Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Human Rights and Human Well-being Aroud the Globe

Do ‘more’ human rights enable people live better? The answer might be obvious for human rights defenders but measuring the relationship between human rights and human well-being is more complicated. Via reviewing existing research on how human rights, in particular civil and political rights influence the standards of peoples’ lives, this paper identifies two approaches to measuring human well-being, and argues that people live well if they feel they do. The results of a subsequent correlation analysis support this claim. They indicate that higher standards of civil and political rights match with increased perceptions of happiness which opens up the room for further positive behavioural change.

1. Introduction

The well-being of people all over the world is an important aim of economic activity not only at the individual or group level but at the societal one as well. Governments should and usually do care for improving of living standards of their citizens, especially if they want to stay in power. Naturally, given the complexity of the concept, the question arises how to measure well-being. Throughout history2, different economic indicators were established which are used to measure economic performance, for example economic growth, GDP per capita, level of development, average monthly income and the like in countries and regions around the globe.

The fundamental reason for the relevance of these statistics seems to be that they somehow give us an insight into factors which contribute to human well-being3. The problem is which indicators are relevant for well-being. Many scholars support the ‘tough and objective’ indicators (Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi 2009) as growth and investigate the wide variety of factors contributing to growth, among others democracy (Libman 2012; Knutsen 2013; Yanovskiy and Shulgin 2013; Diebolt et al. 2013) and human rights, defined in different ways (Blume and Voigt 2007; Mohtadi and Ruediger 2014; Fabro and Aixal 2012; Fedderke and Klitgaard 2013). Others think it is also important to look at the way how people subjectively perceive their lives, that is, whether and to what extent they say they live well (Frey and Stutzer 2002; Blanchflower and Oswald 2004; Oswald 1997).

The discussion on the usage of indicators is on the rise which can be illustrated by the fact that some countries have even decided to develop their own indicators of well-being adjusted to the specific features of their countries (Scott 2012). What seems to be missing is more extensive research that would compare the factors which may shed some light on well-being according to both approaches. This gap applies specifically to the factors of democracy and human rights.

This paper contributes to this, still rather underdeveloped, field by providing both a theoretical overview and empirical analysis of the relationship between one particular set of factors, here defined as political rights and civil liberties, and well-being as approached via the two different ‘schools’, one focusing on objective indicators such as growth, the other one on subjective ones as perception of happiness. By asking whether this particular set of rights tends to appear jointly with higher rates of economic growth, happiness or both, it adopts a narrower perspective compared to the complex concept of democracy4. Section 1 reviews contemporary scholarship on the relationship between human rights and well-being by, firstly, discussing these concepts separately and, secondly, providing arguments for the investigation of relationship between them. It shows that economic growth may not be the best indicator to learn about human well-being because it does not reveal what people think and feel about their lives which is the ground based on which they make decisions. Instead, it is measures of happiness which provide this perspective.

In Section 2, the method of correlation analysis is utilized to compare the relationship between political rights and civil liberties and the prime indicators of objective and subjective measures of well-being: happiness and growth. These concepts are operationalized through some indicators and indexes publicly available through the Quality of Governance dataset. The data refer to the pre-2010 period as newer data are often incomplete and adopting the time frame of the outbreak of the economic crisis might provide a picture about the relationship between rights and well-being in crisis times. Human happiness is measured here via the World Values Survey, while political rights and civil liberties via two indexes: Freedom House and Economist Intelligence Unit5.

Though these measures are limited in terms of the introduced definition, and these limitations are discussed, they are well suited to discover whether there are some differences in the examined relationship with regard to the kind of conceptualization of well-being that is utilized. The analysis indicates a difference between the objective and subjective indicators of well-being, as political rights and civil liberties correlate positively with human well-being when it is defined as the perception of happiness but this correlation is not present when well-being is defined in terms of economic growth as such. The concluding section argues for further research based on more nuanced methodology and presents the key policy implication of the paper according to which increasing standards of political rights and civil liberties make it more likely that the well-being of people as they themselves perceive it will increase as well.

2. Conceptualizing human rights and their relevance for well-being

In this section I outline some fundamentals of human rights to understand their importance. I then review current literature on the relationship between human rights and well-being conceptualized in different ways. Finally, a separate subsection is devoted to the indicator of economic growth as one of the most renowned, though not undisputable way of measuring economic performance from the perspective of the ‘good life’ theorem.

2.1 What Rights for Whom?

As stated above, the origins of the ‘ideal of liberty’ can be traced back to renaissance but this ideal is far from human rights as understood today. Still, some kind of freedom was proved to be crucial for economic exchange and development of consumption already in the ancient times which is why these practices flourished in ancient ‘democratic’ Greece (Davidson 2012). However, although the relationship between democracy and human well-being is itself a tough issue, it is not the same as the relationship between human rights and well-being for three main reasons.

Firstly, democracy is a political regime while human rights are individual entitlements. Human rights in this sense are not attached to any particular regime, they are ‘trumps’ of individuals against their governments (Dworkin 1978), no matter whether the particular government that is being ‘trumped’ likes the idea of human rights and provides some guarantees for them or not6. Put simply, ‘human rights trump democracy when they conflict’ (Donnelly 2013, 31). Secondly, and this relates to the absence of direct connection between human rights as such and political regime, while democracy without human rights entrenchments is impossible, some of such entrenchments can exist in partially or non-democratic regimes (e.g. property rights in illiberal democracies as defined by Zakaria (1997)). Finally, these differences have implications for measures of the quality of democracy vs. level of human rights standards where human rights usually constitute one of several indicators for a democracy of some ‘quality’7.

This elaboration on human rights and democracy should partly answer the question of the subjects of rights. The simple answer is that everybody is a subject for them8. As is claimed in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 1948): ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.‘ And there is relevance in these words even if they do not resemble the reality in all places in the world because it sets the normative idea and the entitlement that exists though sometimes is more or less seriously overlooked by governments and powerful actors. In addition, some of the rights included in the Declaration clearly points towards ‘social’ or ‘economic’ entitlements which require affirmative action from governments instead of restraint from some methods of application of power to become a reality. The rights called as ‘social’ or ‘economic’ or ‘welfare’ are, therefore, to some extent different from civil liberties (such as the right not to be tortured, the right to be recognized before the law and so on), and political rights (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, right to free elections, etc.).

The reason why this paper does not operate with social and economic rights is not that they do not matter for human well-being. Rather, it is that civil liberties and political rights come prior to social and economic rights in the sense that the latter is impossible without the former. To be clear, this does not mean that governments (even non-democratic ones) cannot provide for policies that guarantee some social and economic standards and at the same time do not deal with the rest ‘categories’ in any way. However, what would occur in this situation is that these quasi-rights would not be rights as understood within the framework of this paper as entitlements providing for human dignity which exist without respect to the standpoints of particular actors in power. These players, if they do not provide political rights and civil liberties, can abolish the economic or social guarantees any time they want. At the same time, without governmental action, social and economic rights cannot possibly exist9. It is instructive to read the (generally very persuasive) reasoning of Donnelly who sees the role of the state in the economy as twofold: ‘facilitating the operation of markets, in order to create growth, and […] redistribute resources and opportunities, to ensure that growth contributes to the enjoyment of economic and social rights by all’ (2013, 223). The economic concept he operates with here is growth and the consecutive redistribution of its assets. This is not possible without the state, which is why social and economic rights can hardly be viewed as entitlements existing outside of the framework of the state. Donnelly may well be right about the role of state in the economy (though speaking about redistribution without specifying how it should unfold is rather imprecise) but does not – at least in the context of the relationship of human rights and economics – recognize the possible impact of ‘first generation’ rights on human well-being, without which social and economic rights become just a tool in the hands of those in power10.

In sum, despite little previous research adopted such a perspective (some rare examples are discussed below), it makes sense to examine the relationship between political rights and civil liberties as entitlements providing prima facie for human dignity and existing without respect to particular state policies, and human well-being. It was these rights which were for the first time entrenched in the revolutionary period at the end of 18th century based on Enlightenment ideas (e.g. Belissa and Leclerq 2002, 210–211). It would be superficial to claim that the fact that precisely during this period many ‘intellectual’ ideas crucial for economic growth in the forthcoming periods were developed (Mokyr 2005), is just a coincidence. After all, one key document from this time also poses three ‘self-evident’ truths, one of which is that men ‘are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’ (“The Declaration of Independence” 1776). The question which arises here is, however: what does ‘pursuit of happiness’ mean? Indeed, we already know people do have the right to pursue happiness but what does this human ‘action’ consist of? Let us proceed to see whether economic indicators can help with unpacking this puzzle.

2.2 Who lives well?

According to Amartya Sen, ‘the notion of human right builds on our shared humanity. These rights are not derived from the citizenship of any country, or the membership of any nation, but are presumed to be claims or entitlements of every human being. They differ, therefore, from constitutionally created rights guaranteed for specific people’ (2011, 143–144). From this perspective, the importance of political rights and civil liberties for human well-being seems to be evident. If we see human rights as ‘shared by all’, i.e. ‘advantages that everyone should have’ (Sen 2013a, 88), there is a strong degree of normativity in our claim as it is clear that contemporary reality does not match it. What is important at the empirical level, therefore, are those rights that enable people to ‘live well’.

There is of course no agreement which rights belong here. Different scholars put forward at least three hypotheses (Blume and Voigt 2007). One school supports only basic negative and property rights, the second is in favour of exclusively property rights which can facilitate processes resulting in encapsulation of other kinds of rights, whereas the third one (Sen belongs here) considers political and ‘positive, emancipatory’ rights jointly important with other kinds of rights (Blume and Voigt 2007, 513). This categorization still misses approaches which would support the primacy of social and economic rights but the respective empirical analysis finds support both for the first and third school, as different kinds of rights have positive impact on economic indicators such as accumulation of physical capital, total factor productivity or development (Blume and Voigt 2007, 537–538). The approach according to which only property rights matter as causes of improvements in economic performance seems insufficient, as not only some kinds of property rights in some circumstances (e.g. when human capital is low) may actually be harmful for economic growth (Mohtadi and Ruediger 2014), but other political and economic rights display a positive effect on growth and other ‘objective’ economic indicators. This is demonstrated, for instance, in a cross national research of the impact of rights on national income, the results of which ‘suggest that there are significant efficiency gains to be realized from improvements in rights’, especially in the lowest and highest level of rights (Fedderke and Klitgaard 2013, 188). In the middle level, there seems to be some slowdown in this impact but this just explains the difficulty of reaching the higher level of rights protection and encourages the continuation of human-rights driven reforms (Fedderke and Klitgaard 2013, 201–202).

If a more precise distinction between different kinds of rights is made, as Blume and Voigt did, then political rights may well come before civil liberties of economic nature (e.g. property rights) as requirements, without which the ‘economic’ rights cannot effectively be in place. It is not enough to have economic freedoms which may ‘promote growth via physical capital investment’, but political rights are required with the capacity to stipulate growth via ‘human capital investment’ (Fabro and Aixal 2012, 1074). In addition, the credibility of upholding of such freedoms becomes important for actions of economic agents, as ‘where political freedom is in the process of expansion, agents need a relatively long time to determine whether the change is permanent, and not temporary, before modifying their investment decisions’ (Fabro and Aixal 2012, 1065). Only stable political freedoms may increase human capacities (Fabro and Aixal 2012, 1063) that bring in economic well-being.

As may be clear from the overview above, the definitions of civil liberties (including those of economic nature such as property rights) and political rights (which enable political participation in different forms) are by and large established and do not conflict with the basic definition outlined in this paper. The issue at stake is, then, how to measure human well-being. This is a much subtler concept which can be approached in two ways. One is based on objective economic indicators, such as economic growth measured as the rate of change of real GDP or GDP per capita for a country, individual income levels, some kind of development index and so on. The alternative approach takes into account the fact that these statistics, though they can capture a piece of ‘objective’ reality by showing to what extent are people in some countries better or worse off than in other countries, do not really measure their ‘good life’, as whether one lives good life always depends on his or her perception of what good life is and whether or to what extent the actual situation in which one exists matches the imagined criteria of good life.

For example, Peter from Britain may be disappointed with his life despite he can afford to buy a Ferrari, while Ali from Botswana might perceive his current life as satisfactory despite the only things he can afford to purchase are those which satisfy the basic needs of his family and maybe enable some kind of entertainment from time to time. In this view, well-being is always subjective. We may objectively live well and not feel we live so and vice versa. According to this view, only people themselves can (via e.g. survey design) tell and shed light on their well-being. In this regard it is instructive to observe the results of the Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, where a number of well-known economists tried to deal with the tough issue on how to measure well-being (Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi 2009).

Their conclusions included the rejection of economic growth as the primary indicator in this respect and the emphasis of the distribution of income and consumption. In addition, they set up eight factors that may influence well-being (Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi 2009, 14–15), including health, education, personal activities such as work, political voice and governance (may be defined similarly as political rights), social connections and relationships or environment. This mixture of indicators may be well suited to measure well-being. The problem is that they failed to develop a functioning index that would integrate all these factors (Michalos 2011). In addition, such an index would presume the same weight of all indicators around the globe which may not be the best strategy as the impact of one indicator (such as political or intellectual property rights, to mention examples discussed above) may differ in different regions or according to different country specifics which would not necessarily be included in the eight factors put forward by these economic giants.

Another example of an unsuccessful attempt to measure well-being are conventional indicators of poverty. At first sight it sounds that the poorer (in material terms) the people are, the worse are their lives and vice versa. Again, this applies on the ‘objective’ level but if the aspect of perception is incorporated, the outcome is different. As Sumner (2007, 11) argues, there is an ‘apparent contradiction between accepting the multi-dimensionality of the meaning of poverty and practising it more fully when measuring poverty. […] Poverty measures based on “economic” well-being have had and continue to have a higher status than “non-economic” indicators […] also because of their perceived objectivity.’ This kind of flaw could be attributed also to Mills’ (otherwise well documented) analysis of poverty in Africa, which he attributes predominantly to the lack of economic growth due to African leaders pursuing their private interests and thus hindering accumulations of foreign capital and investments which could trigger growth (2010). Mills may be right about the ‘leadership problem’ and its possible solution (change in government policies) as well but with this he seems to miss the problem he indicated in the title of the book – why Africa is poor. It is not enough to state low growth as the manifestation of Africa’s poverty11. There are reasons to argue why growth is important, as I will demonstrate below, but rather because of what follows out of it than as the ultimate economic goal.

Now, we are left with the question what is the alternative to ‘objective’ measures. Implicitly, they were mentioned by the report of the Commission discussed above within some of their criteria of well-being, but their clarity in this form is disputable. Instead, there is another emerging school which may provide better tools for capturing the ‘subjectivity’ of well-being: the ‘economics of happiness’. Within this framework, happiness is measured via a range of indicators, the most complete of which seem to be direct data obtained from surveys regarding the perception of happiness by people all over the world. In addition, there are several results of research carried out so far regarding what influences well-being, and political rights and civil liberties have reserved place among these factors. For instance, Frey and Stutzer (2002, 15) consider two defining ‘institutions’ to most noticeably affect well-being: ‘political decentralization and the possibility of political participation by the citizens.’ Another crucial feature is thought to be transparency or public accessibility of information about governance matters (Johns and Ormerod 2012). Both participation and the right to information are encompassed in related political rights. This is not to say that only these rights matter, even if we adopt the ‘subjective’ approach towards measurement of well-being, but to assert that if any, these rights do matter for well-being. Economic performance in terms of e.g. growth, then, is only ‘a means to an end’ (Oswald 1997, 1828); what is more, not the best means to the end of human happiness in all situations.

Whereas growth in light of Oswald’s and others’ arguments above does not look like suitable to be the primary concern of governments, at the same time, one has to acknowledge both the possible positive impact of growth and the problem of finding a single measure of happiness. Indeed, human well-being understood in terms of happiness is multidimensional, and it may be more reasonable to give up efforts of finding one single indicator and focus on the plurality of ways how people in the world can live good lives instead (Ong 2009). In addition, precisely because of this multidimensio­nality, it is not a good advice for governments to strive to ‘maximize’ happiness in some way because any such effort to do that may actually hamper the perception of happiness of some at the expense of others (Frey and Stutzer 2009). Rather, plurality is required in terms of approaches to achieving freedom (see Pattanaik and Xu 2009, 216), and happiness. In both cases, however, hardly anything can go wrong if fundamental freedoms are introduced for people ‘to be better able to advance their idea of good life, individually and collectively’ (Frey and Stutzer 2009, 317). The short answer to the question ‘who lives well’ thus is: those who say they do. This answer is the reason for using data about perception of happiness and satisfaction with life in the empirical part of this paper. Before that, a short note follows on the importance of perceiving one of the most powerful ‘objective’ economic indicators, that of economic growth, in terms of the ‘windows of opportunities’ it opens and not as an end in itself.

2.3 Is Economic Growth Important for Well-being?

Much has been said so far about the shortcomings of economic growth as an indicator of well-being and alternatives which are available which could create an impression that growth is not important at all. That would be a mistaken view because growth is important, just not as the indicator of well-being but another factor which can positively influence well-being in terms of perception of human happiness.

Consider the case of China. China is often mentioned as an example of a country where, despite of many civil liberties and political rights being non-existent, the economy is doing well, at least in terms of growth. One can discuss the roots of this growth, which may rest in specific cultural origins and choices made by the Chinese (Hofstede and Bond 1988) but still has to admit that this example makes it more difficult to believe in civil liberties and political rights as keys to economic performance. However, as the empirical part will demonstrate, these right and liberties are one of the keys to well-being, but not necessarily economic performance. This may deprive the ‘China refutation’ of its power but there is more to take into account. Those who care about freedom in China tend to state that ‘political freedoms on the one hand, and economic prosperity and development on the other, work, necessarily in tandem’ (Kinley 2013). That means, though growth has not been achieved in China through means of freedom, it can actually foster freedom. Positive economic development and increase of wealth may make necessary to introduce some guarantees of property or stability of private economic activity that, then, supports positive changes in other areas as well. This trend has been observed in countries of Central Asia, which perform much worse economically than China, as well: ‘improved economic prospects in countries with very poor economies […] could create conditions favourable for human rights improvements’ (Spechler 2009).

Hence, there is something in economic growth that makes it important for well-being, though not in the sense as is usually asserted in rigorous econometric analyses investigating the impact of human rights (or, alternatively, democracy) on growth. Perhaps it is Friedman (2005) who pointed to it in the most convincing way. According to the Harvard economist, economic growth includes both material and moral values; it is ‘valuable not only for our material improvement but also for how it affects our social attitudes and our political institutions – in other words, our society’s moral character’ (Friedman 2005, 14). For Friedman, if – and this is quite an optimistic idea – the society is better off12, it is more likely to be more open, tolerant and democratic.

In sum, what Friedman argues, is a different picture of growth, one that can bring with it some of the values necessary for effective protection of human rights, including those analysed in this paper. But do these values, enshrined in the ‘right growth’ – though there are for sure other ways to achieve them, for instance, through a set of legal reform and functioning institutional system – mean that people feel they live better lives, that they are happy? The next section deals with this question.

3. Analysing the relationship between human rights and human well-being

In this section I conduct and discuss the result of an empirical analysis of the relationship between human rights and well-being, both as defined in Section 1. In order to compare the two competing views on well-being, I test not only the correlations between different indexes of civil and/or political freedoms and human happiness but also the ‘objective’ indicator of economic growth.

3.1 Methodology

As can be seen from Table 1, the correlations will be drawn between two indicators of the dependent variable (Happiness and GDP per capita growth), and three indicators of the independent variable (political rights and civil liberties according to Freedom House and Civil liberties according to Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The reason for the choice depends upon the theoretical requirements set up in the previous section – the aim is to compare relationships between the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ measures of well-being. Regarding the indicators for political rights, the ones chosen belong to the most known. The most suitable index for the definition of political rights in this paper seems to be Freedom House because it does not include other factors which are more dependent upon the actual government in the particular country.

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All data were derived from one of the largest compiled datasets in social sciences, the Quality of Governance (QoG Institute 2014, cross-section series). One consequence of this approach is that not all indicators have the newest data (for instance, there has already been a sixth wave in the World Values Survey). Therefore, the data analysed are mostly from 2008–2009 period when the sovereign debt crisis began to spread over the world. This fact may be a negative from the perspective of getting the most recent picture about the relationships investigated. However, its advantage is in the possibility to obtain a view from the crisis period. If we think about economic crisis in the light of the subject matter, it can be stated that the actual data provide a ‘stricter’ test than it would be with data from post-crisis period, as ‘the happiness or wellbeing of humans’, puts people and governments alike under pressure which may be mirrored in several ways in their perception of happiness, and, in some occasions, in the level of civil liberties as well13 (Kenwood, Lougheed, and Graff 2014, 338–341). These are not hypotheses to be tested here, though they may be interesting for further research, but just to indicate that it is worth looking at the picture via the data from the 2008–2009 period instead of the newest one14.

3.2 Results

What is the relationship between different indicators of political rights/civil liberties and the perception of happiness, or economic growth? Table 2 shows some interesting findings in this respect. Firstly, there is a mildly positive, statistically significant relationship between the perception of happiness according to World Values Survey and the indicators of political or civil rights. To be sure, the seemingly negative correlations in the second column of the table (e.g. civil liberties according to EIU) as well as the downward directions of some lines in the scatter plots in Chart 1 have to be properly interpreted. While in the happiness measures, higher value implies lower results (people think they are less happy), in case of the EIU it is vice versa – the higher the scores the higher the level of political rights. Therefore, the fact that with higher values of happiness scores the scores of civil liberties according to the indicator discussed decrease actually means that if standards of civil liberties are higher, they tend to be accompanied with higher levels of happiness.

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Secondly, while at first sight it seems there are no meaningful changes in the results provided by correlations between variables of civil liberties and political rights and happiness on the one side, and economic growth on the other, the fact that the direction of the scale of growth is different than that of happiness (higher scores indicate higher growth, as opposed to happiness where higher scores indicate lower happiness) makes for a fundamental difference. For instance, the positive correlation between Freedom House civil liberties and happiness (row 2 of Table 2) means that lower standards of civil rights are more likely to be accompanied with lower perceptions of happiness and vice versa. However, the same lower levels of civil liberties, at least for the period investigated, tend to be accompanied by higher levels of growth. Therefore, the correlation between higher growth and higher levels of civil liberties is actually negative. The same applies for Freedom House political rights and EIU civil liberties (here the negative correlation between this indicator and growth is easier to comprehend, as both variables are ordered in the same direction).

In sum, what this brief and by no means complex correlation analysis demonstrated is that there seems to be an important difference between the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ approach to measurement of human well-being. Only if we adopt the ‘good life means perceiving one’s own well-being’ approach, then we find a positive relationship between higher standards of civil liberties and political rights and enhanced happiness. As a result, what civil liberties and political rights seem to do is not that they accompany higher growth (that is more likely the opposite, though the rather extraordinary crisis factor has to be acknowledged within the scope of this analysis), but they accompany happier people according to what these people say on their own.

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4. Conclusion: A policy implication

Those who want to be ‘good democrats’ are usually pleased when they hear that, in general, democracy is positive not only for the protection of human rights, rule of law and other ‘great models’ but for the well-being of each individual as well. At the core of each democracy there is freedom and without freedom, democracy is impossible. Freedom can, however, only exist, if fundamental political rights and civil liberties, which are entitled to each individual regardless of whether the actual regime acknowledges them, are constitutionally enshrined and effectively protected. Book-length contributions conclude with statements about the ‘vicious circle’, in which ‘the absence of democratic freedom impedes economic growth […] and the resulting stagnation in turn makes a society even more intolerant and undemocratic’ (Friedman 2005, 16). Or they go the other way around to argue that ‘to have sustained and continued growth’, there is need for political freedom which, in contrast to purely economic freedoms, often existing ‘without immediately engendering political democracy’, opens up several channels crucial for economic growth (Feng 2003, 298–9).

In this paper I have adopted a narrower perspective and have focused only on the categories of political rights and civil liberties because they can provide a more nuanced list of what is actually measured, in contrast to the complexity of the issue of democracy and its quality. I have supported the criticism put forward by several scholars (Sumner 2007, 12; Yanovskiy and Shulgin 2013) about viewing indicators as objective measurements of social reality regardless of the actual context. Instead, it is human well-being that stands as the proper ultimate goal of economic policies. Similarly, people live well if they think they do.

The comparison of the relationship between political rights and civil liberties15 and the ‘objective’ (economic growth) and ‘subjective’ (perception of happiness) indicators of well-being in the empirical analysis demonstrated some differences between the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ measures of well-being. Only the relationship of the ‘subjective’ measure of the perception of happiness and indicators of political rights and civil liberties turned out to be positive.

To conclude, we are left with one key policy implication: Give people the basic political rights and civil liberties and you have no straightforward guarantee that the economic performance of your country will improve. However, with these freedoms, people will tend to feel more that they live good lives. Additionally, the ‘public discussion and participation’ which is far more likely to emerge with these freedoms than without them, may be crucial in ‘behavioural change and in the use of responsible agency’ that is the key not only to economic development, but also to a sustainable development (Sen 2013b, 18), so important for the possibility of well-being for future generations. The number of countries with deficiencies in freedom and the continuous decline in freedom for last eight years (see Freedom House 2014) demonstrate that there is much left to be done for individual citizens, civil societies and policy-makers alike to achieve at least the basic, desirable standards of the ‘pure’ political rights and civil liberties around the globe.

Max Steuer holds an MA in International Relations and European Studies from Central European University in Budapest. His research focuses on human rights with an emphasis on freedom of speech; political institutions, particularly in Central Europe; and democracy, legitimacy, constitutionalism and rule of law in the European Union. Contact: steuer1[at]uni­ba.sk.


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[TITLE] I am grateful to the International Visegrad Fund and the Central European University for the support that made this research possible. The usual disclaimer applies.

[2] It should be stressed, the history of modern societies in particular, as if we take just the Western world, there was a distinct and quite long period when economic indicators (had they existed in contemporary form) would not matter that much for ‘ordinary’ people. It is because in the medieval times this life was viewed only as a road to salvation after one’s death. The good life was that according to the Christian doctrine (White 2012). This attitude has not change until the great (re)invention of the ‘ideal of liberty’ and self-government in Italy during the renaissance (Skinner 1978). It is interesting to put this in the perspective of the widely known fact of the richness of Italian cities in the historical era that followed.

[3] Obviously, there may be alternative explanations to the usage of economic indicators. These include the rather straightforward way they offer to evaluate governmental policies within countries and create country rankings. From the perspective of those who work with indicators, the advantage they give rests in knowledge of the likely trends and developments in the future in systems characteristics with asymmetric information (e.g. Rothschild and Stiglitz 1992). In addition, path dependence (David 1985) may work there to some extent as well, due to which people consider indicators as important because they are so often used, reported by the media, politicians and various experts alike. However, these reasons seem to be rather procedural than substantive, as the usual reason why rankings are made is to compare which subjects perform better than others, and not to fulfil private interests of the few involved in the process of their calculation. If the indicators contain countries, the ‘best’ countries are, then, supposed to be the best places in the world to live in.

[4] This concept includes several features that need not be present jointly depending upon the type of democracy being discussed (cf. the notion of illiberal democracy in Zakaria 1997).

[5] Another well-known index measuring, among others, political participation and rule of law, which necessarily includes political rights and civil liberties – Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI 2014) – is not included as here, these two sets of variables cannot be separated from other ones, that are more suitable to measure the broader concept of democracy.

[6] Although, obviously, ‘trumping’ in empirical world is easier when at least some of such guarantees are in place without being situated behind too many procedural-legal ‘walls’ that make them virtually non-accessible.

[7] These differences should be regularly noted as a large portion of empirical research examines the relationship between democracy and some indicator which is about to measure well-being. For instance, on within-country level it has been shown that democracy has a non-linear effect on economic growth; more democratic regions in Russia but more authoritarian as well performed better than those with hybrid arrangements (Libman 2012). The positive effect of democracy on growth becomes apparent also when looking at transitions from different regimes. Here, transitions to democracy yield better economic results than transitions to non-democratic arrangements (Persson and Tabellini 2007). The establishment of such democratic arrangement is, in turn, more likely when economic equality or capital mobility is high (Boix 2003). As Knutsen (2013) argues, though the positive effect of democracy on growth is present, other factors (for him it is state capacity) may influence the strength of this effect. Furthermore, it matters what kind and level of democracy is in place; for example, high-income countries may benefit from their ‘democratic character’ differently than low-income countries which may require that in an ‘interdependent world’ ‘low-income democratic countries might benefit more from association with high-income democratic countries’ (Diebolt et al. 2013, 748). Notwithstanding the fact that because of the inclusion of some measures of human rights within indexes measuring the quality of democracy, it, to some extent, may mirror the level of human rights protection, these two concepts are not the same. This argument is supported by the research of the effect of democracy on growth in the ‘very long run’ (Yanovskiy and Shulgin 2013), which concludes that though democracies positively influence growth, the reason why it is so is that they protect private property which is again possible only when standards of ‘personal immunity’, i.e. fundamental civil liberties, are provided. For more detailed picture of the state of the art in democracy and economic performance research, see the literature in e.g. Piątek, Szarzec, and Pilc (2013).

[8] To be more precise, for everybody who is human. The discussion about granting animals some human-like rights is on the rise (see Donaldson and Kymlicka 2013) but there neither room nor need to examine it in greater detail here. All things considered, the issue at stake here is human well-being which may, and may not, coincide with the well-being of all other living species in the world.

[9] An exception could arise only if supranational authorities would gain enough competences and material resources to be able to provide such guarantees regardless of governmental policies at the national level.

[10] An objection towards this interpretation is raised by the ‘institutional understanding of human rights’, according to which the two ‘categories’ of rights cannot be separated because both require restraint and positive action as well: ‘human agents are not to collaborate in upholding a coercive institutional order that avoidably restricts the freedom of some so as to render their access to basic necessities insecure without compensating for their collaboration by protecting its victims or by working for its reform’ (Pogge 2008, 76). However, what this interpretation emphasizes is solely the fact that there is a relationship between the categories in the sense that restrictions of ‘negative’ rights impede the functionality of positive rights as well. If a government arbitrarily limits, for instance, political freedoms, people lose the means to influence its policies towards, for example, people in material need. A loophole in the system thus emerges which can harm the fundamental requirement of human dignity.

[11] To be sure, he mentions other indicators as well but these all belong to the ‘objective’ strand of analysis.

[12] This usually happens under some circumstances, such as government action against the injustices provided by the completely free market.

[13] For example, wider restrictions of private property due to the government’s need to get more extensive control over the economy during the crisis.

[14] An additional problem with newest data is that they are usually incomplete, i.e. available for only a limited number of countries. Using older data generally means that more countries are included in the sample.

[15] Concerning the different kinds of rights (political rights on the one hand and civil liberties on the other), no fundamental differences have been found between their relationship to well-being. In reality, there may be some but these are more subtle and discoverable only via a more complex statistical analysis (cf. Blume a Voigt 2007).

Chart 1. Scatter plots indicating the relationship between happiness (x-axis) and different measurements of civil liberties and political rights (y-axis). Each plot depicts one indicator, viewing from above, they are (1) EIU civil liberties, (2) Freedom House civil liberties and (3) Freedom House political rights. All display a statistically significant relationship. Source: author.

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Max Steuer
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31. 8. 2015