In their State of the Union addresses, American presidents have used the word “freedom” 695 times. Freedom has been an important principle of our nation, ever since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Lincoln is a president deeply associated with the concept of freedom. After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared the freedom of slaves as one of his main Civil War goals, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment made it a reality.
President Obama has used the word “freedom” once in each of his last four State of the Union speeches. I expect tonight to be the same. In both the 2009 and 2012 speeches, he referred to the freedom won by the honorable service of military men and women. In 2010 and 2011, the word reflected America’s moral responsibility to be an international example of “freedom, justice, and dignity.”
There is another type of freedom that must be considered. When President Ronald Reagan mentioned freedom in his State of the Union in 1988, he spoke of economic freedom:
“One of the greatest contributions the United States can make to the world is to promote freedom as the key to economic growth.”
When we first think of the word freedom, we do not typically define it with respect to economics. We think of freedom as a personal benefit, an inherent human right that has nothing to do with money. However, as researchers have consistently shown, countries that embrace economic freedom continue to prosper, reaping rewards in health, education, and wealth.
To completely understand the benefits of economic freedom, we need to clearly define the term. James Gwartney, Robert Lawson, and Walter Block of the Fraser Institute did so in 1996 when they founded what is now the most-cited resource for economic freedom, the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) index. They argue,
“Individuals have economic freedom when property they acquire without the use of force, fraud, or theft is protected from physical invasions by others and they are free to use, exchange, or give their property as long as their actions do not violate the identical rights of others.”
Countries increase economic freedom when they pursue policies that encourage citizens to make their own economic decisions, spurring entrepreneurship and investment. The “most free” countries have efficient regulations, strong protections on property rights, and governments that do not unnecessarily constrain liberty.
Quantifying and measuring levels of economic freedom can be a difficult task to undertake. Fortunately, both the EFW Index, along with the Index of Economic Freedom (IEF) founded by the Heritage Foundation, attempt to solve that problem.
Their annual reports show a strong correlation between “more free” countries and increased life satisfaction, life expectancy, and higher incomes for the lowest 10%.
Tonight, I hope the President acknowledges the significant role that economic freedom plays in restoring a world ravaged by recent economic crises.
A variation of this article was originally published in the Baylor Lariat on 2/12/13.