RSF Press Freedom Index vs. GDP

March 2012  |  Status: Second Draft

Some time ago, I read Paul Graham’s essay, “The Word ‘Hacker’”. Towards the end of his essay, Graham speculates that there might be a correlation between civil liberties and a nation’s wealth.

Let me put the case in terms a government official would appreciate. Civil liberties are not just an ornament, or a quaint American tradition. Civil liberties make countries rich. If you made a graph of GNP per capita vs. civil liberties, you’d notice a definite trend.

A couple of days ago, I had a sudden urge to verify this purported correlation between GDP and civil liberties. I don’t know why; maybe I finally got fed up with all those dictatorial countries posting near-record growth rates year after year. Anyway, in just a few minutes, I was able to find this, this, and this (PDF), among many other studies that concluded the same: there’s a certain degree of correlation between GDP and corruption, GDP and life expectancy, GDP and sexual liberation, GDP and perceived happiness, GDP and the Human Development Index, and so on and so forth.

But what about civil liberties? Graham’s point wasn’t about corruption or sexual liberation. The point he was trying to make in that essay was that the “hacker mindset” — questioning authorities, tinkering with everything, and never taking anything to be sacrosanct — is not only a right to be protected but also something that is necessary for economic development. What would be the best metric with which to measure civil liberties?

Then I thought of the Press Freedom Index, an annual report produced by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF). RSF’s mission is to advocate the free flow of information, and in particular, to help journalists who got on the wrong side of their governments because they said something the powers that be didn’t like. Every year, RSF collects information from journalists around the world and compiles a ranking of over 170 countries. That’s probably about as accurate a representation of the right to dissent as we can get.

Without further ado, here’s a graph with the RSF Press Freedom Index on the X-axis and GDP per capita (nominal) on the Y-axis. GDP data was pulled from Wikipedia, which I believe has become a pretty reliable source for this kind of information nowadays. If the text is too small to see, please click on the image to see the full version.

A lot of countries are crowded near the bottom of the Y-axis, reminding us how many human beings are still struggling to survive each day. I probably could have made the bottom of the graph less crowded by using a logarithmic scale on the Y-axis, but decided against it because the visual was so striking. (The linear scale is also easier for ordinary people to understand.) Those dots are Bangladesh, the slums of Mumbai, and the earthquake-stricken neighborhoods of Haiti. So many people stuffed into so little real estate, with so little food and medicine to go around.

Anyway, back to civil liberties. The graph allows us to make a few conjectures:

So, in the end, this little informal study of mine appears to confirm the spirit, if not the letter, of Graham’s speculation. Countries may be endowed with different levels of resources and geopolitical conditions over which they have little control, but if they want to make the most efficient use of the human capital that they do possess, they’ll have to get rid of their Dictator first. As Graham says in the same essay:

I think a society in which people can do and say what they want will also tend to be one in which the most efficient solutions win, rather than those sponsored by the most influential people.

If you want to play with the data, replace the GDP figures with PPP, or make prettier graphs than what I’ve been able to come up with, here’s a CSV file of the data I used.