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Mar 12, 2013

Free Markets Series E8: Freedom Index

People with differing values often appear to be separated by an unbridgeable chasm. According to Michael Walker, economist and former executive director of the Fraser Institute, what is needed to bridge that gap is facts that accurately describe a situation. His personal mantra sums it up nicely: If it matters, measure it.

In a democracy, if it is the people who ultimately make the decisions, then the people need to understand the issues—and in order to understand the issues, they need reliable, replicable, simple statistics. The Fraser Institute’s purpose in measuring and comparing everything from schools to hospitals to countries has been to promote better public policies by providing people with the means of judging how well current policies are working.

Take the Institute’s School Report Cards, which measure the academic performance of different schools. “The intent was to inform the parents, because we felt that the only way in which meaningful change would come to the school system is if the customers of the schools were properly informed about the performance of the schools,” explains Walker. Contrary to the objections of some, the data show that students’ impoverished socioeconomic backgrounds are no excuse for poor school performance, and that quality principals and teachers can make a great deal of difference.

As for the progress of economic freedom in the world, it’s a mixed bag. Sky-high deficits are a real worry in many western countries, argues Walker. “We always say, ‘No taxation without representation.’ Well, deficits are taxing a future generation to spend today, and that future generation has no say in what’s happening.” On the other hand, the gains in freedom in India and China alone compensate for the retrenchments elsewhere if weighted by population, a fact worth celebrating.