Everyone must move to Finland right now

So some British think tank called the “Legatum Institute” has published an index of the best countries in which to live. Apparently they’ve been doing this every year for a while now, but it just now caught my eye.

Let me start by saying that I find this index pretty dubious. (N.B., there are a lot of bad international indexes out there. Don’t get me started on the American Heritage Index of Economic Freedom.) The Legatum Institute’s staff appears to be a mixture of warmed-over Thatcherites and recently-unemployed American conservatives. So it’s not surprising that the top 20 countries are dominated by western Europe and the Anglosphere, while the bottom ranks are all former colonies full of brown folk.

To make matters worse, they’re being shifty about their methodology. If you download the report (.pdf), you’ll find that it says it’s using 79 different variables, assigned to nine sub-indexes. But it does not say clearly what these variables are, nor where the information is coming from, nor whether they are weighted to create the sub-indexes. The sub-indexes are not weighted, which is another bad sign — they’re just taking the scores that they’ve generated and averaging them together.

Meanwhile, Iraq and Afghanistan are conspicuously missing. Okay, that could be from a lack of good data. On the other hand, they found enough data to go forward in Sudan, Yemen, and the Central African Republic. And having Mugabe’s Zimbabwe absolutely last makes me say “hm” — I can think of half a dozen places that should be in contention, from North Korea to the Congo — as does the very low rank given to Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela. (I’m no fan of Hugo’s. But Venezuela is the worst country in Latin America? Even after throwing out Guyana and a few other small countries that weren’t ranked, that’s a very large “hm” indeed.)

Having said that, this index is at least interesting.

Here are the top 10:

1. Finland
2. Switzerland
3. Sweden
4. Denmark
5. Norway
6. Australia
7. Canada
8. Netherlands
9. United States
10. New Zealand
11. Ireland
12. United Kingdom
13. Belgium
14. Germany
15. Austria

And here are the bottom 12:

93. Cambodia
94. Iran
95. Kenya
96. Algeria
97. Tanzania
98. Nigeria
99. Pakistan
100. Cameroon
101. Central African Republic
101. Yemen
103. Sudan
104. Zimbabwe

(They only measured 104 countries; Uganda, Andorra, North Korea and Burma will have to wait for another year. The complete rankings can be found here.)

The Scandinavian countries always come near the top of pretty much every index, whether it’s press freedom, most livable cities, or maternal health. So no surprises there. And the bottom ones fit remarkably well with my own experience (FWTW). Nigeria, for example, is a much nastier place than raw statistics like per capita GDP might suggest. Cambodia is breathtakingly corrupt and is still suffering long-term aftereffects of the Khmers Rouges’ genocide. Sudan is somewhere that Ugandans turn away from with a shudder.

On the other hand, does Kenya really belong down there? The index dinged them hard on “Economic Fundamentals” — whatever those are; it never says — and “Safety and Security”. Which doesn’t seem right. Yeah, Nairobi has a crime problem and they just missed a civil war, but Sudan actually had a civil war, and let’s not even talk about Yemen or Pakistan.

At the other end, it’s hard to see how Germany ranks below the UK on, well, anything. Apparently Germany got low-ish ranks on “Economic Fundamentals” (#23 of 104) and “Democratic Institutions” (#21). Yeah, apparently Germany has weaker democratic institutions than Israel, Spain or Slovakia. The hell?

Okay, we could pick this thing apart on the details endlessly. That would be fun, but it quickly becomes pointless without access to their methodology. So.

Are there good indexes? A few. I’m particularly fond of the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. For one thing, they give their methodology, in detail. For another, it’s not a stupid methodology; you can certainly argue with it, but they’ve clearly given the matter a lot of thought. (As opposed to cut-and-pasting statistics from NationMaster into an algorithm, which is what a lot of these guys do.) And for another, it’s modest. It says what it is, right on the tin: an entirely subjective collection of perceptions, collected with rigor but nonetheless subject to all sorts of bias and flaws. The TI people emphasize that the index only tells you how corrupt people think Ukrainians or Albanians are, not how corrupt they actually are. I respect that.

What’s interesting is how almost all of these indexes, good and crappy alike, follow the same general pattern: First World countries filling up the top ranks, former colonies — especially in Africa — at the bottom.

I bet you could generate a very plausible looking index with just a handful of simple rules. Negative numbers are depressing, so everybody starts with 20 points:

+10 If you are in Europe
+6 If you are in North (not Central) America
-10 If you are in Africa

-3 if you touch the Equator
+3 if you are largely north or south of 45 degrees latitude
+1 more if you are entirely so

+1 if you are a small (<100,000 square km) country +1 more if you are tiny (<5,000 square km) -5 if you are landlocked +2 if your country existed 50 years ago +5 if you are a former colony populated mostly by people of European descent -1 if you're mostly Muslim That's 12 simple rules. Applying it to a few selected countries, I get 37 Ireland 36 Finland 31 United States 27 Argentina 15 Bolivia 14 Uzbekistan 11 Egypt 2 Uganda I'm tempted to spreadsheet it out. But that would be boring, and life's too short for boring things. No, if I didn't have small children, I'd create an index that measured... awesomeness. I'd call it the Awesomeness Index, and it would include stuff like average height of the population, medals per capita in the last Olympics, Nobel Prize winners, Miss Universe victories, and number of major concert arenas. There'd be a geography sub-index, with points for having really high mountains, and maybe something about beaches as well. Oh, and to give Africa a shot, some points for having large animals that can kill you. Because that's awesome. (But not small animals that can kill you, because then it's just Australia, Australia, Australia.) It would be totally subjective, and, at the end of the day, entirely meaningless. But at least the winner wouldn't be Finland again.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Europe and the world and tagged by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

20 thoughts on “Everyone must move to Finland right now

  1. “Yeah, apparently Germany has weaker democratic institutions than Israel, Spain or Slovakia. The hell?”

    They probably use a historic index 😉

  2. Let’s see how Canada would rate in your system:

    +6 If you are in North (not Central) America
    +3 if you are largely north or south of 45 degrees latitude
    +2 if your country existed 50 years ago
    +5 if you are a former colony populated mostly by people of European descent

    Total (with the initial 20 points): 36

  3. And here I thought I was the only person in the whole of Europe who goes apoplectic every time I see another study that claims that places overwhelmingly populated by white people are superior places to live. Glad to see I have company.

    I too, if I did not have a family, would spend my evenings tinkering in R, trying to find the right combination of percentage of white population, general ethnic homogeneity, and English speaking-ness that is the predictor of which places are better to live in, if only to see the linearity of the relationship, in all its glory, in black and white.

  4. Better yet, create a meta-index of all the other indices. Then make a map with the result with the top countries shaded in pink and the bottom ones in brown, just to underline the point.

  5. Other problems: Nothing on income inequality. The US would’ve probably ranked lower if it was included.

    Also, nothing on sustainability. It’s nice to see the right shifting from growth-centric to human development, with an explicit emphasis on health, education, governance, and social capital for their own sake (their contributions to well-being) as well as for their contribution to (inclusive) growth. But ignoring the question of whether such human development is built on a house of cards is criminal in this day and age.

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  10. Probably some Finnish party bought the study.

    A picture of a breadline in Turku, Finland. People (1000-1200 estimated) wait for free food. Some say it is only because it is free, but how many hours would you wait for 2-3 euros worth of food in cold weather?
    These breadlines have nothing to do with the recession, they were getting longer when the economy was at its best, too and they are not only in big towns, but in small ones as well.

  11. Algeria seems to be a somewhat questionable choice for the bottom ten. AFAIK the Islamic insurgency that tore through the country is largely over, and the government is non-democratic but allows for at least some civil rights.

    But not small animals that can kill you, because then it’s just Australia, Australia, Australia.

    If relatively small animals count you’d have to add Canada, what with the recent attack by coyotes on a young woman in Nova Scotia.

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  14. Well i read it for my country Portugal and it is risible, while the data is from 2007 they say we have a well education which is absurd and can only be judged by the enormous amount of money that is put in that incompetent sector.

    Concerning Democratic institutions well they need to get the test of the time and difficulties. I would say Israel is probably is one of more robust. They have an ex.President and an ex.Prime Minister with Justice problems.

    I see that Juan Velez wants even more wacky studies even with more elusive characteristics and impossible quantifications – the dream of politics and ideologue bureaucrats. So a society that only burns X but doesn’t contribute anything to knowledge is better than one that burns X2 but makes all research?

    And why is inequality should be considered? That only depends if inequality is unjust.

  15. Of course all these lists are nonsense. The “Awesome List” actually makes more sense, because it assumes that the “top” country will be chosen using a metric based on the dreams and passions of one person. This also happens to be how emigrants decide where to go to be immigrants.

    My Irish grandparents picked the US, but some Irish picked Argentina. Different ideas of Awesomeness.

    I would never live in a Scandinavian country, though I would love to visit. Just too much cold weather. I can’t abide the tropics, either. I already have skin cancer, thanks. Physical attributes are totally subjective.

    I would never live in a country without robust human rights, but I couldn’t care less about income inequality as a metric. Bill Gates lives a few hours away, and yet I sleep well at night. The local rich folk endow nice museums, zoos and institutions for me and my kids. Why would I want them to flee the country? Because it would reduce inequality? Silly…to me, at least.

    What about the value of diversity? I love that there are other places where people do things differently. In fact, if Mr. Muir compiles his Awesome List, it will probably contain a bunch of places very different from one another. Jamaica doesn’t try to be any place else. It’s sense of identity is one thing that makes it awesome. Same for Chile, or France.

    If folks within one country can’t agree on what is best for their own country, how can anyone pretend to have a single scale on which to judge all countries? This kind of thinking, when taken seriously, leads to a burning desire to control how others live, because WE know best. It also leads to stultifying conformity, and that is not Awesome.

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  17. Thank you such a lively discussion on the Prosperity Index and for your interest in the matter. I worked on the research for the prosperity index and am always excited to see it discussed, as well as criticized.

    I just wanted to add to the comments by pointing you to our full report, which includes the methodology and technical appendix, available here: http://prosperity.com/report.aspx
    It lays out our methodology, the variables used, and explanations regarding the data constraints that we faced (ie, why we could not include certain variables or certain countries). I’m sorry this was not made more obvious for the beginning. I hope you find it informative!

    additionally, i would like to highlight a feature on our website which allows you to interact with the rankings. http://prosperity.com/rankings.aspx
    you raised a great point that the sub-indexes are equally weighted, and we realize this is not a true reflection of how the drivers matter to countries. As a result, we have created a feature where you can assign different weights to each sub-index, according to what you think is more important in prosperity. Depending on your weighting choice, the overall ranking will change. I hope you find this tool interesting as well.

    Thank you again for your interest in the Index.

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