Humans love to rank each other. We do it from birth through to our dying breath—we’re primates, and it shows.

We compare ourselves on looks, skills, strength, health, intelligence… And we extend the concept to suprahuman entities—movies,supermarkets, football teams, and countries.

In order to rank we need indicators, which are often grouped into categories. Suppose you wanted to rank people, to develop some kind of ‘human index’; you might start with physical indicators such as height and weight, which you could combine to extract further information such as your BMI. But you could also add looks, sense of humor, patience, and many other indicators.

The next step is to decide how these indicators can be grouped to provide an overall score—often colors are assigned to scores for greater clarity.

As a rule, indicators are assigned to categories, categorical scores are evaluated, and these are then combined into a final value.

One such index attempts to classify the nations of the world according to their democratic status. It’s a tall order, and to determine the rankings this approach uses no less than sixty indicators.

Spain narrowly makes it into the list of nineteen countries considered full democracies, as one analyst was at pains to point out in El País this week. His article plays on two Spanish phrases, presos políticos and políticos presos—the former are ‘political prisoners’, while the latter are ‘imprisoned politicians’.

The context for that article is the continuing debate about Catalan independence, and the potential extradition of Puigemont, who has now moved from Belgium to Germany.

Keeping score—the democracy index developed by the intelligence unit of The Economist.

The index piqued my curiosity. It uses five categories: electoral process and pluralism; functioning of government; political participation; democratic political culture; and civil liberties.

The number of questions varies with category, which makes perfect sense—you ask the questions that are relevant, and no more than that. Of course, this makes for some mathematical jiggery-pokery, to ensure all categories are weighted equally for the final score.

There’s a reason why I’m going into details on the methodology—you have to make sure the approach is correct before attempting to analyze the results.

Let’s do that. The democracy index uses traditional color-coding, but it’s not keen on green. Deeper blues, and a score between 8-10, are a Full democracy. The next group is paler blue, and is Flawed democracy. The yellowish 4-6 is Hybrid Democracy, and the last broad group (0-4) is Authoritarian Regime, rich in oranges and reds.

The problem with this kind of nomenclature is at the boundary of these classes. As an example, in the 2017 evaluation, Spain sits proudly in the full democracy category with 8.08, whereas South Korea, with 8.00 points, is a flawed democracy. In a similar way, Equador sits at the bottom of the flawed democracies (6.02) but Albania scores 5.98, making it a hybrid regime—hybrids are usually a good thing, but not in this case.

The difference between Spain and South Korea is 0.08, but in percentage terms that’s only one percent. It’s better to look at the scores and colors than at these class names, which are misleading.

Overall, however, it’s an attractive approach, though I wonder if things would be different if a panel of experts were asked for a top-down grade—I suspect in many cases the score would be similar.

Which bits of the map seem odd to me? I think South America as a whole looks a little optimistic score-wise, and I find it difficult to place France and India (or Portugal and India, for that matter) in the same class. South Africa also falls into that class—the sevens—which given the state of South African democracy, is questionable.

The index includes a couple of questions on the scale of corruption, and on government accountability. But it is missing something on the effectiveness and efficiency of the judicial system—can citizens expect swift and fair due process? That’s a key to democracy.

The corruption and government questions are two out of fourteen in the functioning of government section—so their overall weight is diluted.

Despite some shortcomings, and  perhaps too many questions—which may skew comparisons—this is a useful map. The high and low ends of the score are expected, with the US, Europe, and Canada performing pretty well, and the usual suspects bleeding red ink—China, Russia, and most of Africa.

What is missing is a translation of these results into proportions of the world population that map these democracy scores.

If we add that special sauce, the world turns into a sea of red.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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