How to Measure Democracy – The Freedom House Survey of Political and Civil Liberties

Freedom House was founded almost sixty years ago by Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie and other Americans concerned with the dangers that faced democracy. Freedom House is led by a Board of Trustees composed of Democrats, Republicans and Independents; business and labor leaders; former senior government officials, scholars, writers and journalists. It conducts a large array of U.S. and overseas research, advocacy, education, and training activities that promote human rights, democracy, and free market economics, the rule of law, independent media, and U.S. engagement in international affairs (Freedom House: 2002).

Freedom House started publishing in 1973 and its aim was to provoke a discussion about the levels of political freedom. Even if the survey rated the level of freedom in all the countries in the world, actually it was concerned with the measurement of political democracy. Only one person performed the first surveys without any research staff. This may be an advantage because of the possible biases that a research staff might have. The survey was also considered by some as too rightist, and Freedom House itself continues to have a somewhat pro-Republican reputation. The critics were usually too general with no emphasis on the indicators or other elements of the surveys. As any survey that contains a large number of cases this also gives only a rough account of the development of democracy. It often disregards certain nuances that are connected to the relations between institutions, or how certain institutions as well as procedures take different shapes from country to country.

Gastil (1991) notices that the first period surveys were concerned with more institutional features that often, as in the case of Latin America, do not reveal a real democratic development. Even if several Latin American countries have relatively open elections there is an oligarchy that transforms elections in something symbolic.

Freedom House provides a minimal definition of democracy as being “a political system in which the people choose their authoritative leaders freely from among competing groups and individuals who were not designated by the government. Freedom represents the opportunity to act spontaneously in a variety of fields outside the control of the government and other centers of potential domination” (Freedom House 2002). Contradicting this definition, among the criteria they consider in rating political systems one can also find “socioeconomic rights”, “freedom from war”, “freedom from gross socioeconomic inequalities” and “property rights” (Gastil 1991: 32-3; Ryan 1994: 10-1).

The Freedom House ratings rely on a published checklist of political liberties and civil rights, but it has never been announced how this checklist is actually used in the process of rating the state of political and civil rights. By political rights the survey refers to permitting people to freely take part in the political process that represents the method by which the policymakers are chosen to make effective decisions. By civil liberties Freedom House means “the freedoms to develop views, institutions, and personal autonomy apart from state” (Freedom House: 2002).
Each country is analyzed using as references descriptions in news, books or scientific journals. Already here it is easy to notice a first possible caveat. A change in a year in a country might not affect the rating of the country immediately and there is an inevitable element of subjectivity introduced by relying on a single judge. It bears stressing though that as time passed, the number of available sources increased and the checklist started to become more complex. Now the sources have increased in number and are based on information provided by the web and from the several institutions and non-governmental organizations.

As the sources increased in number, the staff of Freedom House increased rapidly. In this way all countries of the planet could come to be covered. But inevitably there remains a great deal of uncertainty in the validity of the ratings regarding little known underdeveloped countries. This critique can be addressed to all world surveys since they inevitably depend on sources of information that are easy to access.

Freedom House divides territories into related and disputed. Related territories refer to colonies, protectorates and island dependencies of sovereign states between the two not being any serious political disputes. Puerto Rico, Hong Kong and French Guyana are in this category. These are enjoying a large range of political liberties and the majority is categorized as “free”. Disputed territories are areas in sovereign states that are dominated by a minority that is in a violent dispute with the majority and its status is threatened. Usually the majority of population from these territories wants to secede from the sovereign state. Examples might be Tibet, Kashmir and Abkhazia. For these territories Freedom House assigns labels of “Free”, “Partly free” and “Not free” without giving scores. The same status enjoy the micro-states like Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Rapanui (Easter Island), Falkland Islands, Niue, Norfolk Island, Pitcairn Islands, Savalbard and Tokelau. Uninhabited territories like Johnston Atoll owned by the US are excluded from the survey.

Freedom Houses uses seven-point scales for rating political rights and civil liberties, but the exact coding rules remain unknown. The freest rating is one and the least free is seven. This seven-point rating was maintained over time because changing the scale would lead too much confusion. The simple average of the scores on the two scales is converted into a three-point categorization of the countries as “free”, “partly free” and “not free”. The cutoff points between the three categories seem to have been established entirely arbitrarily, just as the rule about the equal weighting of the two sub-dimensions.

Even at the aggregation stage one can find certain inconsistencies. The countries rated by the two checklists (political rights and civic liberties) were considered free if the points received were 1-1, 1-2, 2-1, 2-2 and not free when receiving 7-7, 7-6, or 6-7. The problem is with the “partly free” category because it could happen that a country that has 6-5 is deemed not free in one year and partly free a year later, with no change in rating.

While the high correlation between the two ratings allowed the categorizing the countries into subgroups, from another perspective the correlation actually seems to high in that Freedom House’s ratings of political and civil liberties are apparently more closely correlated with each other than with other ratings of how democratic the political system is, prepared by different groups of scholars (cf. Figure 3 of Munck and Verkuilen 2002). Thus it appears that some countries get consistently higher (or lower) rating on both Freedom House scales than they would seem to deserve given alternative scholarly ratings of the state of political democracy.

The Checklist of Political Rights is as follows:
1. Chief authority elected by a meaningful process
2. Legislature recently elected by a meaningful process

Alternatives for 1 and 2:
a. no choice and possibility of freedom
b. no choice but some possibility of rejection
c. government or single-party selected candidates
d. choice possible only among government-approved candidates
e. relatively open choices possible only in local elections
f. open choice possible within restricted range
g. relatively open choices possible in all elections

3. Fair elections laws, campaigning opportunity, polling and tabulation

4. Fair reflection of voters preferences in distribution of power
– parliament, for example, has effective power

5. Multiple political parties
– only dominant party allowed effective opportunity
– open to rise and fall of competing parties

6. Recent shifts in power through elections

7. Significant opposition vote

8. Free of military or foreign control

9. Major group or groups denied reasonable self-determination

10. Decentralized political power

11. Informal consensus; de facto opposition power

The investigator determines the presence or absence of these elements in the political process and checks other aspects of the system that might determine some negative or positive effects on the democratic process. Below we briefly note some possible sources of error, which, implicitly, are assumed to cancel out each on the aggregate by the Freedom House survey methodology and be randomly distributed across referees, countries and criteria.

Electoral Process: One extreme is that of inherited monarchies or the communist system in which election is performed by simple appointment. Even if there are elections they may be completely meaningless. Then a more democratic system can have election with one candidate but there is the possibility of rejection. All these are controlled electoral systems but with a higher or lower degree of freedom.

Multiple Parties: Not every system that has multiple parties is automatically more democratic. The dominant party systems in Asia have dominant party systems with more parties in opposition. But the activities of these parties are under tight control so that always the party in government could win.

Does elections cause meaningful change? Even if it can happen that one party wins more elections, if a party has support over 70% percent in several elections then something is wrong. Another indicator is the size of the opposition. If a party has over 90 % in elections, the opposition is nonexistent. In this case we can hardly speak about democratic election.

Military Influence: In this case cases range from countries that do not have armies like Iceland to cases in which the military rules directly. These armies usually come to power through the use of force and do not have any kind of legitimacy. The army is a legitimate pressure group in society as long as it does not use force in achieving its ends. The Latin American states have a tradition of having army influence in politics and the measurement of the degree of influence might be problematic. What is important is to keep in mind that the item should measure the level of political violence as a means in preserving power.

Self-determination: This item measures the degree of possibility of meaningful participation in the political process. People should not feel outsiders to the political system and there should be some apparatuses that promote specific, local interests. It is about the degree of autonomy and decisional power of local governments.
Decentralization of Political Power: The indicator tests how groups from periphery can get access to center and have success in politics. One example might be the access of Scottish nationalists to the parliament in UK that shows the level of decentralization of institutions.

De-facto Opposition Parties and Consensus: In any country there should be a minimum level of general consensus so the electoral process would not become a mean of division in society. The electoral process should be an arbiter of diverging interests.

The Checklist for Civil Liberties is as follows (here the survey is looking for patterns and balances in activities, rather than failures to observe particular human rights standards):
12. Media/literature free of political censorship
a. Press independent of government
b. Broadcasting independent of government

13. Open public discussion

14. Freedom of assembly and demonstration

15. Freedom of political or quasipolitical organization

16. Nondiscriminatory rule of law in politically relevant cases
a. Independent judiciary
b. Security forces respect individuals

17. Free from unjustified political terror or imprisonment
a. Free from imprisonment or exile for reasons of conscience
b. Free from torture
c. Free from terror by groups not opposed to the system
d. Free from government-organized terror

18. Free trade unions, peasant organizations, or equivalents

19. Free businesses or cooperatives

20. Free professional or other private organizations

21. Free religious institutions

22. Personal social rights: including those to property, internal and external travel, choice of residence, marriage and family

23.Socioeconomic rights: including freedom from dependency on landlords, bosses, union leaders, or bureaucrats

24.Freedom from gross socioeconomic inequality

25.Freedom from gross government indifference or corruption

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