Shortly before Americans trekked to the polls this month, the
Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal released the
2001 edition of their "Index
of Economic Freedom," a ranking of 155 countries produced every
year since 1994. Economic freedom is closely correlated with both
the wealth of a nation and the ability of its people to enjoy
satisfying livelihoods. The annual index measures the progress of
various countries as they pursue economic freedom for their
citizens, spotlights any backsliding that’s taking place, and tries
to act as a reminder that an individual’s prosperity and well-being
is, above all else, a function of their liberty.
though this is, none of the three broadcast networks reported the
findings of this year’s survey, released on November 1. More
troubling, the concept of economic freedom has been virtually
excluded from the networks’ news agendas this year, even as their
heavy coverage of the presidential campaign spotlighted tax and
regulatory proposals which would affect Americans’ economic freedom.
The Heritage/WSJ index is built from 50 variables and
looks at a wide range of societal factors, all of which affect the
ability of an individual to freely pursue their own economic goals.
Among them: trade barriers, tax rates, regulatory burdens, and
corruption. The variables are weighted and countries are ranked as
"free," "mostly free," "mostly unfree," and "repressed." In the
latest ranking, Hong Kong and Singapore topped the list as most
economically free, while Libya and North Korea were the most
economically repressed countries.
The United States, which ranked seventh overall, was given high
marks for our respect for property rights, monetary policy and
banking and finance rules, but we received poor grades for the
relatively heavy fiscal burden of government — the only measure
where Castro-controlled Cuba (which ranked 152nd overall) was rated
as less repressive than the U.S.
According to Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, "The
overall lesson is both simple and profound: To enjoy the benefits of
economic freedom, a country must embrace a fundamental commitment to
that aim. A nation cannot undertake economic reform piecemeal and
expect economic freedom to flourish."
"Nations such as Hong Kong and Singapore thrive only because of
their continuing dedication to open markets and sound economic
policy. Other nations are in danger of losing their economic freedom
either through deliberate policy change (as in Ireland and New
Zealand) or gradual erosion due to complacency (as in the United
States and the United Kingdom)," Feulner added.
A manifestation of the complacency that Feulner warned about is
the general lack of news media interest in the broader issue of
economic freedom. During this election year, the presidential
candidates offered a wide number of specific proposals involving
taxes, government spending and regulations. Yet while most media
coverage focused on whether or not a proposal would yield its
promised results in the specific policy area it targeted, network
reporters never focused on the accumulated effect of increased
taxes, spending and regulations on individuals and the overall
That omission by the networks created a contextual vacuum in
which few voters could be expected to consider the aggregated
effects of the candidates’ proposals on the economic freedom we
Indeed, a Nexis search reveals only two instances in which a
network audiences could have heard the phrase "economic freedom"
this year. One was actually a re-broadcast of a news special that
first aired in 1999 by ABC’s John Stossel, "Is American Number One?"
Stossel told viewers that "economic freedom has allowed millions of
poor people [in Hong Kong] to become middle class. In fact, the
average income here now is almost equal to that in the United
States, and it’s higher than that in many of the world’s richest
countries." He also showed how a relative lack of economic freedom —
namely bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles to business creation —
contribute to poverty in India.
The other reference came on June 19, when CBS Evening News
anchor Dan Rather reported that "human rights and economic freedom
may also have been the driving forces behind a human smuggling
scheme in Britain, a bid by 60 desperate people to enter the country
illegally." Correspondent Mark Phillips relayed the account of how
58 out of 60 Chinese died from intense heat when they stowed inside
a cargo ship, seeking liberty.
In spite of its importance, many in the media taught wrong
lessons this year on whether economic freedom is a desirable goal
for a society. According to the Heritage/WSJ ranking, Cuba is
the most economically repressed nation in the Western hemisphere,
and the fourth-most repressed on Earth, yet some U.S. journalists
offered domestic audiences a romanticized version of life on the
Communist-controlled island during the Elian Gonzalez case.
Two Newsweek writers, for example, equated poverty with
purity and scorned the introduction of U.S. dollars as a corruption
of the Communist Eden: "Elian might expect a nurturing life in Cuba,
sheltered from the crime and social breakdown that would be part of
his upbringing in Miami," Brook Larmer and John Leland wrote in the
magazine’s April 17 issue. "The boy will nestle again in a more
peaceable society that treasures its children. But his life will
oscillate to the contrary rhythms of this central Cuban paradox. As
a shining symbol of the communist state, he will have access to the
corrupting fruits of the new economy. He’ll enjoy the best Cuba has
to offer, the things only dollars can buy."
"To be a poor child in Cuba may in many instances be better than
being a poor child in Miami, and I’m not going to condemn their
lifestyle so gratitutiously," declared Newsweek’s Eleanor
Clift on the April 8 broadcast of the McLaughlin Group.
Criticized, Clift amended her comments. "I can understand why a
rational, loving father can believe that his child will be protected
in a state where he doesn’t have to worry about going to school and
being shot at, where drugs are not a big problem, where he has
access to free medical care and where the literacy rate, I believe,
is higher than this country’s," she stated on Fox News Channel’s
The O’Reilly Factor on May Day.
The notion that countries such as Cuba — where the government
throttles the inherent right of an individual to pursue their own
livelihood — offer a "nurturing life" is an absurdity that is belied
by the data on economic freedom. Statism has consigned the people of
Cuba to live in the darkness of poverty for decades. When
journalists ignore that fact, they mislead their audiences both
about the harm caused by repression and the benefits of liberty.
In the preface to this year’s report, Feulner wrote that
prosperous and free nations such as ours can still be at risk if
they lose sight of the freedom on which their well-being is based.
"Accustomed to enjoying the benefits of economic freedom, they all
too often begin to undermine it, either through inattention or
because they believe that it is less important than new
‘protections.’ What these nations fail to realize is that
undermining the foundations of one’s own prosperity risks bringing
about the end of that prosperity."
In spite of Feulner’s warning, economic freedom remains a concept
that receives little or no coverage from the broadcast networks that
are still the main source of news for tens of millions of citizens.