World map of the United Nations’ inequality-adjusted Human Development Index
(The best countries are in dark green)
The question “what countries are objectively the best ones to live in?” is relatively easy to answer. Most would agree that such countries, among other things, guard their citizen’s personal safety and allow free expression, provide quality health care, economic prosperity, clean air and water, a good educational and a fair justice system, have minimal government corruption, respect the rule of law, etc.
However, the question “which country is best for me to live in?” is a very different question. Do you prefer a country where your family lives, one where a specific language is spoken, or one with a certain geography or climate? Do you want to be in the countries most immune from global climate change, one most likely to survive a nuclear war, or one with a low cost of living or minimal taxation? Given these and other subjective concerns, we can’t say definitely which country is best for an individual.
Pursuant to the above, I’ll try to answer the first question by looking at most of the prominent indexes. Then, I’ll aggregate the data and render some conclusions.
1) The UN Human Development Index
(The best countries are in dark green)
The United Nations HDI considers three dimensions: 1) health assessed by life expectancy at birth, 2) education measured by mean of years of schooling for adults and expected years of schooling for children entering school, and 3) wealth measured by gross national income per capita. The major flaw of this index is that it focuses on only three measures and it doesn’t consider inequality in how these dimensions are distributed. According to the 2018 HDI the top countries were:
1. Norway 2. Switzerland 3. Australia 4. Ireland 5. Germany
6. Iceland 7. Hong Kong 7. Sweden 9. Singapore 10. Netherlands
11. Denmark 12. Canada 13. USA 14. UK 15. New Zealand
16. Finland 17. Belgium 17. Liechtenstein 19. Japan 20. Austria
21. Luxembourg 22. Israel 23. South Korea 23. France 25. Slovenia
In response to the claim that the HDI doesn’t take into account the unequal distribution of health, education, and wealth in a country the United Nations introduced:
(The best countries are in dark green)
The UN states: “The IHDI combines a country’s average achievements in health, education, and income with how those achievements are distributed among country’s population by “discounting” each dimension’s average value according to its level of inequality.” The main deficiency of the index is that it still only uses three categories. Nonetheless, in my view, it is a better measurement than the HDI. Surely you would prefer a country with little inequality and a strong social safety net to one in which you might be either extraordinarily rich or extraordinarily poor. (For more see, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.) According to the 2018 IHDI, the top countries were:
1. Iceland 2. Japan 2. Norway 4. Switzerland 5. Finland
6. Sweden 7. Australia 7. Germany 9. Denmark 10. Netherlands
11. Ireland 12. Canada. 13. New Zealand 13. Slovenia 15. Check Republic
16. Belgium 17. Austria 17. UK 19. Singapore 20. Luxembourg
21. Hong Kong 22. France 23. Malta 24. Slovakia 24. USA
3) The Social Progress Index
The index of the Social Progress Imperative defines “social progress as the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.” (This definition reminds me of Aristotle’s idea of what good governments do.)
This is one of the most detailed indexes. Social Progress Imperative evaluated hundreds of possible indicators while developing the Social Progress Index, including engaging researchers at MIT to determine what indicators best differentiated the performance of nations. The index combines three basic dimensions each with four components,
1. Basic human needs – 1) nutrition and basic medical care, 2) water and sanitation, 3) shelter, and 4) personal safety. Do people have enough food to eat and are they receiving basic medical care? Can people drink clean water and keep themselves clean without getting sick? Do people have adequate housing and utilities? Do people feel safe?
2. Foundations of well-being – 1) access to basic knowledge, 2) access to information and communication, 3) health and wellness, and 4) environmental quality. Do people have access to an educational foundation? Can people freely access ideas and information from anywhere around the world? Do people live long and healthy lives? Is society using its basic resources so that they will be available to future generations?
3. Opportunity – 1) personal rights, 2) personal freedom and choice, 3) inclusiveness, and 4) access to advanced education. Are people’s rights as individuals protected? Are people free to make their own life choices? Is no one excluded from the opportunity to be a contributing member of society? Do people have access to the world’s most advanced knowledge?
Each component was then measured by three to five specific outcome indicators. This index offers one of the most comprehensive determinations of how well societies promote the flourishing of their citizens. According to the 2019 index, the top countries were:
1. Norway 2. Iceland 3. Switzerland 4. Denmark 5. Finland
6. Japan 7. Netherlands 8. Luxembourg 9. Germany 10. New Zealand
11. Sweden 12. Ireland 13. UK 14. Canada 15. Australia
16. France 17. Belgium 18. South Korea 19. Spain 20. Austria
21. Italy 22. Slovenia 23. Singapore. 24. Portugal 25. USA
(The best countries are in the darker green)
The Legatum Institute is a London-based think-tank whose index “is a framework that assesses countries on the promotion of their citizens’ flourishing, reflecting both wealth and wellbeing. It captures the richness of a truly prosperous life, moving beyond traditional macro-economic measurements of a nation’s prosperity, which rely solely on indicators of wealth such as average income per person …” This too is an excellent assessment.
The criteria used by the LPI are: 1) Economic Quality, 2) Business Environment, 3) Governance, 4) Education, 5) Health, 6) Safety & Security, 7) Personal Freedom, 8) Social Capital, and 9) Natural Environment. According to its 2018 index, the top countries were:
1. Norway 2. New Zealand 3. Finland 4. Switzerland 5. Denmark
6. Sweden 7. UK 8. Canada 9. Netherlands 10. Ireland
11. Iceland 12. Luxembourg 13. Australia 14. Germany 15. Austria
16. Belgium 17. USA 18. Slovenia 19. Malta 20. France
21. Singapore 22. Hong Kong 23. Japan 24. Portugal 25. Spain
5) The Corruption Perceptions Index
(The best countries are in the darker blue)
This index, published annually since 1995 by Transparency International, ranks countries “by their perceived levels of public level corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys.” The CPI defines corruption as “the misuse of public power for private benefit”. This index is excellent because it recognizes that higher levels of government corruption decrease the possibility of living well. Here are their 2018 rankings:
1. Denmark 2. New Zealand 3. Finland 3. Sweden 3. Switzerland
3. Singapore 7. Norway 8. Netherlands 9. Canada 9. Luxembourg
11. Germany 11. UK 13. Australia 13. Iceland 13. Hong Kong
13. Austria 17. Belgium 18. Ireland 18. Japan 18. Estonia
21. France 22. USA 23. Uruguay 23. UAE 25. Bhutan
6) The Global Peace Index
(The best countries are in dark green)
The GPI measures and ranks 163 independent states and territories according to their levels of peacefulness. It investigates the extent to which countries are involved in ongoing domestic and international conflicts. The assertion is that low crime rates, minimal incidences of terrorist acts and violent demonstrations, harmonious relations with neighboring countries, a stable political scene and a small proportion of the population being internally displaced or refugees can be suggestive of peacefulness.
In 2017, 23 indicators, reviewed annually by a panel of experts, were used to establish each country’s peacefulness score. This index is unique in using indicators such as: 1) military expenditures as a percentage of GDP, 2) the number of military personnel as a percentage of the population, 3) nuclear weapons capability, 4) volume of arms exports and imports of weapons per capita, and 5) ease of access to small arms. The index provides an excellent assessment of a country’s peacefulness, although it dramatically lowers the ranking of (especially) the USA and Israel. Here are the top countries in their 2019 rankings.
1. Iceland 2. New Zealand 3. Portugal 4. Austria 5. Denmark
6. Canada Sweden 7. Singapore UK 8. Slovenia 9. Japan 10. Switzerland
11. Czech Republic 12. Ireland 13. Australia 14. Finland 15. Bhutan
16. Malaysia 17. Netherlands 18. Belgium 18. Sweden 20. Norway
21. Hungary 22. Germany 23. Slovakia 24.Romania 25. Mauritius
(The USA ranks 128th. Israel ranks 146th.)
7) The UN World Happiness Report
(The best countries are in black)
The World Happiness Report is an annual publication of the United Nations which ranks national happiness based on respondent ratings of their own lives, which the report also correlates with various life factors. The only reservation I have about the index is that happiness is a subjective criterion. Here are their 2019 rankings:
1. Finland 2. Norway 3. Denmark 4. Iceland 5. Switzerland
6. Netherlands 7. Canada 8. New Zealand 9. Sweden 10. Australia
11. UK 12. Austria 13. Costa Rica 14. Ireland 15. Germany
16. Belgium 17. Luxembourg 18. USA 19. Israel 20. UAE
21. Check Republic 22. Malta 23. France 24. Mexico 25. Chile
8) The Good Country Index
(The best countries are in black)
The Good Country Index is a composite of 35 data points in 7 categories generated by the UN. These data points are combined to give an overall ranking. The seven categories are: 1) Science and Technology, 2) Culture, 3) International Peace and Security, 4) World Order, 5) Planet and Climate, 6) Prosperity and Equality, and 7) Health and Well-being.
According to its authors, “The Good Country Index tries to measure how much each country on earth contributes to the planet and to the human race.” The one reservation I have about the GCI is that many people prefer living in a country that makes their lives better independently of its effect on the world; rather than living in a country that makes the world better. (I’d argue that view is flawed, inasmuch as we are all interconnected.) Here is their 2018 list:
1. Finland 2. Netherlands 3. Ireland 4. Sweden 5. Germany
6. Denmark 7. Switzerland 8. Norway 9. France 10. Spain
11. Canada 12. Bulgaria 13. Belgium 14. Estonia 15. UK
16. Luxembourg 17. New Zealand 18. Austria 19. Italy 20. Australia
21. Latvia 22. Cyprus 23. Singapore 24. Japan 25. North Macedonia
(The best countries are in dark green)
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s where-to-be-born index (previously called the quality-of-life index) attempts to measure which countries will provide the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in the near future. It is based on a method linking the results of subjective life-satisfaction surveys to the objective determinants of quality of life. The main problem with this index is that it hasn’t updated since 2013 and it only ranks 80 countries. Here is their list.
1. Switzerland 2. Australia 3. Norway 4. Sweden 5. Denmark
6. Singapore 7. New Zealand 8. Netherlands 9. Canada 10. Hong Kong
11. Finland 12. Ireland 13. Austria 14. Taiwan 15. Belgium
16. Germany 17. USA 18. UAE 19. South Korea 20. Israel
21. Italy 22. Kuwait 23. Chile 24. Cyprus 25. Japan
The Press Freedom Index is an annual ranking of countries compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders based upon the organization’s own assessment of the countries’ press freedom records in the previous year. It intends to reflect the degree of freedom that journalists, news organizations, and netizens have in each country, and the efforts made by authorities to respect this freedom. Having a free press to expose government corruption and ensure the free flow of ideas is obviously crucial to having a good society.
1. Norway 2. Finland 3. Sweden 4. Netherlands 5. Denmark
6. Switzerland 7. New Zealand 8. Jamaica 9. Belgium 10. Costa Rica
11. Estonia 12. Portugal 13. Germany 14. Iceland 15. Ireland
16. Austria 17. Luxembourg 18. Canada 19. Uruguay South 20. Suriname
21. Australia 22. American Somoa 23. Namibia 24. Latvia 25. Cape Verde
The ND-GAIN Country Index is a measurement tool that helps governments, businesses, and communities examine risks exacerbated by climate change, such as over-crowding, food insecurity, inadequate infrastructure, and civil conflicts. Free and open-source, the Country Index uses 20 years of data across 45 indicators to rank 181 countries annually based on their level of vulnerability, and their readiness to successfully implement adaptation solutions. An array of analytic tools allows users to examine trends, play out scenarios, and investigate components over time. This may be the most important index of all. Here is their 2019 list.
1.Norway 2. New Zealand 3. Finland 4. Sweden 5. Australia
6. Switzerland 7. Denmark 8. Austria 9. Germany 9. Iceland
9. Singapore 12. UK 13. Canada 14. Luxembourg 15. USA
16. South Korea 17. France 18. Netherlands 19. Slovenia 20. Japan
21. Ireland 22. Czech Republic 23. Poland 24. Spain 25. Estonia
The BLI index was developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The recommendations made by this Commission sought to address concerns that standard macroeconomic statistics like GDP failed to give a true account of people’s current and future well-being.
A major problem with this index is that it omits dimensions like free speech, poverty, economic inequality, access to health insurance, and pollution. The other issue is that it covers only 40 countries making it the most incomplete index. While this has little effect on the top 15 or so countries—who probably would have been ranked there regardless—it elevates other countries into the top 40 simply because they were among the few considered. Here are their 2017 rankings:
1. Norway 2. Australia 3. Iceland 4. Canada 5. Denmark
6. Switzerland 7. Netherlands 8. Sweden 9. Finland 10. USA
11. Luxembourg 12. New Zealand 13. Belgium 14. UK 15. Germany
16. Ireland 17. Austria 18. France 19. Spain 20. Slovenia
21. Estonia 22. Check Republic 23. Israel 24. Italy 25. Japan
13) The Human Life Indicator HLI
This indicator also addresses deficiencies in the HDI. It “looks at life expectancy at birth but also takes the inequality in longevity into account. If two countries had the same life expectancy, the country with the higher rate of infant and child deaths would have a lower HLI.” Its main deficiency is the index’s use of longevity as the sole component for its rankings. Measuring countries on a single criterion skew the rankings of individual countries compared to other indexes. Here is its 2018 list:
1. Hong Kong 2. Japan 3. Iceland 4. Singapore 5. Spain
6. Italy 7. Switzerland 8. Sweden 9. Norway 10. Australia
11. Israel 12. France 13. Netherlands 14. South Korea 15. Luxembourg
16. Finland 17. Canada 18. Austria 19. Ireland 20. Slovenia
21. New Zealand 22. UK 23. Germany 24. Belgium 25. Denmark
(The USA was ranked 32nd.)
14) US News & World Report Best Countries to Live In
In my opinion, this is the worst index. It’s both incomplete, considering only 80 countries, and its criteria include suspect and novel categories not used in any other index such as:
Adventure: friendly, fun, pleasant climate, scenic, sexy;
Cultural Influence: culturally significant in terms of entertainment, fashionable, happy, has an influential culture, modern, prestigious, trendy
Heritage: culturally accessible, has a rich history, has great food, many cultural attractions
Movers: different, distinctive, dynamic, unique
Power: a leader, economically influential, politically influential, strong international alliances, strong military
Some of these categories are nebulous—what is sexy or fun?—and others have little to do with the quality of life. And others are controversial. You may agree that, for example, that military power makes your country safe from foreign invaders thereby enhancing your quality of life. But can you be sure of this? You might be less safe in such a country because other countries will disproportionately target you with their weapons, or you or your family will be more likely to die fighting in foreign wars, or all the money spent on your military could have been used to improve health, education, the environment, etc.
But rather than going into detail about the questionable criteria used here let me just say that any list that ranks China and Russia among the best places to live is suspect.
Here are their rankings:
1. Switzerland 2. Japan 3. Canada 4. Germany 5. UK 6. Sweden 7. Australia 8. USA 9. Norway 10. France 11. Netherlands 12. New Zealand 13. Denmark 14. Finland 15. Singapore 16. China 17. Belgium 18. Italy 19. Luxembourg 20. Spain 21. Ireland 22. South Korea 23. UAE 24. Russia 25. Portugal
The above are the most prominent indexes, bringing together many strands of evidence allowing us to draw reasonably strong conclusions—a claim strengthened by the fact that the rankings are quite consistent.
I’ll now aggregate the first 11 indexes weighing each equally. I’ll drop the BLI because it’s radically incomplete; the HLI because it only considers longevity; and the US News & World Report because it contained so many outliers. (Note that when I included these latter 3 indexes it hardly changed the rankings anyway.) And I used the median rather than mean to rank the countries to dramatically lessen the effect of outlier rankings.
|FIRST TIER (countries ranked in top 10 in all, or most, rankings.)|
|New Zealand 15,13,10,2,2,2,8,17,7,7,2=||7||7.7|
|SECOND TIER (countries ranked in top 20 in all, or most, rankings.)|
|THIRD TIER (countries ranked in top 30 in all, or most, rankings.)|
|Czech Republic 27,15,24,27,38,11,21,32,28,40,22=||27||25.9|
|South Korea 22,29,23,35,55,45,57,26,19,41,16=||29||33.5|
|FOURTH TIER (countries ranked in top 40 in all, or most, rankings.)|
|Costa Rica 63,60,34,31,48,33,13,34,30,10,61=||34||37.9|
|OTHER SELECT COUNTRIES|
|South Africa 113,102,73,68,73,127,106,47,53,31,81=||73||79.5|
UR = Unrated
1. If you don’t see your country in the list it’s because I focused on the top 40 countries and then added a few more select ones for comparison. In addition, for some very small countries, like Andorra and Liechenstien, I couldn’t find enough data.
2. Obviously, these rankings are subject to continual change. If the UK leaves the European Union, (Brexit), or if the USA continues on its present course undermining democracy and the rule of law their rankings will go down considerably. On the other hand, other countries may become more prosperous or peaceful and move up in the rankings.
3. Don’t place too much confidence that the 1st ranked country is better than 2nd which is better than the 3rd and so on. This is because the indexes disagree on exactly which evaluative criteria should be used and the relative weight given to them. But you can be relatively confident the 5th ranked country is better than the 15th, or that the 25th is better than the 35th. Overall, the rankings paint a good picture of the various countries.
4. One can quibble with the methodology of the individual indexes themselves. However, for the most part, they measure objective factors like longevity, per capita income, levels of education, etc. And, since the same countries do well or poorly in all or most of them, we can be relatively confident that the rankings provide a good way to measure countries.
5. Remember that the average rating for a country is an amalgam of many (often quite different) places in that country. For example, the ranking of the USA includes exclusive, prosperous suburbs and poverty-stricken ghettos—which often coexist in the same metropolitan areas. Obviously the quality of life in these places varies significantly.
6. Furthermore, there is a vast difference between living in rural Louisiana, Mississippi, or Oklahoma compared to living in Boston, San Francisco, or Seattle. These differences are especially significant for countries with vast economic inequality like the USA. They would also be significant for geographically large countries like Canada where the difference between living in Vancouver or Toronto would be so dissimilar to living in the Yukon. The above suggests that perhaps city rankings would be better than country rankings, especially for large, populous countries like the USA. Of course, even in cities, the quality of life would depend on the different neighborhoods within that city.
7. We could go even further and claim that your quality of one’s life depends, in large part, on who you are. Thus the adage “wherever you go, there you are.” This explains why some rich and powerful persons are miserable, while others with far lesser means are content. It also explains the phenomena of people being unhappy while vacationing in exotic locales. They are miserable or happy there because they took their own psyches with them.
8. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the quality of your life is entirely up to you. There are some places in the world where it would be impossible to live well—if you don’t have access to food or fresh water, if you are incarcerated unjustly, can’t receive an education, have no access to health care, etc. And there are other places—the top-rated countries above—which provide the conditions under which their citizens can flourish. Thus the value of ranking countries.
9. To reiterate, your own rankings would combine a consideration of the objective criteria about countries above with the many subjective criteria that matter to you. So the rankings provide, as far as is possible, an objective foundation as a starting point for your consideration.
10. In conclusion, if you have the opportunity and desire to move to a better country than you live in now, you should probably do it. Hopefully, the planet itself won’t be rendered uninhabitable from a runaway greenhouse effect, nuclear holocaust, or other existential threats. Let us hope that the future will indeed be better than the past.
Final Thoughts/ Food For Thought
The characteristics that the very best countries share, among other things, are: relatively low populations (most have less than 10 million people); a sustained governmental effort to provide clean air and water and fight climate change; relatively limited inequality; strong social safety nets, including universal healthcare; respect for individual rights, the United Nations, a free press, democracy, and the rule of law; and, for the most part, few firearms and relatively little religious belief.