By the time you are reading this, it is likely that we will be on a flight to Country No. 2 in our circumnavigation of the earth. Since we are at the front end of this expedition, this seems like a good time to say a word about the criteria used in ranking these countries.
How Do You Determine a Country’s Star Rating?
Yesterday I published the first article in this series. In it, I gave New Zealand 7 out of 10 stars. Some agreed and others objected. That is to be expected. I am, after all, offering my opinion. We are doing this a bit like movie reviews. That is not a quantitative process. In the end, it isn’t about the film’s budget, the time spent making it, or even who is in it. That’s just data. For most, the measure is much simpler: Did it entertain them?
Here, the measure is different, but the process is much the same. This is quite deliberate. I am reacting against the statistical approach. The Left loves data because it can be manipulated to justify dubious agendas. Twain was right when he said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” And surely a nation is more than the mathematical sum of its economic, demographic, and governmental parts. The quality of life—of a single life—cannot be reduced to a number. Advocates of abortion and euthanasia employ that kind of thinking with devastating effect. In using statistics on income, intelligence, and education, they have judged the lives of millions to be unworthy of living. Planned Parenthood has made an industry out of it. Iceland celebrates it. Yes, I am convinced the Devil is a bureaucrat and a statistician.
This is not to say, however, that the data is irrelevant. It isn’t. Cost of living, life expectancy, access to clean water, murder rates, frequency of regime changes, etc. offer insight into a culture, but they cannot tell you the quality of it. For instance, the Left will frequently cite Scandinavia’s lower crime rates as a proof that it is better place to live. Is it? I don’t think so. That sort of reductionism is simplistic and deceptive. Western governments, in the name of safety and security, have been steadily paring down individual freedoms. In Western Europe, they have taken this farther than most. Ubiquitous surveillance and a lack of privacy are the norm. Life is regulated to such a degree that crimes are much harder to commit. On paper, these places are paradises.
Only they aren’t.
If you are from a truly free society, you can feel the lack of it in these countries. It’s like Huxley’s Brave New World—that is, in a word, creepy. In that novel, “John the Savage” opts to live outside the borders of utopia because he values human freedom and dignity more than modern comforts and healthcare. If forced to choose, I am with John. I’d prefer to forego a measure of safety and orderliness and take my chances in a free society.
And this brings me to my fundamental criteria:
- The Rule of (just) Law rules the land.
- Freedom—political, economic, and religious—are central. As the Western world continues its suicidal march toward socialism, all of these are being severely curtailed. Restricting free speech, again, in the name of safety, has become the means by which religious freedom is eroded.
- A nation’s history is also a factor. Why? Because it is the best predictor of the future. Historically, France has a penchant for strikes, uprisings, and revolutions; Russia and China have little regard for personal liberties and a habit of genocide; we know that Islamic states create cookie cutter societies and oppress non-Muslims; and Switzerland has demonstrated a commitment to pragmatic peace and commerce. Those histories matter.
- How is a country trending? Toward greater freedom, increased regulation, or tyranny?
- Social mobility is a key component. Can people, through hard work and talent, flourish within the boundaries of what is morally right? Or does the government actively conspire against such flourishing?
- What is life like for ordinary people? If it isn’t good, what chance have they of changing it?
- And what are the things most valued by that society? As a Christian, I believe there are absolute standards for some things (moral right/wrong) and not for others (cuisine and, say, architecture). As such, I am not simply evaluating these countries according to my own personal tastes; I am, rather, measuring them against a fixed point.
There are, of course, other considerations, but these are fundamental and they are not weighted equally.
Were I, however, to distill all of this into a simple phrase, I can think of none better than this:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.“
Good government strives for this. No doubt some will say that this is to apply an American standard to the rest of the world. I don’t think so. The framers of the Constitution were appealing to what they understood to be an absolute, universal standard of human rights. To quote the late Forrest McDonald, an American Constitutional historian of some eminence and a professor of mine: “The Declaration [of Independence] refers to God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Preamble [of the Constitution] introduces a document whose stated purpose is to secure the rights of life and liberty.“
For this reason, while New Zealand is a beautiful country with much to commend it, it is trending, like most of the Western world, in the direction of a less free and less just society. Even so, it rates a 7 out of 10 because the mechanisms of democracy are in place to reverse that trend. Furthermore, as a result of its geographic isolation, New Zealand has managed to avoid the migrant crisis that is convulsing Europe. That, and a strong economy are reasons to be hopeful. But without spiritual revival, one should not be too hopeful.
To be clear, I have loved my visit to New Zealand. Go there. It is safe, the people are friendly, the scenery is spectacular, and service is good. But my personal enjoyment of a country is not a central criterion. One of the best times I have ever had was on a trip to Russia. But Russia is, for the average Russian, a hell hole. It scores low on all the criteria I outlined above. New Zealand is nothing like Russia, but the same rule applies.
Some will criticize this project on the basis that my visits to these countries were too brief to gain any real insight. Fair enough. Our 80-day journey necessitates stops of seldom more than a few days. But let’s be realistic: one cannot extensively travel in every country. Few would venture to do as much as we are doing here. Besides, the verdicts we offer here are not based solely on a visit. That adds color and commentary, but it is not the singular criterion. In the final analysis, these rankings are based on research, academic study, interviews, and impressions formed by travel to/in them.
Moreover, lists of this kind are produced regularly without ever leaving the offices from which they are issued. This is because, as noted earlier, they often rely exclusively on data. Just do a simple internet search on such terms as “world’s best countries“ or “best places to live in the world.“ There is not much in them to indicate extensive field research. You get the impression that travel was vicarious. These lists are often little more than statistical rankings. Regardless, I have been to most of these countries before, in some cases, many times. Europe, which figures prominently in this project, most of all. Indeed, I lived there for almost four years.
At its core, this project is ultimately about much more than finding the “World’s Greatest Country“; it is about understanding what factors contribute to a given society’s backwardness and ruin or its freedom and prosperity. Fascists will tell you it’s due to the superiority of some races over others. Marxists will tell you it’s a result of irresistible and impersonal economic forces. I think both are dangerously wrong. Other theories include geography, climate, and luck to name just a few. In examining the countries on our expedition, let’s consider the possibilities and see if there is anything to be learned.
Finally, every country featured in this series is a country I will visit during the expedition (except for China since they just banned me from entry!). For reasons of safety, some articles/interviews about a particular country will not appear/occur until I am across the border. Due to the speed we are moving, not all countries will get a full review at the time of the visit. I must sleep occasionally.
Oh, and a word about the star rating. These are for fun. Like the aforementioned movie reviews, we wanted to give readers a visual. We considered Siskel & Ebert’s famous thumbs-up and thumbs-down graphic or, in keeping with the times, possibly using emoticons. But we needed greater latitude than these visuals permit. So we went with a 1-10 star rating instead of the standard 1-5 stars.
Our full criteria will be a slow reveal, but this should give my readers a framework for understanding how we arrived at certain conclusions. For more, you can read the trip FAQ.
Now, on to the next country!