The Free Press—Prosperity Link: Time to Reexamine the Evidence

Guest post by Richard Winfield of the International Senior Lawyers Project

One of the classic arguments for a free and independent press is the economic one:  where the press is free and independent, robust economies are likely to flourish; where the press is government owned and unfree, economic outcomes suffer.  One of the earliest proponents for the free press-economic vitality argument was the Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen.  He famously pronounced that in modern times there has never existed a serious famine in a country with a moderately free press. When he was president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn further popularized the correlation argument, writing that a free press is not a luxury, it is at the core of equitable development.

Under Wolfensohn, the Bank undertook in the late 1990’s a 97-country survey testing the correlation.  The survey measured indexes of press freedom such as regulation of the media, and emphasizing the role of ownership of traditional media outlets.  Heavy state ownership, for instance, translated to less freedom.  The survey also measured, nation-by-nation, such indexes of economic outcomes as changes in gross domestic product, corruption, public health and education.

The Bank published its survey results in 2002 in its lengthy report, Building Institutions for Markets.  Chapter 10, The Media, made the statistical and anecdotal case that the correlation was alive and well.

The problems with this argument are: first, that the data supporting the claimed correlation are more than ten years old, and second, that the data are based only on the traditional media forms and do not reflect the impact of new media technologies.

Most critically, however, the principal studies that endorse the correlation argument fail to address the problem of China.  The spectacular economic success of China in the last three decades has coexisted with a media that is manifestly unfree to criticize the central government or the Communist Party.  China defies the correlation argument.  Since China’s population is about one-fifth of that of the world, the fact that the free press-prosperity correlation overlooks China altogether raises questions about the universality, and perhaps the reliability, of the argument.  Surprisingly, without citing the anomaly of China, the World Bank study concluded that the correlation exists.  If the correlation argument is to claim legitimacy today, a need exists for up-to-date surveys, more searching scholarship, attention to the impact of new media technologies, and, of course, consideration of the anomaly that China continues to represent.

In a word, the paradox of China’s booming economy in a no-man’s land of press freedom should energize a reexamination of the argument for a free-press-robust economy correlation.

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