What do Mauritius, Jordan, New Zealand and Qatar all have in common?
Aside from none of those countries being among the world's 20 most industrialized (G-20) economies, they are considered more economically free than the U.S., according to the latest Economic Freedom of the World Index.
In fact, the world's largest economy — the place most synonymous with free market capitalism — ranks at No. 16 on the list. That finding is borne out by similar rankings which underscore the steady U.S. loss of competitiveness in an environment of stubbornly sluggish growth after the 2008 financial crisis, where annual expansion has yet to crack 3 percent.
It's a state of affairs that prompted the free market think tank National Center for Policy Analysis to examine the reasons why America's economy, while growing, has yet to recapture its long-term trend rate. Citing the decline in economic freedom, the NCPA's analysis found that the attrition has "put the U.S. score back right around where the country was in the 1970s. In other words, we have regressed from the Reagan and Bill Clinton years back to the frustrating economic conditions of the '70s."
In large measure, it may explain why frustration with the economy has morphed into the strain of populism that's become a centerpiece of the 2016 election. Still, according to the NCPA, there's more to the story than people think — and it has to do with a gradual erosion of private property rights.
The think tank dismissed the reasons and policy prescriptions deployed by both liberals and conservatives about what ails the economy, and what's required to fix it.
"Increased government spending, regulation and inflation are not what is giving us this fall in economic freedom — at least so far," the NCPA wrote. Instead, a legal system where private property rights are being eroded, and "surprisingly, a rise in the cost, and declining ease, of trade across borders," is behind the economic stagnation, the report said.
"The quality of the legal system in the United States has declined in the sense that it no longer delivers the rule of law or protection of private property like it once did," Ryan Murphy, a professor at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business who authored the report, told CNBC via email.