The level to which citizens of a country are truly free may seem like a difficult thing to quantify in any situation, let alone in the daily lives of millions of citizens. The wealth, political stability and international standing of a nation must be taken into account, as well as - in many cases - those of neighbouring nations. To make matters even more difficult, the notion of liberalism and civil liberties often touches on religious and cultural traditions, which can come into conflict with the more modern value system of the West. What may, to some, appear a harsh and restrictive society or form of government might not be interpreted in the same way by those living within these conditions. It’s fair to say then, that the concept of a “liberal country” is at best hard to define, arguably subjective, and defined by the inhabitants of that nation themselves.
That said, the job of the socially conscious citizen and the enquiring mind is to question the world around us; to question the cultural differences, inequalities and injustices internationally and on our own doorstep. Assuming that most of us aren't war-mongering megalomaniac, then, a nation's aim should - at least theoretically - be to create a better world for us all to live in. It may be overstating things to say that the five countries on our list offer just that, but they have got some pretty impressive steps in place to ensure that fewer people fall through the cracks of the system and that as many citizens as possible can reap the rewards of living a life of freedom.
We recently looked at countries whose freedom is limited by a censored press. This time around, we're looking at the other - and, generally speaking, more positive - side of the coin. Based on information collated by the Social Progress Index, we've looked into the five countries which have been rated as the very freest of all the countries assessed by the Index. What makes these countries so 'free'? Aspects considered include religious freedom, the availability of choice in terms of contraception, freedom over one's life choices and access to childcare: Laws which allow a citizen to live a liberated life, and the resources to do so. Of course, given that resources play a role in this assessment, it may come as no surprise that the top-5 list is distinguished as comprising only industrialised, Western nations. Readers may be shocked, though, at some nations that didn't make the cut. The United States, for example, scored only 64.5 and doesn't feature in our top 5.
These 5 nations, sorted by their Social Progress Index score for personal freedom and choice, all have a wealth of history, insight and liberty: They are nations where the governments have found a sweet point, with a sphere of influence that appears to encourage economic prosperity while allowing the individual a spacious private sphere with aspects like freedom of expression, opportunity and social equality are the aims of the day.
5 Switzerland 66.4
Ah Switzerland, the home of many things: good chocolate, great watches, secure banking. But there is more than these clichés to the land-locked nation. Switzerland defies the conventions of Europe: although small and surrounded by EU member states, Switzerland itself has no intention of becoming part of the Union. This individualism has cleverly been played by the Swiss to their advantage with many international organisations, including the UN, choosing the nation as their international or European base. Add to this the current World Economic Forum meeting that is taking place in the Swiss city of Davos and you’ll begin to get a sense of the influence and significant of this small nation within international politics. As a nation that has made a name for itself as a world leader in banking- something no other country these days can really say- Switzerland finances are looking pretty secure. Ad a nation with three official languages (French, German and Italian) education standards are highAdded to this the panoramic views of the Alps, the serene lakes of Geneva and the nation’s famously efficient transport system and you’ve got a pretty sweet place to live. With high wages, sun summers and ski slope winters, and a career in diplomacy on your doorstep, what more could you ask for?
4 Canada 67.8
A score of 67.8 on the SPI scale of personal freedom and choice means Canada claims the title as one of the freest countries in the world. While Canada may on one level be most famous for its harsh winters, vast territories and status as the United States’ next door neighbour, but Canada has much to teach the world in terms of liberalism and social equality. In part this status is particularly noteworthy as in many ways Canada goes it alone on the American continent, with the nation often perceived as being more akin to Europe and her European forefathers than the United States. Lower educations costs, crime rates, numbers living below the poverty line, as well as a less polarised style of party politics all contributes to Canada’s liberalist status. The northern nation has a tuition fees for universities that are a fraction of those in the United States, with same-sex marriage legal since 2005.
What makes the liberalism in Canada particularly interesting is the demographic of the country: while there is a diverse range of ethnic minorities living in Canada as a result of immigration as well as indigenous peoples, there is a traditionally conservative group that also co-exists here. To this day the nation is among the top spots for immigrants in the world, with many Europeans now viewed the opportunities available in Canada in a manner similar to how the United States was once viewed. For many, Canada may still be the underdog of North America, but for us, she holds a special place in our like-minded liberal hearts. O Canada.
3 Australia 68.5
Australia scores high on personal freedom according to the Social Progress Index, with the nation a favorite among holidaymakers and adventurers the world over for her lush oceans, and vast open landscapes. And recently, Australia has bucked the trend of economic downturn that plagued the rest of the world becoming the go-to emigration destination for workers from Europe as well as Asia. As a result of their famed warm weather, the nation scores particularly highly on water and sanitation as well as on health and wellness- clearly the sun and sea the nation is famous for must be doing them some good.
While many are critical of Australia's attitude to ethnic minorities there is no doubt that an Australian visa remains a highly sought after commodity today. Melbourne in particular has seen a major shift in demographics, with newcomers to the nation attracted to the city's old world memories and rich cultural life. And as a nation that provides government subsidised healthcare, as well as a outdoorsy outlook on life, the average life expectancy for Australians is an impressive 81 years. That's the 11th highest in the world. And to top it all off, Australia is ranked number one in the world in terms of personal rights. Better pack the sun cream mate and head Down Under!
2 Costa Rica 69.4
Costa Rica may seem like something of an odd choice on our liberal list: as a nation that is bordered by Panama and Nicaragua in Central America, the region is more known for its tropical thunderstorms and political instability rather than its liberalism. Costa Rica however seems to have bucked this trend and in spite of being hit by the 2008 recession, has maintained mush of her social and economic prowess. Poverty in the region has dropped dramatically in the last few decades, with the IMF even hailing the country as approaching the social and economic standards normally only associated with the developed world.
Much of Costa Rica's wealth comes from agriculture: the nation is famed for its coffee exports as well as for its fruit, sugar and beef produce. The nation also boasts one of the highest levels of foreign-direct investment in all of Latin America. As a result immigration to Costa Rica from neighbouring nations such as Nicaragua and Honduras is high with many wanting a slice of liberal pie that the country offers. Impressively too, Costa Rica is ranked at number 2 in the world for personal freedom and choice, indicating just how advanced this small nation really is. Not only that, but the tropical nation is the perfect place to brush up on your Spanish. Qué Buena.
1 Sweden 72.8
Our number one spot has of course gone to everyone’s favourite Scandinavian nation- Sweden! With a legacy of national treasure that includes Abba, Millennium Trilogy author Stieg Larsson, actor Alexander Skarsgard and his actor father, Stellan, what’s not to like about Sweden? And that’s not even counting the reasons they are the world’s most liberal country. Apart from a legacy of beauty, brains and some sometimes questionable music, Sweden is also known for its majestic, other worldly beauty, remote northern climes, and its surprising openness within society. Nothing could demonstrate this famed openness more than the Swedish tradition of going au naturel in the sauna. Saunas by the way are a big thing in Sweden. When not getting hot and sweaty in small wooden rooms however, the Swedes get down to business, building a governmental structure that for many other nations serves as a benchmark of aspirations.
One of the most notable liberal aspects of the Swedish model relates to child-rearing and maternity leave: together parents are legally entitled paid leave for up to 480 days. Education is free from primary school right through to university. The unemployment rate currently stands a little below 8%, well below the EU average of 10.9% and while the country has not been undamaged by the troubles in Europe and in particular the Eurozone, Sweden’s retention of their own currency the krone, has helped them survive the storm. In fact, the only thing that is going against Sweden is her cold winters- something that appears to be something of a trend among many of the most liberal countries according to the SPI: Sweden, Canada, Germany and Switzerland all score high, and all see temperatures plummet in the winter months. We’re not sure how that makes these nations as liberal, or indeed as rich as they are, but it certainly is food for thought.