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:
9. United States
10. New Zealand
12. United Kingdom
And here are the bottom 12:
101. Central African Republic
(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
31 United States
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.