Live Free or Die -- Literally

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When Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty, or give me death," it was a revolutionary cry for freedom from British rule. Little did he know at the time that his words were prophetic because there is a strong relationship between economic freedom and life expectancy.

The Heritage Foundation calculates an Economic Freedom Index annually for countries around the world based on ten factors: business freedom, trade freedom, fiscal freedom, government spending, monetary freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom, property rights, freedom from corruption, and labor freedom. With the index, one can compare the impact of economic freedom to quality of life measures.

The Heritage Foundation uses the index to break down the nations into five subgroups ranging from free economies to repressed economies. Based on the data, it is possible to compare the subgroups for factors such as average life expectancy, income and happiness. Table 1 shows the subgroups based on the 2010 index compared to the average life expectancy, per capita Gross Domestic Product (Purchasing Power Parity), and the Gallup Happiness Index in the year the economic freedom index was calculated.

The impact of economic freedom on average life expectancy is the most striking aspect of the data shown in the above Table. More specifically, the average life expectancy is over 80 years in all seven economically free countries (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Canada, and Ireland). Unfortunately, there are over 70 countries that are mostly unfree or repressed which represent almost 5 billion people with shorter life spans: in none of these individual countries is the average life expectancy over 80.

It should be noted that countries in the same economic freedom bracket often have very different results. An example would be the United States vs. Estonia. While both countries are rated as mostly free, they have very different life expectancies (78 vs. 74.7), per capita GDP ($40,403 vs. $16,365), and Gallup Happiness Index levels (57 vs. 17). While the economic freedom of the two nations may be similar today, historically, they were very different. The United States has a long history of economic freedom and was listed as a "free" economy as recently as 2009. Estonia was under Soviet control and would have been classified as "Repressed" had the economic freedom index been available before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. Time is required for the impact of changes in economic freedom to be fully realized.

From an experimental perspective, the best way to prove cause and effect would be to take a common group of people and split them into subgroups that have different levels of economic freedom for an extended period of time. Regrettably, such an experiment has already been performed on the Chinese people (plus Germans and Koreans). Here, the people in Hong Kong have experienced a long period of economic freedom, while Taiwan has remained mostly free and the People's Republic of China was repressed or mostly unfree. These three subsets of the Chinese people show remarkably different results based on their level of long term economic freedom (see Table 2).

As can be clearly seen, there is a distinct difference in average life expectancy and per capita GDP among the different groups.

Often, people with good intentions restrict economic freedom in the name of helping those in need. Whether it is restricting labor freedom, trade freedom or other economic freedoms, these restrictions ultimately harm those they intend to benefit. The most successful way to help fight poverty is to promote economic freedom.

Leaders of each nation must choose the level of economic freedom for its people. One path leads to health, wealth and happiness. The other path leads to death, poverty and misery. Choose wisely.


Charlie Musick ( is a chemical engineer in research & development.  

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