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The world’s least-free country

By John Silveira

Issue #77 • September/October, 2002

Here's a quiz: Which is the freest country on earth? The answer's easy. It's the United States. Ask anyone. And why are we the freest? Not because we're the richest. Long before we became the world's richest nation we still regarded ourselves as the freest, and millions flocked to our shores to enjoy that freedom. The reasons we are free are: First, because of the philosophical basis upon which this country was founded. It is assumed that individuals have rights, e.g., free speech, the right to bear arms, the right of a jury trial before our peers should the government try to imprison us, seize our property, or deprive us of our lives, etc. Second, we have a Constitution that limits the powers of a central government to intrude into our lives.

And third, our rights have been enshrined in the First 10 Amendments to our Constitution.

Many other countries, like England and Canada, also have their own Bill of Rights, but those rights are at the pleasure of the government. It says so right in their laws. So they are not "unalienable" rights. Only our country, in all of history, was founded on the assumption that the individual has rights that exist apart from the government and not at its pleasure. Then, in 1868, the Constitution was amended to say that even the states cannot violate our unalienable rights. Pretty powerful stuff. These things form the basis of our freedom and are the reasons why the United States is the freest country on earth.

So if we can identify the freest country, can we also identify that which is the least free? I've tried to find a qualitative way to make that determination, but it's difficult, because no country has a constitution that guarantees tyranny. Even the constitutions of the old Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China read as if those countries were free. You'd never have guessed that what happened under Stalin and Mao could have happened, just from reading those documents. (Of course, you'd never have guessed we once enslaved a huge portion of our own citizens or screwed the Indians out of a large portion of a continent by reading our Constitution. But that's another story.)

What I'm getting at is it's hard to determine qualitatively which is the least free country on earth. So I decided to see if there is a quantitative way to measure it. I found two. First, the country with the most laws would be a candidate for that which is least free. Laws regulate people, so the country which is the least free would surely regulate its people the most. Second, the country with the greatest percentage of its population in jail would also be a candidate for the least free, for obvious reasons. And, if, by chance, some country not only had the most laws but also had the largest percentage of its own population behind bars, we'd at least have a candidate for the least free country on the planet.

So which country has the most laws regulating its citizenry? After looking high and low I discovered that the country with the most laws—not just today, but in all of history is...geez Louise, it's the United States. We not only have the most laws in all of history, but we also turn out more new laws and regulations to manage our people every single year than most countries turn out in decades.

How can it be that the world's freest country needs more laws to tell its people what to do than the Soviet Union, Red China, Nazi Germany, or any two-bit banana republic dictatorship? And it's not like we've always had so many laws. Most of them are new. In 1814, when President Madison and the Congress fled Washington, DC, ahead of the invading English troops bent on arson, they took the papers of the federal government with them. It was easy. They loaded all the laws and regulations into a few boxes and left. This was all the federal government had generated to regulate us in the first 38 years of our existence. Today, Congress and anonymous bureaucrats generate more laws and regulations than that in minutes.

Maybe we should consider the other criterion. Which country imprisons the highest percentage of its own citizens? Let's see, Russia's up there. And so is the Union of South Africa. And there are some little potentates as we see in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Hmm, but who leads the list. On, no! Folks, you're not going to like this. It's...it's...the United States, again, heading the list of least free countries. The prime reason is the War on Drugs, the war waged against our country's own citizens "for their own good."

When I presented my results to others, some said if you obey the laws, you have nothing to worry about and you'll still be free. I pointed out that that's the case in every country. Toe the line and you won't get in trouble. If the women in Afghanistan wore their burkas and didn't drive or get an education, then by that definition they could still be free. I also pointed out that Jews in Nazi Germany, blacks in the postbellum South, and many American Indians did toe the line and tried to be good citizens but they still got screwed. So obeying the law doesn't guarantee freedom.

Another said, despite all our laws, we have safeguards in that we have a jury system and that those laws are filtered through juries. I pointed out that more and more agencies regulate us without juries. E.g., the IRS, family courts, OSHA, the EPA, etc. don't allow juries. And where juries are allowed the courts exclude people who realize they can nullify bad laws. This is hardly a recipe for freedom.

So, somehow, I have arrived at a paradox. What, on paper, would appear to be the freest society in the world appears, in practice, to be among the most oppressive. Does this bother anyone besides me?




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