For generations, people worldwide who yearn for freedom have looked to the US. Here, every citizen can speak his mind, pursue his passion, and exercise other liberties that are unjustly denied many others around the globe. But that doesn’t mean we’re above reproach in all areas of freedom. Take economic freedom, which continues to deteriorate a little more each year. I’m not basing this on hearsay, or on the latest jobs report. The Wall Street Journal Every year, The Heritage Foundation and release a detailed, country-by-country policy guide known as the Index of Economic Freedom. And the news for the US has been getting a little worse each year over the last several editions. In the 2013 Index, the US managed to hold onto its 10th-place finish from the year before, despite an overall decline in its score. My last Index column concluded with this sentence: “Or is this our last year as a top-10 finalist in the Index?” According to the 2014 Index, our 20th anniversary edition, the answer is yes. The US now stands at No12 globally. Even among North America’s economies, we have little to brag about: Canada, sixth globally and one of many that improved last year, has a comfortable lead on us.
As recently as 2008, the US ranked seventh worldwide, had a score of 81 (on a 0-100 scale, with 100 being the freest), and was listed as a “free” economy (a score of at least 80). Today, it has a score of 75.5 and is “mostly free”, the Index’s second-tier economic freedom category. Before explaining why, let’s explain how the editors of the Index determine the scores. Each country is evaluated in four broad areas of economic freedom: (1) Rule of Law. Are property rights protected through an effective and honest judicial system? How widespread is corruption - bribery, extortion, graft, and the like? (2) Limited Government. Are taxes high or low? Is government spending kept under control, or is it growing unchecked? (3) Regulatory Efficiency. Are businesses able to operate without burdensome and redundant regulations? Are individuals able to work where and how much they want? Is inflation in check? Are prices stable? (4) Open Markets: Can goods be traded freely? Are there tariffs, quota or other restrictions? Can individuals invest their money where and how they see fit? Is there an open banking environment that encourages competition? For the most part, the US does very well on these measures. You can’t finish 12th out of 178 countries if you don’t have a large degree of economic freedom. Property rights are guaranteed (though they declined by five points last year). Our court system is independent. The average tariff rate is commendably low (1.3%). Business start-up procedures are relatively efficient. The labour market is flexible. But the US is still lagging. “Substantial expansion in the size and scope of government, including through new and costly regulations in areas like finance and healthcare, has contributed significantly to the erosion of US economic freedom,” the Index editors write. Incorporating a business takes an average of five days, but the cost of our regulatory requirements has risen by more than $60bn since 2009. More than 130 new regulations have been imposed. Government subsidies are on the increase.
The news is no better when it comes to taxes. The top corporate rate remains at 35%, and the top individual income tax rate is 39.6%. The overall tax burden has risen to 25.1% of total domestic income, meaning that government confiscates $1 out of every $4 earned. Total government spending is another weak spot for the US. It amounts to more than 40% of gross domestic product, or what we produce in a year. That’s much too high. “The US is the only country to have recorded a loss of economic freedom in each of the past seven years,” the editors write. Will we pressure our elected officials to take bold and serious steps to reverse that trend? Or make it eight straight years next time? -