How Media And Academic Bias Make Us Stupid: The “Personal Freedom Study”


“STUDY: American personal freedom now ranks below 20 other nations…” reads a link in this morning’s Drudge Report.

That is NOT what the study shows….not even close.

The link goes to an Examiner story headlined “Under Obama, U.S. personal freedom ranking slips below France.” That’s a little better, but it’s also misleading. Both headlines are attempts to spin a study that tells nobody anything about how much freedom there is in the U.S., under President Obama or otherwise. The study, meanwhile, is easily spun because it was badly conceived, is itself of dubious value, and was also probably the result of a researchers grinding their own axes.

It is early, and I am pretty sure that the cable news sharks and the internet pundits will be latching on to this garbage study in droves, with the result being mass confusion in the public. That’s right: the world of scholarship and research, and the world of journalism, will conspire to make the public less informed than it already is, setting it up for the handiwork of future Jonathan Grubers and the parties that employ them.

You see, the study doesn’t even purport to measure “freedom” in any objective way across different nations. The research involved polling citizens of various nations and asking them how they felt about certain aspects of freedom as defined by the researchers. Thus the real result was not, as the headlines implied, that a study found the U.S. less free than 19 other countries. What the study claims to show is that that “citizens of countries including France, Uruguay, and Costa Rica are more satisfied with their freedom, as defined by the Legatum Institute’s “Prosperity Index,” than Americans are. This conclusion, itself tainted baloney, was misstated by the Examiner story as “The research shows that citizens of countries including France, Uruguay, and Costa Rica now feel that they enjoy more personal freedom than Americans.” That would indicate that the respondents were asked, “Do you enjoy more freedom than Americans?” They were not, however. I wish they were. If so much of the world really thought the U.S. was not the Land of the Free, they would not be so eager to come here.

The Legatum Institute, a London group, seems to have an unstated bias toward showing that the U.S.isn’t as “free” as it should be, which is a useful propaganda exercise sure to attract foreign contracts, since the U.S. is the freedom standard for the world. Thus it engages in this massive and invalid apples and oranges exercise in garbage statistics, even worse than the dog chart I discussed last week. From an American viewpoint, the results of the study are encouraging, indeed inspiring. Americans are not satisfied with their liberty, and want more of it.


That means that our culture, despite all the attempts to attack U.S. values by insisting that we should think and live like everyone else in the world because when “everybody does it,” it must be right (See: socialized medicine; the death penalty), remains unique, self-confident, still rooted in the original founding values of 1776 and, best of all, dissatisfied. That’s the American public I know and love: perpetually ticked off, angry at its leaders, feeling over-taxed or underserved, and bristling at anyone in authority telling  it what it must do in its own interests. The day Americans are satisfied with their level of freedom, and the infinitely varied ways individuals define it, will be the day that the American experiment has officially failed.

The news reports on the study give some faint hint at this. “The cross-country comparisons in the index should be taken with a grain of salt,” says the Examiner. “The perception of what freedom means in New Zealand, which has the highest personal freedom ranking, may vary from how Americans measure their own personal freedom.” May? The nations ahead of the United States in the study’s freedom category start with New Zealand and include such giants of industry and leaders on the world stage as Iceland, Belgium, Finland and Malta. I highly value the freedom to watch a baseball game whenever I choose. I can see a Broadway show tonight, if I want to. I can write anything I please on my blog, and not be charged with a crime….unlike Germany, for example, one of those uber-free nations ahead of us on the list, where I could be charged with a crime for challenging the truth of the Holocaust, or saying nice things about Himmler. The freedom to praise the Nazis understandably isn’t high on the priority list of Germans. It is for the ACLU. That Icelanders may not have the same priorities is of no interest to me whatsoever.

A lot of the citizens of those nations ahead of us feel “free” because they are taxed to pay for a national health care system. A lot of citizens here told pollsters that they felt less free because they were promised a new health insurance law that allowed them to keep their plan if they liked their plan,”period.” Most of the citizens in those countries from 1-19 don’t understand that at all. Big Brother said that Slavery is Freedom. A lot of people in the world believe that, maybe even a majority. Lots of countries want their citizens to believe that.

In the United States, we can’t agree on what freedom is. Some feminists think freedom means, among other things, having sex whenever you want, having someone else pay for your contraception, and aborting the resulting fetuses when the contraceptive fails, without any input from their sex partners of course, so the ex-mothers are free to continue their desired career path, or free to fit in their prom dresses. Some other Americans think freedom means not having to pay for the risks of someone else’s sex life, or perhaps having a say in whether the life you helped created has the freedom to live or not. I’m reasonably certain some fetuses, if they were included in the poll, would argue that freedom means that they should be free to be born.

Democrats say they believe that individuals should be free to vote in our elections without proving that they are citizens, or that they aren’t voting for dead people. Republicans say they believe that elections should be free of fraudulent voters. Are we freer when terrorist cells are foiled by the NSA listening in on our phone calls—being free from dying a horrible death is a nice freedom– or more free when we don’t have to worry that Uncle Sam is reading our e-mails? Are we more free when we can buy a gun to protect our business in Ferguson from the race riots to come (thanks to our freedoms of speech and assembly), or more free when nobody is afraid of an enraged bullying victim shooting  up our kids’ school? Are we more free when the police have wide latitude to use their discretion to intercept criminals before they complete a crime, or more free when all racial and ethnic profiling is forbidden, and there is more crime as a result? (They don’t worry about racial profiling in Iceland.) Good questions, and there are thousands like them in a complex, activist, perpetually dissatisfied culture whose dissatisfaction fuels innovation, options, progress, conflict and change.

Do our journalists, currently in the process of making us less free by manipulating information and withholding news that they fear won’t lead us to their favored political results, understand the nation they are supposed to serve? I wonder. I know that the British partisans of the Legatum Institute don’t get the U.S. at all, or they would not give out quotes like, “This is not a good report for Obama,” which is what Legatum Institute spokeswoman Cristina Odone told reporters. The report isn’t necessarily bad for Obama; the report just proves that Americans, as usual, don’t agree about what being free means, that we are not complacent, and that we have the freedom to argue about it, and make some changes, as we did in the last election. The results of that ongoing argument may not please Obama, but I hope he’s proud anyway. It’s his country too, and the fact that we feel free to disapprove of him in as many ways as we do is, after all, a very good and important thing.


Source: Examiner, Legatum

Graphic: Ten Biggest Myths

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25 thoughts on “How Media And Academic Bias Make Us Stupid: The “Personal Freedom Study”

  1. Love to see the poll QUESTIONS. You won’t find this odd, I know, but a poll’s results can be pre-determined largely by HOW the questions are phrased. One really good reason not to trust polls.

  2. The more I study history, the more I come to believe that US culture is unique when it comes to freedom. At the end of the Civil War, we had a land army second to none, skilled in techniques that Europe wouldn’t learn until WWI. We possessed a fleet of ironclad warships with high-velocity turrented cannons, impervious to the fleets of Europe and capable of easily defeating any ship they had. At the conclusion of that war, we put the fleet in mothballs and sent the troops home. Europe was dumbfounded. The world was dumbfounded. Any other nation on Earth would have used that unstoppable military colossus to conquer their enemies (or at least Canada). We didn’t want to conquer, we just wanted to live our lives in peace and freedom. The world doesn’t understand that about us. They don’t understand why George Washington retired to his farm. They don’t understand why we didn’t destroy the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. They don’t understand why we think people should have a right to defend themselves. They don’t understand why we feel people have a right to fail. American freedom is precious and must be preserved. Trying to be like everyone else would be a great loss.

    • Maybe you’re just stroking my ‘Muricansim but I like it. Are there any article or studies that go into the international communities reaction to American disarmament after the civil war? I’m gonna do some googling now, but maybe you’ve got a specific piece you were thinking of.

      • You should read Anthony Trollope’s contemporary North America. That will show you the educated and informed – but incorrect, because looking to the past – view that the north would win, but only get a negotiated victory as it was economically impractical both to attain complete military victory and to follow it up with a sustained and forcible reintegration (which is why Wellington advised against doing that to the U.S.A. in 1815); that view considered that the only material issue was how much of the south would secede successfully. In fact, what happened in the war matched more closely what Washington Irving had described in the Conquest of Granada (which even has a march to the sea and a successful blockade), with Reconstruction roughly matching the century or so of Spanish history after that.

        What that means is, that it is only to the modern eye used to modern approaches that what the north did looks like a rapid disarmament and reversion to a peaceful condition. To the contemporary eye, it was the reverse – a break with the norm of rapid disarmament and reversion to a peaceful condition, with a long period of unusual occupation and forcible assimilation under Reconstruction. The customary norm was still what happened to France after the Franco-Prussian War (i.e., later), indemnities secured only by a brief occupation of easily and cheaply secured strong points; even the far more total victory of the War of the Triple Alliance left a rump of Paraguay that was dealt with that way while only a part was digested by the victors.

    • Michael R., I am afraid you have been given a caricature of the rest of the world a century and a half ago, and also more recently, thus:-

      – “We possessed a fleet of ironclad warships with high-velocity turrented cannons, impervious to the fleets of Europe and capable of easily defeating any ship they had”. That is incorrect. The only vessels of that sort were littoral ships, unseaworthy in open waters, and even those weren’t that numerous. That is why (say) Lincoln rolled over on the Trent incident, and why a Spanish naval visit in the 1880s stimulated U.S. naval building (it highlighted Spanish superiority).

      – “The world was dumbfounded. Any other nation on Earth would have used that unstoppable military colossus to conquer their enemies (or at least Canada).” No, that was actually routine until the late nineteenth century, for sound economic reasons. It is one of the ironies of history that Napoleon’s diplomatic manoeuvring to involve the U.S.A. backfired by keeping British troops together long enough to be around for Waterloo, since they could not be disbanded until they were brought back from the British-American War. By that reasoning, the British-American War would have been followed by the British doing that in North America on the back of resources freed up from European commitments.

      – All those “They don’t understand why we”s are wrong; they suppose – wrongly – that everybody else would have done it differently. Yet very few other countries got where they were in their heydays as a result of conscious planning of that sort, and muddling through is far more typical. Even those like France that do plan like that have learned of others that don’t, and so do not expect conscious planning from others.

      • U.S. iron-clads were actually an outgrowth of Army vessels originally intended for river patrols (See U.S.S. Cairo pronounced Kay-Ro, like the syrup]) and, hence, were not well-suited for blue-water operations. However, it is POSSIBLE, but not likely, that those iron-clads could have made a difference in a European war with the U.S. Especially if the European Navies had attempted to sail into U.S. waters.

    • I’ll have to take exception to some of your characterizations of our armed forces at the end of the war. While one might argue that in the spring of 1864 there were two incomparable armies in Virginia, by the end of the war a major portion of those armies had been shot. The Army of the Potomac was just not the same as the one that marched south for its final campaign. Further, while I believe the soldiers of these armies had absorbed the lessons of all the new military technology, I would also maintain that few American generals had really learned the new military paradigms. I don’t wish to disparage them — it is simply that many of the accumulated teachings and experience of the previous century or two was being fundamentally changed. I don’t think most European generals really learned those same lessons until after WWI (if ever).

      Also, the American soldiers were motivated by the Cause of restoring the Union and reuniting the country. I daresay they had little interest in Europe and zero interest in conquering another country. Keep in mind that this was a volunteer army, citizen soldiers. Short of Great Britain or France actually attacking the United States, I cannot imagine the army would have consented to a European campaign.

      • ” Keep in mind that this was a volunteer army, citizen soldiers.

        Not so much. The draft was used extensively in the U.S., but allowed those able to afford it the right to hire someone else to serve for them. Irish immigrants were put into uniform at the dock, after disembarkation, and sent to a combat unit with no training. And, my guess, few if any Armies have ever been motivated by “Causes”, but by Sergeants with loud mouths.

        • Yes, the draft was used by the United States, but the quality of soldier yielded was not good. If the Union had had to depend on draftees in 1864 for the bulk of their armies, well, let’s just say Richmond would likely be a foreign capital today.

          One of the most amazing stories I ever heard about the Civil War was from early 1864. The 3 year terms of many of the veterans who enlisted in 1861 were expiring, and the Army had to go to those men and ask them to re-enlist. Now these were veterans who had seen everything the war had to offer, who had been through all the hardships and horrors and defeats. There was absolutely nothing the United States could do if they had decided to leave and go back home. They knew that if they stayed, chances were that many of them would be shot.

          Nonetheless, the majority of them (a vast majority in the Western armies) did, in fact, re-enlist. It meant that Grant would have an army capable of meeting the Confederates in his 1864 campaign that would end up finishing the war. And yes, many of them went on to be shot, killed, or maimed.

          I believe that if 75% of the men in a regiment re-enlisted, they were entitled to call themselves Veteran Volunteers instead of simply Volunteers. It was, rightly, considered an honor.

          So I’ll stand by my opinion about a Cause. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was a significant one.

  3. Something’s fishy about this study and its publication around now. This may be getting into Blakeart territory. But I swear: I saw a video recently that I believe was an excerpt from the HBO show, The Newsroom…I’ll be looking for it on YouTube…

    Anyway, the character played by Jeff Daniels goes into this Howard Beale-ish rant about how the U.S. is not the greatest country in the world anymore. One of his major rant-points, if I recall, was that there are lots of countries with “freedom,” (or, where people think of themselves as having plenty of freedom), and he proceeds to rattle off the names of a bunch of countries, with the evident intent of pooh-poohing how some Americans think there is SO MUCH freedom in their country, compared to other countries.

    I know the Newsroom rant was getting passed around on Facebook, right after the elections a couple of weeks ago. Could that study perhaps be, you know, just another reinforcing salvo of salve to the sore losing leftists in the wake of recent elections – combined with yet another little sprinkling of propaganda to resume promotion of those losers’ same-old narratives?

  4. The politician/marketer’s dreams where perseption is everything. I hate hand waving instead of substance, In the long run I have more respect for politicians with a screw loose than those to who only waffle and have no gumption. BTW, we need more gumption.

  5. If so much of the world really thought the U.S. was not the Land of the Free, they would not be so eager to come here.

    That looks like “survivor bias”. The second leg of that is false; most of the world is really not eager to go to the U.S.A. It only looks as if they are to people who draw their sample from those who do go to the U.S.A. – which omits all those who stay where they are or go somewhere else (e.g., in my case, the U.S.A. fell off my list of potential emigration destinations at about the same time as South Africa, leaving only Australia, Canada and New Zealand on the short list; and my mother told me that her Irish family – who were politicals who emigrated to France after the First World War – looked down on those Irish who went to the U.S.A. as mere economic refugees).

    … the U.S. is the freedom standard for the world.

    Um… that’s not the way it looks from here. It’s sweet that you think so, but really, you are mistaking your own channels of cultural transmission for the primary sources.

      • Dragin_dragon, your urge to be sarcastic has made you incoherent. For your remarks to become coherent, you would have to rework them into something like “that explains the 12 million illegal immigrants, not all from Mexico, that we are currently struggling with while none at all are trying to get into Europe, Australia, and other countries [emphasis added]” – because the ones you are dealing with form precisely the selected sample I told you was leaving out the others. It’s the others that disprove the thesis; the coherent form of your argument doesn’t leave them out, but it’s factually false because they are indeed trying by their thousands to cross the seas into Italy, Australia, and so on (with millions waiting behind them). Quite simply, what you are dealing with leaves out important data and conflates push factors with a U.S. pull factor anyway (even if people only ever wanted to go to the U.S.A., that still might say more about what they had lost than what they sought).

    • To a large extent, freedom — or your perception of it — is relative to your expectations and circumstances. What feels like comfortable freedom to you might feel like oppression to me, and vice versa.

      So while I think the U.S. is the greatest nation the world has ever seen, and that we do (or at least have in the past) set the freedom standard for the rest of the world, I realize that our perception of our own freedom is mostly determined by subjective factors, not the least of which is that Americans really, really, really want to believe that they live in the freest society in the world — as do the citizens of many other countries. Our views are colored by emotion, and there’s no way around it (and nothing wrong with it).

      And because I’m a thinking patriot and not a blind partisan, I see a lot of flaws in my country. So while I would say that I live in a free society in general, I’d also say that I’m absolutely not satisfied with the amount of freedom we have in the U.S. right now.

      The institutions, traditions, and ethics that are most essential to liberty and to our continued prosperity are under corrosive attack, and if the erosion continues we’ll eventually be just another place that was once a colossus but now shuffles along behind more robust nations, taking refuge in what we consider our refined sensibilities while tsk-tsking at the brash effrontery of societies we no longer have the energy to keep up with (France, Spain, Italy, England, I’m looking at you).

      Whew… Okay, rant over. I had no idea that all of that was going to come out when I started typing. 🙂

    • Your country seriously infringes the rights of free speech, and disarms its citizens, and minimizes autonomy with a nationalized health care system. If US freedom doesn’t look free from over the pond, you just prove my point. Slavery is Freedom.

      • Now hang on, that’s a bait and switch, on the order of “my client didn’t do it, because he has an alibi:, “but I saw him there myself”, “my client is still innocent, because Joe Bloggs confessed, which means that his alibi is correct after all”.

        You could be 100% right with your “tu quoque” just there, the U.S.A. could be 100% all that you think it is and likewise other countries – and your original argument’s second leg would still be 100% wrong from only looking at people who want to go to the U.S.A. Even if your conclusion were correct, your argument is defective regardless.

        • Nothing tu quoque in my comment at all. I correctly pointed out that your subjective comment was ridiculous on the facts. The benefits of US freedoms, roioted in its founding principles, unique among nations, is res ipsa loquitor.

      • Perhaps I’m misreading you. If you are claiming there that other countries have less freedom than the U.S.A. and therefore it forms the standard of freedom, that’s a nonsense of a different sort, though still a nonsense even if all your charges against other countries were sound (and it’s cherry picking to rate those things but not the reach of the U.S. tax system, say). Neither the U.S.A. nor any country forms that standard; that rests on abstractions given practical substance. Countries and peoples were seeking it long before there ever was a U.S.A. (Corsica mere years before), which should show you that the standards and ideals are of a different sort.

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