Freedom House

There is an organization out there that actually measures how free different countries are. Freedom House has been doing this work since 1972 and are strongly endorsed by the WSJ Editorial page, my personal measure of acceptability. This year, in an unusual twist, they took a special look at freedoms in the US.

The Economist magazine reviewed that work, an excerpt:

The judicious tone of “How Free?” will undoubtedly disappoint leftists. Freedom House bends over backwards to give the authorities the benefit of the doubt. Other countries have recalibrated the balance between freedom and security in the face of terrorists who want to inflict mass casualties on civilians. America’s recent sins, however, are minor compared with those of its past. Newspapers have published highly sensitive information without reprisals. Congress and the courts have repeatedly stepped in to restore a more desirable constitutional balance.But the verdict on the Bush years is nevertheless sharp. “How Free?” not only details and condemns the administration’s familiar sins, from Guantánamo to extraordinary rendition to warrantless wiretapping. It reminds readers of its aversion to open government. The number of documents classified as secret has jumped from 8.7m in 2001 to 14.2m in 2005—a 60% increase over three years. Decade-old information has been reclassified. Researchers report that it is much more difficult and time-consuming to obtain information under the Freedom of Information Act.

All articles referenced are copied in full at end of post.

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Land of the free?

May 8th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Liberty in America is not quite as revered as its leaders pretend

NO OTHER country puts as much emphasis on “freedom” as the United States. Patrick Henry demanded “liberty or death”. The national anthem calls America “the land of the free”. Great reformers from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King have urged America to live up to its ideal of “freedom”. When a group of French Americanophiles wanted to flatter the United States, they sent the Statue of Liberty.

And no other country boasts as much about its mission to give freedom to the rest of the world. Woodrow Wilson thought that he had a God-given duty to bring liberty to mankind. George Bush regards his foreign policy as a crusade for freedom—“the right and hope of all humanity”.

But how good is America at living up to its own ideals? A new study by Freedom House tries to answer this question. The fact that Freedom House has devoted so much attention to the United States is significant in its own right. Founded in 1941 by a group of Americans who were worried about the advance of fascism, Freedom House is now the world’s leading watchdog of liberty. The fact that “Today’s American: How Free?” is such a thorough piece of work makes it doubly significant.

The judicious tone of “How Free?” will undoubtedly disappoint leftists. Freedom House bends over backwards to give the authorities the benefit of the doubt. Other countries have recalibrated the balance between freedom and security in the face of terrorists who want to inflict mass casualties on civilians. America’s recent sins, however, are minor compared with those of its past. Newspapers have published highly sensitive information without reprisals. Congress and the courts have repeatedly stepped in to restore a more desirable constitutional balance.

But the verdict on the Bush years is nevertheless sharp. “How Free?” not only details and condemns the administration’s familiar sins, from Guantánamo to extraordinary rendition to warrantless wiretapping. It reminds readers of its aversion to open government. The number of documents classified as secret has jumped from 8.7m in 2001 to 14.2m in 2005—a 60% increase over three years. Decade-old information has been reclassified. Researchers report that it is much more difficult and time-consuming to obtain information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Government whistleblowers have repeatedly been punished or fired—even when they have been trying to expose threats to national security that their bosses preferred to overlook. Richard Levernier had his security clearance revoked for revealing that some of the country’s nuclear facilities were not properly secured. Border security agents have been punished for pointing out that the border is inadequately monitored, and airport baggage-handlers and security people for pointing to weaknesses in the security system. The Office of Special Counsel, which was established to enforce laws designed to protect the rights of such people, is widely regarded as “inept and even hostile to whistleblowers”.

“How Free?” also has some hard things to say about America’s criminal-justice system. The incarceration rate exploded from 1.39 per 1,000 in 1980 to 7.5 in 2006, driven, among other things, by the war on drugs. America now has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the world: 5.6m Americans, or one in every 37 adults, has spent time behind bars. Even though prison-building is one of the country’s great growth industries, overcrowding is endemic, with federal prisons operating at 131% of capacity. America is also one of the few countries to ban felons and, in some states, ex-felons from voting. At any one time 4m Americans—one in every 50 adults—is disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions. This includes 1.4m blacks, or 14% of the black male population.

Freedom House’s strictures are, if anything, too soft. America insists on criminalising victimless crimes such as prostitution. Last week Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the so-called DC Madam, committed suicide; the government had thrown the book at her, including racketeering and mail fraud, because it really wished to penalise the arranging of assignations between consenting adults. In her suicide note to her mother she wrote that she could not “live the next six-to-eight years behind bars for what you and I have both come to regard as this ‘modern-day lynching’.”
The wrong lemonade

The American legal system also seems to have lost any sense of proportion. Christopher Ratte, a professor of archaeology, recently tried to buy his seven-year-old son a bottle of lemonade at a baseball game. He was handed a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, an alcoholic drink, by mistake. Officials noticed the boy sipping the drink and immediately whisked him off to hospital. He was fine. But the family was condemned to legal hell: the police at first put the seven-year-old into a foster home and a judge ruled that he could go home only if his father moved out. It took several days of legal wrangling to reunite the family.

“How Free?” repeatedly argues, even as it dredges through the most depressing material, that the American system has proved admirably self-correcting. The response of civil-liberties advocates has been swift and dogged. The Supreme Court has forced the administration to extend the Geneva conventions to inmates in Guantánamo and other military prisons. Congress has reined in warrantless wiretapping. The press has repeatedly published leaked material.

This is perhaps a little optimistic—the courts have been slow and Congress half-hearted. But nevertheless the self-correction is now entering a higher gear. All the current presidential candidates, Democratic and Republican alike, have condemned torture and rendition and declared their desire to close Guantánamo. Freedom House’s new publication will be an important contribution to this process of self-correction.
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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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