Freedom's hour has arrived.
Despite a century marred by tyrants, holocausts, and wars, human freedom has made historic strides during the past 100 years. Some analysts are calling the 1900s the "Democratic Century."
Just look at the evidence.
*One hundred years ago, the dominant forms of government were monarchies and empires. Hundreds of millions lived under tyrannical rule. Today, the last colonies are gone. So are the empires.
*In 1900, not a single country allowed women to vote. Not even the United States. Today, 62 percent of all nations - with 3.4 billion people - enjoy universal suffrage.
*For centuries, governments - not the people - tightly regulated information. Today, radio and the Internet are undercutting authoritarian controls, and speeding the flow of news and e-mail, even to remote corners of the world.
Everything's not perfect on the freedom front, of course.
Countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea still deny citizens some basic rights. Other nations, like Singapore, are paragons of economic freedom, but fall short in other liberties.
In fact, civil libertarians like Human Rights Watch slap the US on the back of the hand for its failures. For example, Watch criticizes the US - with the world's largest prison population - for the "brutal" tactics of prison guards and police.
The US is also chastised for locking up hundreds of thousands of people (mostly minorities) for nonviolent drug crimes, and for use of the death penalty, even against juveniles. Only four other nations execute juveniles: Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
Yet overall, optimism prevails. Two recent studies have detailed the tremendous expansion of human rights around the world. One report was from Freedom House, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting democracy; the other by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Freedom House, based in New York City, surveys the worldwide status of political and civil liberties every year. Its newest findings:
Eighty-five nations are now "free," meaning that they have universal suffrage, maintain political and economic freedom, and respect basic civil liberties. Of these, 27 are ranked as the most free, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Belize, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Finland, and the Scandinavian countries.
Fifty-nine nations are rated "partly free," meaning that liberties are often marred by corruption, weak rule of law, ethnic strife, or civil war. Among those nations are Nicaragua, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Jordan, Venezuela, Russia, Turkey, and Malaysia.
Forty-eight nations are rated "not free," meaning that their people are denied basic political rights and civil liberties. Among the leading nations in this group: Egypt, Kenya, Angola, Iran, Pakistan, China, Burma, Cuba, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea.
The other report, "Index of Economic Freedom," is produced each year by the Heritage Foundation in Washington, and The Wall Street Journal. The study indicates that it's not unusual for economic freedoms to emerge prior to political and civil liberties.
It concludes, for example, that Hong Kong is the freest place in the world to do business, and that Singapore is a close No. 2, even though neither jurisdiction is a role model for civil libertarians.
In contrast, the Freedom House study, which looks at a broader range of freedom issues, calls Hong Kong only "partly free," on a par with Indonesia. And Singapore's overall freedoms are roughly equivalent with those in Haiti.
Edwin Fuelner, president of Heritage, concedes that Singapore has some problems with press freedom, but argues that Hong Kong is better than Freedom House suggests. Yet whatever the current problems in those two entities, Mr. Fuelner says that unshackling economic restraints can be even more important than the right to vote in moving a society toward freedom.
He points to Russia, where there are already many political rights, but where "crony capitalism" and other problems are producing "the worst picture of what capitalism is all about." Political freedom in Russia, yes. But economic freedom, no.
In contrast, Fuelner singles out Taiwan, where economic freedom came first, and a free political system followed. He suggests: "Economic freedom is more likely to lead to political freedom faster and better than political freedom leads to economic freedom."
Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch agrees that there are cases where economic freedom has led to political rights - but that's not always so. Case in point: Indonesia, where economic freedom outpaced social and political liberties under an authoritarian government.
The Heritage study says that in addition to No. 1 Hong Kong and No. 2 Singapore, the world's freest economies, are: No. 3: New Zealand. No. 4: Bahrain, Luxembourg, and the United States (tie). No. 7: Ireland. No. 8: Australia, Switzerland, and United Kingdom (tie). No. 11: Canada, Chile, El Salvador, and Taiwan (tie). No. 15: Austria and the Netherlands.
Adrian Karatnycky, president of Freedom House, says multiple forces are driving the world toward greater liberties. Radio spreads democratic ideas around the world, at very low cost, even in nations with high illiteracy, he says. Television is important, he says, but its impact pales next to the Internet.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society