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John Stossel: U.S. 17th in freedom rankings

| Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, 8:57 p.m.

Is America the world's freest country? Sadly, no. When researchers started detailed international comparisons, it came in second or third. This year, it ranked 17th in the newly released Human Freedom Index, compiled by the Fraser and Cato institutes.

They compared economic freedoms such as freedom to trade, amount of regulations and tax levels, plus personal freedoms such as women's rights and religious freedom.

Their new report concludes that the five freest countries are, in order, Switzerland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Ireland and Australia. Index co-author Ian Vasquez says, “The United States used to have one of the freest economies in the world. It used to be a two, three or four, and then government started to grow (and) spend more.”

Republicans and Democrats, under Presidents Bush and Obama, voted for increases in spending and regulation. The result was that we fell further in the freedom ranking.

A good ranking matters, not just because freedom itself is a good thing, but because economic freedom allows people to prosper.

Consider Hong Kong, No. 2 on the overall freedom list but No. 1 in economic freedom. In just 50 years, people there went from being among the world's poorest to among its richest because Hong Kong's government puts few obstacles in the way of trying new things. It took me just a few hours to get legal permission to open a business in Hong Kong. In New York, it took months. In India, I didn't even try — it would have taken years. That's a reason India stays poor. Bureaucrats have the power to review and reject most any new idea. Fewer new ideas get tried.

The absolute worst places to live are countries that lack both economic and personal freedom. At the bottom of the ranking — totalitarian North Korea wasn't ranked because the researchers couldn't get accurate information — are Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Venezuela and, mostly because of the war there, Syria. You aren't free if you worry you might be killed.

Second-to-last-place Venezuela was Latin America's richest country before socialists promised to spread the wealth. As for Libya, Yemen, Egypt — well, the Arab Spring didn't turn out as well as some hoped.

Atop the list, I wasn't surprised to see New Zealand and Australia. They always do well. But Ireland? I associate Ireland with poverty. For 150 years after English rulers caused the Potato Famine, Irish people left Ireland for a better life. Vasquez says Ireland recently changed: “They reduced taxes ... spending, reduced regulations. They opened up to trade.” Now people want to live there.

Greece is beautiful but ranks 60th, mostly because it lacks economic freedom. China got richer, but because personal freedom is so limited, it ranks 130th.

I asked Vasquez how to summarize a free country. “You can lead your life any way you want as long as you respect the equal rights of others,” he answered. “You (decide) what job you want to take, what kinds of things you want to do, who you want to marry, what you want to do on your free time, where you want to live.”

John Stossel is author of “No They Can't! Why Government Fails -- But Individuals Succeed.”

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