business environment.”

This is rather unfortunate, but perhaps it is a “teachable moment.”

There are two things that came to mind as I read this story.

  • First, at some point a camel’s back is broken by too much straw. Politicians often claim that a particular tax or regulation imposes a very small burden. Perhaps that is true, but when you have dozens of taxes and hundreds of regulations, those various and sundry small burdens become very onerous. I’ve made the point before that you don’t need perfect policy for the economy to function. You just need “breathing room.” Well, China Fun ran out of breathing room. A casualty of big government, though it remains to be seen if anyone learns from this experience.
  • Second, complicated taxes and regulations are a much bigger burden for small companies compared to big corporations. Every large firm has teams of lawyers and accountants to deal with tax and regulatory compliance. That’s expensive and inefficient, of course, but such costs nonetheless consume only a very small fraction of total revenue. For small businesses, by contrast, those costs consume an enormous percentage of time, energy, and resources for owners. For all intents and purposes, bad government policy creates a competitive advantage for big firms over small firms.

The moral of the story is that we should have smaller government. Not just lower taxes (and simpler taxes), but also less regulation and red tape.

Not just because such policies are good for overall economic performance, but also because small businesses shouldn’t be disadvantaged.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of how government tilts the playing field in favor of big companies (at least the corrupt big companies), let’s enjoy some humor on that topic.

Starting with Uncle Sam’s universal bailout application form. And we also have the fancy new vehicle from Government Motors.

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In the spirit of the Christmas season, I’m going to be uncharacteristically happy and upbeat today by pointing out that we don’t need perfection to have more prosperity. We don’t even need very good policy to enjoy growth.

All that’s really necessary is adequate policy. Just allow the private sector a bit of freedom (I’ve referred to this as giving the economy breathing room) and living standards will improve.

We should still strive for perfection, of course, and at least hope for good or very good policy. After all, there’s a big difference in the long run between an economy that grows 5 percent per year versus an economy that grows 3 percent annually, just as there is a big difference over time between an economy 3 percent each year compared to one that grows 1 percent annually.

But my main point is that lives all over the world have dramatically improved over time because, on average, we’ve had decent-enough policy.

Just consider the United States. We’ve never been a laissez-faire paradise. But there’s been enough economic freedom that, over time, we’ve enjoyed amazing improvements in living standards.

And the same is true for the world.

I’ve previously shared powerful videos from Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux that show the world has become much richer over time, and my colleague Marian Tupy has a website, Human Progress, that provides a wealth of data (including a calculator that allows you to see how things have improved since the year you were born).

Today, I want to share some very upbeat data from Our World in Data. Here’s Max Roser’s cheerful assessment of how life has gotten better over the past 200 years.

The reduction is extreme poverty is probably the most important chart, and presumably helps to drive the big improvements in other factors such as literacy, education, and child mortality.

And what’s driven the drop in extreme poverty, I would argue, is economic liberty. Not the full explanation, to be sure, but people all over the world generally have more freedom than ever before to engage in voluntary exchange.

Yes, the state’s footprint is still far too large. Yes, all nations could grow faster with better policy. But let’s be happy about the fact that even weak growth, over time, can make a meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary people. So cheer up.

P.S. I can’t resist adding a depressing footnote. The traditional cost of bad policy is weak growth, which means living standards increase at a much slower pace. But there’s something else happening in the world that we have to add to the mix. The global change in demographics, combined with the tax-and-transfer welfare states that exist in most nations, are a very dangerous recipe. My fear is that we may move from a world where the “traditional cost” of “weak growth” may be replaced by a world with a “new cost” of “macro instability.” In other words, in the absence of reform, more and more countries are going to face Greek-style fiscal and economic chaos. Moreover, the magnitude of the mess will be so large that the International Monetary Fund and other entities won’t be able to provide bailouts (which is how Greece is being propped up).

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There’s a meme on Facebook and Twitter that asks people to “confess your unpopular opinions.”

I suppose I could play that game by saying that I’d rather eat fast food than patronize most fancy restaurants (especially if I have to pay the bill!). And I’ve unintentionally played that game already by admitting that politicians aren’t always sinister and evil.

But I have something even more astounding to confess: My leftist friends are right when they assert that the free market destroys jobs.

Not only are they right, they probably underestimate the number of jobs that are destroyed by capitalism. Over time, millions of jobs vanish because of the greedy pursuit of profits.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute shares some very sobering data on how almost all of the big companies of the 1950s have faded over the past 60 years.

Comparing the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 to the Fortune 500 in 2014, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists. In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 59 years later in 2014, and almost 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged, or still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues). Most of the companies on the list in 1955 are unrecognizable, forgotten companies today (e.g. Armstrong Rubber, Cone Mills, Hines Lumber, Pacific Vegetable Oil, and Riegel Textile). …That’s a lot of churning and creative destruction, and it’s probably safe to say that almost all of today’s Fortune 500 companies will be replaced by new companies in new industries over the next 59 years.

And why did these companies disappear or shrink in size, thus leading to major job losses?

Mostly because capitalists, seeking profits, invested money in ways that displaced old technologies, hurt old competitors, and made old products less attractive.

Sounds terrible, right? Jobs are lost because of greedy rich people trying to increase their wealth.

And if you’re one of the people in the unemployment line, it is terrible.

But keep in mind that this process of creative destruction led to new technologies, new competitors and new products. And the net effect of all these changes is that – on average – we are much richer.

Mark elaborates.

…for that we should be thankful. The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy… In the end, the creative destruction that results in a constantly changing group of Fortune 500 companies is driven by the endless pursuit of sales and profits that can only come from serving customers with low prices, high quality and great service.

Indeed, this system is what has given us the “hockey stick” of human progress.

All this disruption and change is what enables our society, over time, to grow faster and produce more goods and services and lower prices.

At least when the market is allowed to operate with the right set of policies – what I call the recipe for growth and prosperity.

In my speeches, I sometimes make similar points by using historical examples.

  • I ask audiences to think about how personal computers have made our lives more enjoyable and productive, but I then ask them to ponder what happened to the people who had jobs making, selling, and servicing typewriters.
  • I ask audiences to think about how the automobile boosted productivity and increased mobility, but I then ask them to consider the lost jobs of people in the horse and buggy industry.
  • I ask audiences to think about how electrification and the light bulb improved the economy in countless ways, but I then ask them to speculate on the number of jobs that were destroyed in the candle-making sector.

The sad reality is that progress has a price tag. Yes, we are far richer because of great inventions that boosted productivity and improved lives. But that doesn’t change the fact that real workers with real families often experienced genuine anguish when jobs in some sectors disappeared. And that’s still happening today.

And workers are largely blameless when job losses occur. All they did was exchange honest work for honest pay. It was the capitalists who made mistakes by not managing companies effectively and not allocating capital efficiently (or, to be more charitable, they simply failed to anticipate major changes that were about to occur).

By the way, this isn’t an argument for government intervention. We would be much poorer today if politicians tried to save jobs every time there was creative destruction in the economy. Perhaps most important, every job that they “saved” would be offset by the jobs (and prosperity) that weren’t created or didn’t materialize because the clumsy foot of government replaced the invisible hand of the market.

What Bastiat taught the world in the 1800s is still true today. We have to consider both the seen (the jobs that are saved) and the unseen (the greater number of jobs that don’t get created) when contemplating the impact of government.

This is why I want the economy to be as dynamic and innovative as possible so that displaced workers can find new positions as quickly as possible, hopefully earning even more money.

Here’s a short video from Learn Liberty that teaches about this process of creative destruction.

P.S. There’s also another Learn Liberty video that teaches about creative destruction. I’m a big fan of all their videos, including the ones on the Great Depression, central banking, government spending, and the Drug War. And the videos on myths of capitalism, the miracle of modern prosperity, and the legality of Obamacare also should be shared widely. You also should watch their videos on job creation, the price system, public choice, and the Food and Drug Administration.

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Economists are sometimes considered to be a bit odd, and the same thing is sometimes said about libertarians.

And since I’m a libertarian economist, I realize that makes me doubly suspect.

So when I’ve written about the desirability of market-based organ transplants (see here, here, and here), I realize some people will instinctively object because selling one’s organs is somehow distasteful and icky.

Or it makes people subject to exploitation. For instance, writing for the Washington Post, Scott Carney argues that organ sales would take advantage of the poor.

What would happen if the United States legalized the sale of human organs? …Whether we like it or not, we live in the era of globalization, and if the U.S. legalizes the market for body parts, there is no reason to think that international economies won’t play a role in how a patient decides to procure transplant organs. …According to the National Foundation for Transplants, a kidney transplant costs about $260,000. In the illegal organ markets in India, Egypt and Pakistan, the same procedure rings in at just shy of $20,000 — certified organ included. …The only thing stopping the typical American transplant patient from going abroad and buying an organ is the difficulty of making contact with a broker and the threat of what might happen if they get caught. …the market for human body parts is a lot like the one for used cars: They’re only worth what someone is willing to sell them for. …hundreds of thousands of people are available and willing to sell their flesh for pennies on the dollar.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that I shouldn’t be allowed (and the government shouldn’t be allowed) to block a willing seller and a willing buyer from engaging in a mutually beneficial exchange.

But folks like Mr. Carney think that poor people will get exploited.

…it’s helpful to review what happened in the market for human surrogate babies. In the United States, it is legal to pay a woman to carry a child… Once the market was clearly defined in the United States, other countries, with looser definitions of human rights, fought for their share of the market. In 2002, India became the go-to destination for procuring a budget surrogate womb. To the surprise of no one, the Indian industry soon began to cut corners. Women were housed under lock and key in houses known to the press as “baby factories.” …Late last year, India finally outlawed surrogacy tourism after non-stop incidents and official inquiries into the surrogates’ well-being. Now the commercial surrogacy boom seems to be moving to Cambodia where regulations are still loose.

So what’s his bottom line?

We cannot solve our own organ shortage by exploiting the poor and helpless people on the other side of the world.

I don’t doubt that there are shady people willing to exploit the poor by not giving them relevant information and/or not fully compensating them, though that’s not an argument against organ sales (just as similar periodic bad behavior by car salesmen and insurance brokers isn’t an argument against markets for automobiles and life insurance).

Instead, it’s an argument for governments in places such as India to do a better job at protecting and upholding the rule of law, which is one of the few proper and legitimate functions of a state.

A Wall Street Journal column by two attorneys from the Institute for Justice approaches the issue more dispassionately, noting that a market for bone marrow could save many lives.

Hemeos is aimed at one of the most pressing problems in medicine: the shortage of bone-marrow donors to combat deadly blood diseases. Thousands of Americans are waiting for a lifesaving donor, and thousands more have died waiting. Marrow donors provide blood stem cells, which reproduce continuously in the patient and restore the ability to make healthy blood. …Blood is drawn from one arm, the blood stem cells are skimmed out, and the blood is returned through the other arm. Donated marrow cells regenerate quickly and fully. Despite the ease of donating, thousands of patients with leukemia or other blood-related disorders are desperately searching for donors because a specific genetic match is required. …Hemeos plans to revolutionize donor recruitment by taking one simple step: compensating donors with a check for around $2,000. As with every other valuable thing in the world, we will get more marrow cells when we pay for them. It’s Econ 101.

Sounds great, right? A classic example of a win-win situation!

Except, well, government.

In 1984 the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) made it a federal crime to pay donors. Unlike plasma, sperm and egg donation—for which compensation is legal and common—paying marrow donors remains illegal. The result? Shortages, waiting lists and unnecessary suffering.

Fortunately, the courts have stepped in.

Ms. Flynn has three girls with Fanconi anemia, a genetic disorder that causes marrow failure. Wanting to do everything to save her girls and others, Ms. Flynn, along with several cancer patients in need of bone marrow, sued the Justice Department to end the ban on compensating marrow donors. A federal appeals court ruled in 2011 that because Congress expressly said that NOTA wouldn’t affect compensation for blood donation, …Congress couldn’t have intended the law to restrict compensation for marrow donations using modern, nonsurgical techniques.

But, still, government is government.

But a year after Ms. Flynn won her case, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it might enact a regulation effectively nullifying the court’s ruling—and thus Ms. Flynn’s victory. …And while HHS fiddles, patients die. Thousands of Americans have died awaiting a marrow transplant since HHS embarked on this needless diversion. How many could have been saved? And of those still alive, how many could have received a transplant faster and with a better-quality donor? This is a lesson in how a faceless, lumbering bureaucracy smothers innovation and optimism.

Here’s a very powerful video from IJ on this issue.

It’s hard to watch that video and think about what you would do if your children faced the risk of death.

Sally Satel of the American Enterprise Institute adds her two cents, writing on kidney sales from the unique perspective of being someone who has received two kidneys solely because of human kindness.

I am almost obscenely lucky. Within a 10-year period, two glorious women rescued me from years of grueling dialysis and a guarantee of premature death. …tremendous generosity allowed me to live many years in peace instead of constant worry. …I understood the general reluctance to donate. After all, giving a kidney is by no means risk-free (roughly a 0.02 percent, or 2 in 10,000 mortality rate, a 3–5 percent rate of serious complications, and perhaps a 25 percent chance of minor complications). Also, some people want to “save” their kidney lest, say, their own child needs it. Then, too, a lot of people are simply put off by surgery, and some handful—no one knows the extent of this group—can’t afford time off and lost wages. Of the 120,000 people waiting for organs, 101,000 are waiting for kidneys.

And for those who aren’t as lucky, Sally points out that current policy puts them in a very difficult position.

My transplants were a matter of private policy. My friends saved me—out of empathy, out of principle, out of affection. I’m beyond fortunate for them, because our public policy is failing far too many people who need organs. Twenty-two people die each day because they cannot survive the wait for an organ; 12 of those die from lack of a kidney in particular. The core of the problem is that prospective donors are legally required to relinquish an organ in the spirit of “altruism.” Despite the risk they take on, they are not allowed to benefit materially in any way. This mandate is part of the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act, the law that established the national system of organ procurement and distribution. Any exchange of an organ for any sort of “valuable consideration,” is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine.

Indeed, current policy is causing people to needlessly die.

The original law was intended in good faith. The point was to prevent a classic free market where only wealthier patients could afford to buy organs; it also sought to avert the scenario where poor donors were the “suppliers” for the well-off. …But more than enough time has now elapsed to conclude with certainty that an altruism-only system is sorely inadequate. And as in so many realms, it is the poor (especially poor minorities) that have suffered the most because of the deficit. They are less likely to be referred for transplant, more likely to die on dialysis, and less likely to receive an organ from the national pool even when they are referred.

One lawmaker is trying to push policy in the right direction.

In May, Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright introduced a bill called the Organ Donor Clarification Act of 2016. Its goal is to permit study of the effect of rewarding people who are willing to save the life of a stranger through living donation: Not through a free market with direct cash payments… Rather than large sums of cash, potential rewards could include a contribution to the donor’s retirement fund, an income tax credit or a tuition voucher, lifetime health insurance, a contribution to a charity of the donor’s choice, or loan forgiveness. Only the government, or a government-designated charity, would be allowed to distribute these benefits. (The funds could potentially come from the savings of stopping dialysis, which costs roughly $80,000 a year per person.) In other words, needy patients would receive kidneys regardless of their ability to reward donors out of their own pockets. …The donors’ kidneys would be distributed to people on the waiting list according to the rules now in place.

Congressman Cartwright’s proposal obviously wouldn’t create a genuine free market. But it would allow compensation to become part of the equation. So his proposal presumably would save lives compared to the current system.

Oh, by the way, it’s worth noting that criminalization of organ sales doesn’t fully stop the practice. Other nations step in, often with policies that are disgusting.

…one of the most horrific markets operating today: Communist China’s selling of organs harvested from prisoners of conscience. Ten thousand “transplant tourists” travel annually to communist China, where they pay top dollar to get organs transplanted on demand. …Free countries may not be able to stop this horrific practice, but they could reduce the demand for these organs by allowing free people to exercise the choice to sell their organs. Currently, free countries rely only on altruism, which has resulted in severe shortages of organs and black markets.

In other words, the policies advocated by Mr. Carney (the first story cited at the start of this column) would enhance the profitability of the Chinese organ-harvesting system. That doesn’t seem like a good outcome.

Here’s a map showing how the kidney trade works right now, with the underground economy playing a big role.

My bottom line is that poor people would get more money and have more legal protections if the system was fully legalized and operating above ground.

P.S. When I wasn’t busy causing trouble in college, I would sell my plasma twice weekly. The $15 I received from the medical company was sufficient to cover my food budget. They exploited me and I exploited them.

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Libertarians are sometimes described as people who don’t want the government to interfere in either the bedroom or boardroom, which is a shorthand way of saying that there should be both personal freedom and economic freedom.

Based on this preference for liberty and a desire to avoid government coercion, what’s the most libertarian nation in the world? Is it Australia, which I recommended as the best option for escaping Americans if the U.S. becomes a failed welfare state?

Not quite. According to the new Human Freedom Index, Australia gets a very good score, but the most libertarian-oriented place in the world isn’t even a country. It’s Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China.

Hong Kong earns its high score thank to it’s number-one status for economic freedom, combined with a top-20 score for personal freedom.

For what it’s worth, European nations dominate the rankings. Other than top-rated Hong Kong, New Zealand (#3), Canada (tied for #6), and Australia (tied for #6), every single nation in the top 20 is from the other side of the Atlantic.

So kudos to our friends from across the ocean. Most of them have big welfare states, but at least they compensate with free market policy in other areas, along with lots of personal freedom.

And what about the United States? We’re ranked #23, which certainly is decent considering that there are 159 countries that are scored, but obviously not worthy of superlatives.

The infographic below contains the specific scores for the United States. As you can see, our economic freedom score (7.75 out of 10) is worse – in absolute terms – than our personal freedom score (8.79 out of 10). But since more nations (especially in Europe) get high scores for personal freedom, our relative ranking for economic freedom (16 our of 159) is better than our relative ranking for personal freedom (28 our of 159).

And if we look at the sub-categories for personal freedom on the left side, you’ll notice that America’s main problem is a very mediocre score for rule of law. Thanks, Obama!

Let’s now look at the nations that have the most personal freedom.

I already mentioned that the United States is in 28th place, so we obviously don’t show up on this top-20 list. But you will find 17 European nations, along with Australia (tied for #12), Canada (#15), and Hong Kong (tied for #19).

By the way, Switzerland is the only nation to be in the top 10 for both personal and economic freedom. So maybe that country’s improbable success isn’t so improbable after all. You do the right thing and you get good results.

And honorable mention to Ireland, Australia, and the United Kingdom for just missing being in the top 10 in both categories.

In case you’re wondering why Hong Kong had the highest overall score even though it was “only” #19 for personal freedom, the answer is that the jurisdiction scores so much higher for economic liberty than the European nations.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I find it surprising that China, which ranks rather low for overall freedom (141 out of 159), is so tolerant of widespread freedom in Hong Kong. I assume (hope?) this is a positive sign that China will evolve in a positive direction.

P.P.S. The very last country on the list is Libya, so perhaps we can conclude that the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama intervention has not produced good results. Meanwhile, I’m guessing that the thugs in Caracas (154 out of 159) are happy that Venezuela isn’t in last place.

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