America: Land of the 'Mostly Free'

America: Land of the 'Mostly Free'

When measuring which nations are the most economically free, you expect America, "land of the free," to finish at or near the top. But in a new study, it didn't.

For the last 21 years, the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal have collaborated on the annual Index of Economic Freedom, which ranks the economies of 178 nations from the most to the least free. These range from famously free-wheeling economies such as Hong Kong (No. 1 on the index) and Singapore (2) to oppressive states like Zimbabwe, Cuba, and North Korea (ranked 175th, 177th, and 178th, respectively).

Since 2008, economic freedom has been steadily declining in the United States. In last year's index, America fell from the ranks of the world's ten freest economies. Our score improved slightly in the 2015 edition, but we're still stuck in 12th place, right behind Denmark.

I'm happy for the eleven nations who finished ahead of us, but the fact remains that there is no reason we can't be doing better. A lot better.

A country's ranking is based on several indicators of how freely citizens are allowed to buy, sell, build businesses, and live their lives without undue burdens from the government or lawlessness. How strong are property and labor rights? What's the size of the government? How high are taxation and spending, and how much corruption is there? These are judged via our published methodology, independent of the editors' opinions on one country or another.

The reasons for America's long economic stagnation are as familiar as our government's refusal to address them: a massive regulatory state that slows innovation, grant programs that pick winners and losers in the marketplace, and a Byzantine tax code as long as seven copies of War and Peace stacked together.

Too many corporate interests manage to escape the tangled web of big government only by virtue of their political clout: Lobbying power wins these companies special tax carve-outs and subsidies, as well as a role in helping bureaucrats craft regulations. Their smaller competitors -- and the taxpayers -- aren't so lucky.

The index is widely read across the globe, and has been used in various countries to build better policies. I hope that our elected leaders can take similar inspiration to boost America's standing.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 92 million Americans are out of the labor force. I'm sure many of them feel the sting of why we're in 12th place. The American public doesn't need an index to know that our economy isn't that great, or how tough it is to start a business under miles of red tape.

That's a big reason why the voters sent a new crop of leaders to Washington last November, ones who promised to change the status quo. The 114th Congress is primed to reform the situation with job creation, all-of-the-above energy solutions, deregulation, and tax reform -- as long as the White House doesn't stand in the way.

Unfortunately, the current administration doesn't seem headed in that direction. President Obama recently promised more vetoes in his State of the Union address than any chief executive in living memory. Revealingly, while visiting Australia (No. 4) last year, President Obama made a point of mocking Prime Minister Tony Abbott for prioritizing the Australian economy over radical environmental initiatives. As long we have leaders who needlessly antagonize our allies because of their pro-growth policies, it's unlikely that the U.S. will be breaking back into the top ten anytime soon.

The president has a choice to make. Will he spend the final two years of his presidency scrambling to save Obamacare from itself and issuing rafts of executive orders? Or will he cooperate with the new Congress on commonsense reforms to give all Americans -- businesses, workers, and families alike -- more economic freedom?

If he chooses the latter, I'll be the first to congratulate him. Americans deserve better than 12th place.

Jim DeMint is the president of the Heritage Foundation.

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