The Economist’s annual Democracy Index is now available for downloading (you may need to register, but it’s free). It gives a ranking to 165 independent countries (plus two territories, Hong Kong and Palestine), excluding mostly microstates, in five dimensions as of the end of 2013: electoral process, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. Combining the five it gives an overall score (out of ten) and a rank order.

The  25 countries with scores of eight and above it describes as “full democracies”; those scoring between six and eight (51 of them) as “flawed democracies”; four to six (38) as “hybrid regimes”; and below four (51) as “authoritarian regimes”. (Note that these numbers do not quite match those given in the summary table, table 3, although the differences are minor; the table appears to use mostly 2012 data.)

We often talk about whether countries are democracies or not, so it’s always good to have an authoritative source attempt a classification. The Economist has been doing this since 2006. But I’m not sure that the overall democracy ranking is as useful as the magazine thinks it is.

Read for yourself the methodological section (pages 25-29), in which the Economist notes that it uses a “thick” concept of democracy. Then read the BBC report in which it defends the ranking of France as a “flawed democracy” – a category that, counterintuitively, also includes such countries as Chile, Portugal, Slovenia and Poland, even though South Africa, Japan and the United States make it into the “full democracy” bracket.

There are issues at the other end of the scale as well. Yemen, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, which all have held genuine if seriously flawed elections, are ranked lower (although all within the category of “authoritarian regimes”) than China, which is a one-party state.

I think the problem is that what’s really being measured here – perhaps in line with the interests of the magazine’s largely business readership – is something that’s edging away from just “democracy” into more “quality of life” characteristics. The writers are telling us that they’d rather live in China than in Zimbabwe, a judgement which, for what it’s worth, I basically agree with. But that’s quite consistent with saying that Zimbabwe is more like a democracy.

Compare this with Freedom House’s rankings, which are the Economist’s more well-established competitor (in the field since 1973). It ranks 195 countries (all members of the UN, plus Kosovo and Taiwan), describing 122 of them as “electoral democracies”. That includes all but one of the Economist’s “full” and “flawed” democracies (the exception is Malaysia), but also 22 of its “hybrid regimes” and even one of its “authoritarian regimes” (the Comoros).

Using instead Freedom House’s ranking for “political rights”, a broader concept than just electoral democracy, gives a better correlation with the Economist’s results, although there are still some odd anomalies: Ghana, for example, is in the top category for Freedom House (rated one on a seven-point scale), but only just makes it as a “flawed democracy” for the Economist.

As the old saying has it, the person with one watch knows what time it is, but the person with two watches is never sure. Similarly, getting different results from two expert assessments of the same basic data brings home the lesson that these are not hard factual judgements. Democracy as a concept has an inherently subjective component, and different observers will be looking for different things.

My personal view is that Freedom House is doing a better job of measuring what I think democracy is about: the ability, real as well as formal, for people to peacefully change their government if they so choose. But the alternative view from the Economist is a valuable resource as well.

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