Thought: Countries With Names That Sound Really Free Aren’t Actually Free


By Boyd Garriott


Opportunity Cost of Reading this ThoughtBurner post: $0.73 – about 3.3 minutes

What are some buzzwords to indicate that a country is free? A democracy? A government by the people? How about a republic?  If these are indeed the case, then it would seem that the freest country on the planet would have to be none other than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For those that are less geographically inclined, that’s North Korea. For those that are even less geographically inclined, that’s the bad Korea.

So what gives; why does the most unfree country have such a free-sounding name? North Korea isn’t alone in being a country notoriously bad on civil rights with a very “free-sounding” official name. Think Democratic Republic of the Congo or People’s Republic of China. Could it be that countries are compensating for their definitive lack of freedom with a “free-sounding” name? A normal person would probably take this a face value and have a laugh at the irony, but we’re not normal people at ThoughtBurner, so I’ve done some statistical analysis to figure out whether countries with free-sounding names are actually more oppressive.

First off, to figure out how free or oppressive a country is, I used a dataset[i] from Freedom House of around 200 countries that are rated based on their political rights and civil liberties. I downloaded the 2015 dataset, aggregated those two numbers and then converted the result to a scale between 0 and 100 with 0 being not free at all (think North Korea) and 100 being totally free (think USA). This allows us to calculate percentage changes in freedom.

Second, to figure out how “free-sounding” a country name is, I used the formal names of countries (as opposed to the short names; think Democratic People’s Republic of Korea vs. North Korea) which are listed on Wikipedia[ii]. I then gave countries a point for every term they used that seemed to endorse freedom: any variations of “Republic”, “Democracy”, or “People’s”. A score of 0 (Canada) indicates that a country’s name makes no endorsement of freedom while a score of 3 (back to our friends in North Korea) indicates that a country’s name sounds like the preamble to the Constitution.

I then regressed these two numbers, and I found some interesting results. For every “freedom-endorsing” term in a country’s title, its citizens can expect to be 14% less free at a statistically significant level. To give you an idea of what that means, check out this chart below:


That’s right; as a country gets freer in name, it gets less free in reality. The average freedom for a country without any free-sounding descriptors is 69%, better than the world average of 61%. However, the average freedom for a country with three free-sounding descriptors – including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – is an appalling 11%. As a matter of fact, every country with that many free-sounding descriptors is classified as “not free” by Freedom House.

Even countries with just “Republic” in the name are, on average, 10% less free than countries without free-sounding descriptors. By the time that jumps to something like “Democratic Republic”, we’re talking 17% less freedom!

If that wasn’t ironic enough, consider this: countries with any variation of “king” or “kingdom” in their name are actually, on average, more free than countries with any freedom-sounding descriptor. That’s right: countries that explicitly endorse monarchy in their names are freer than those that explicitly endorse freedom. Granted, many countries with “king” in their name are modern European democracies like the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Demark, so that explains some of the irony.

There are three important lessons to take from this.

  1. North Korea is the bad Korea (again, this one is more of a reminder for the less geographically inclined).
  2. Countries that sound really free usually aren’t that free.
  3. Yep, countries compensate for being terrible places by having nice-sounding names.

Wonky Stuff:

Regression of Freedom Score on Number of Freedom Descriptors


Important Statistics


Further Explanation of the Methodology

I came to the conclusion to use the freedom descriptors that I did after quite a bit of thought. First off, the words “Republic”, “Democracy”, and “People’s” are pretty bold adjectives that describe a form of government that represents the needs of free citizens. It should also be noted that I used the search string “Democr” to get any name that described itself as “Democratic” as well. Similarly, I searched the string “King” which also included “Kingdom”.

Next, I actually put quite a bit of thought into choosing my freedom descriptors, so here’s some explanation on other contenders that I didn’t count. “United” seems to be an obvious contender, but it’s not a word that actually describes a free society; citizens under the rule of a dictator are “united”, but they certainly aren’t free. “State” also came up pretty often in the dataset, but a state is just a sovereign territory that doesn’t make any claim as to the type of government it employs. On similar grounds, I rejected using “Principality” or “Commonwealth”. “Federal” came up, but that describes multiple states under a central entity – nothing about freedom.

I used country’s official English names because… well… I don’t speak like a hundred languages.

Lastly, to be clear about the graph, the labels on the bottom are illustrative but still accurate. The true labels would be “0 Freedom Descriptors”, “1 Freedom Descriptors”, etc. However, I took the liberty of putting common country titles that illustrated the amount of “Freedom Descriptors” they corresponded to. For example, “Democratic Republic” is usually what a country with freedom descriptors looks like, but there are exceptions such as the People’s Republic of China. There are two freedom descriptors, but it doesn’t fit neatly into the graph. In the end, however, I think it presents the information fairly.

Boyd Garriott is ThoughtBurner’s Chief Contributor. Boyd received his undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He currently lives in Washington D.C. and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall.






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