Does Economic Freedom Make a Society More Tolerant to Minorities?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The more open the economy of a country, the more open its people will be, right? The theory was posited by Swedish economists Niclas Berggen and Therese Nilsson in a paper published in Kykklos. The economists set out to determine whether countries with higher levels of economic freedom would have more tolerant societies. They ultimately found that, at least in some areas, it does.

To create their study, Nilsson and Berggen used tolerance levels measured by the World Values Survey, which has been measuring worldwide opinions for decades, looking specifically at tolerance for race and homosexuals, and at the countries’ attitudes concerning the importance of teaching children tolerance. They concurrently compared the scores of 65 countries measured by the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom Index, which looks at “size of government, legal structure and security of property rights, access to sound money, freedom to trade internationally, and regulation of credit, labor and business.”

Economic freedom breeds less homophobia, but the same tolerance doesn’t necessarily extend to race

The authors concluded that there was indeed a correlation between economic freedom and more tolerance for LGBTQ folks. However, Berggen and Nilsson found that the “correlation is weaker between economic freedom and tolerance for people of a different race than between economic freedom and tolerance toward homosexuals and our measure on the importance to teach kids tolerance.”

map of the world’s most and least tolerant countries, published by the Washington Post, cited India and Jordan (which ranks eighth on the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom list) as the least tolerant countries, noting that in “only two of 81 surveyed countries, more than 40 percent of respondents said they would not want a neighbor of a different race.” Meanwhile they found Anglo and Latin countries to be the most tolerant, with countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil being the most likely to embrace racially diverse neighbors.

The authors speculated that the reason for this could be because “homosexuals are seen as part of one’s own group, already integrated into families and workplaces” or perhaps go unnoticed, while race differences are more easily noticed. And people of another race are more easily “perceived as outsiders and less integrated into social life and the labor market.”

Of course, there are exceptions

Looking at the countries with the most economic freedom, as ranked by the Fraser Institute based on 2012 statistics, we find Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, Mauritius, United Arab Emirates, Canada, Australia, Jordan, Chile, and Finland in the top 10. As these are the countries with the most economic freedom, it would follow they ought to have the highest tolerance for LGBTQ rights. But in Hong Kong, same-sex relationships are not legally recognized, and in Singapore, male same-sex sexual activity is still technically illegal, even if the law is rarely enforced.

Many other countries in the top 10 don’t recognize the the full legal rights of same-sex couples, but some are more progressive than others and have discrimination laws. So perhaps the people in these countries are more tolerant on average toward same-sex couples, but the laws don’t fully support the tolerance of the countries’ people — just as over half of Americans supporting same-sex marriage doesn’t make it a law. Which brings us to our next question.

How is tolerance measured?

Steve Saideman, a professor at Carleton University who studies ethnic conflict, pointed out in response to the map of the world’s most and least tolerant countries that there are different ways to gauge racial intolerance. The map was based on the World Values Survey data (same as was used in the Swedish economists’ paper), which used the question of whether people in a given country would want neighbors from other races as a basis for whether those people are racially tolerant. Saideman wrote in response, “living nearby is a moderate test of the question of tolerance. Can you work with group x? Can be friends? Can have in the family? Oh, yes, that is a tougher test of tolerance.”

More from Politics Cheat Sheet: