Not Perfect, But Better: Notes from a Nordic Tour

The Nordic countries better understand the public because they’re committed to personal independence.

I’ve spent the past few weeks traveling the region to study what Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh have called “statist individualism,” a distinctly Nordic approach by which the state guarantees personal autonomy. On this view, we shouldn’t be forced to depend on spouses or parents or children or neighbors for a decent life. Such dependence makes us less free. How to prevent this? Let the state ensure provision of necessary goods.

In my many conversations with locals about this, the overwhelming response was bewilderment: why ask about something so obviously correct? Isn’t that everyone’s view? Isn’t that the view in the U.S.?

Nordic folks are proud of their state. They brag about it. Even the tacky “Hop On, Hop Off” buses discuss details of welfare policies. Imagine! Sure, locals acknowledge the high taxes, but they do so no differently than any expensive investment with a good return. (Incentives still matter, of course—Sweden’s national pastime is crossing borders for cheaper booze.)

The American critic will find in these taxes dependence of a different sort, and will ask whether depending on the state is any better than on friends and family. What of government dysfunction? Couldn’t markets do better? And here too, the Nordic countries are remarkably pragmatic, from Sweden’s universal school voucher system to Norway’s public-private ownership of roads. The point isn’t that all these goods must be state-provided, but instead must be state-guaranteed.

Isn’t that better than Americans begging neighbors to help pay for cancer treatments? Than millennials relying on parents well into adulthood for housing or health insurance?

Humans will be dependent. That’s the nature of social life. The question for liberal societies is whether to bear that dependence individually or collectively. Nordic countries have found a way to do the latter, and do it well.

After 18 days—not long, but long enough for basic observations—I left the region with two impressions.

First, the Nordic peoples are almost certainly the freest people on Earth, largely because they’ve attacked the threats of “want” and “fear” that an American president once identified. Set aside your theoretical understanding of liberty and just look at the lives of the average Finn or Norwegian. Are not they freer than us?

Second, the Nordic countries have a grasp on the common good that’s lacking in the English world. It’s precisely the common good I’ve been pondering these past few years: not a greater good that means sacrificing one’s own interests for the whole, but the sense that when we protect the autonomy of each, we create forms of public life that promote, rather than invade, our freedom.

(And lest you think this is simply a theorist’s wish-fulfillment: the orientation film at the Danish Architecture Center—not exactly a treatise on political thought—invokes the phrase no less than three times.)

This encourages taking the long view of politics. No surprise that Greta Thunberg is Swedish—sustainability is everywhere. Future generations have agency. And when the status quo isn’t working, it gets changed: state programs that were wasteful in the 70s and 80s were cut back; when the Swedish parliament decided that its bicameral structure was inefficient, they just… changed it.

I’ve no illusions here: Scandinavians aren’t a race of altruists. Their politics still has conflict. They care just as much about their own interests as we do. But they also recognize that many of our interests are best served when guaranteed socially, rather than individually, and this grounds their distinct approach to the res publica.

Nordic politics isn’t perfect, but it is better.

The usual American reflex to all this? “What works there wouldn’t work here” someone told me a few years ago, with complete confidence, as if the characters of peoples and polities are fixed for all time. They’re small countries, we’re told. Homogenous populations. High social trust. They live on potatoes and pickled fish. What have they to teach Greatest and Freest Nation on Earth™?

We’re not so different as it might seem. True, Nordic countries are the most trusting, but we’ve no reason to believe they’ve passed some magic threshold. And at least some of that trust is driven by the strong welfare state and the reciprocity it fosters. As one Danish immigrant put it, “the state puts me through college and then I pay to do the same for others.”

Not long ago Americans trusted each other as much as Scandinavians do now. What changed? Too many causes to mention, but it doesn’t help that one of our parties is committed to—thrives on—anti-government rhetoric, whatever the costs. Conservatives work to cripple welfare programs and then bemoan their ineffectiveness. “See, the state doesn’t work!” says the Republican who’s just thrown gravel into the gears.

What about ethnic homogeneity? It’s a mistake to compare any one Nordic country to the entire United States, but comparisons to individual states are revealing: all but five states have foreign-born populations smaller than Sweden’s 19%. Our diversity isn’t what’s holding us back.

And those taxes? Sure, they’re high, but not that much higher than what you pay. And when you consider everything those taxes provide—excellent health care, a lifetime’s education, generous parental leave, daycare, nursing home care, and so on—they start to look like a bargain, especially for the middle class. Most of us would end up with more disposable income.

Again, not perfect, but better.

In short, the Nordics have moved one to two generations beyond the United States in building free and fair and modern societies. Fly from any major American airport to a comparable Nordic tarmac. Walk through the modern, sustainably designed airport. Take the cheap train downtown. Observe the families—so many families—and the bikes and the shops and green space. Pay close attention, and you’ll find humans just like us doing a better job building lives of stability and fulfillment.

This isn’t socialism. Instead it’s the fullest expression of liberal values yet attempted.

I’ve seen in these countries nothing—no mindset or habits or social institutions—incompatible with American ideals. We, too, pride ourselves in our independence, our love of liberty and equal opportunity. But our definitions of these concepts, and our attendant skepticism toward state activity, need updating, since the American model creates great precarity where none is needed. Ed Miliband was right: in this century, "if you want the American dream, go to Finland."

The Nordics are proof that we needn’t fear the democratic state. Both governments and markets can make us less free; both can promote autonomy. More important than the mechanisms by which we foster independence is our drive to do so, for everyone. Which is why there’s no magic in the Nordic model—just a commitment to individuals and their flourishing. Americans would do well to pay attention.

Political theory's finest achievement

The finest achievement of political theory is to help fill out our sense of human possibility—for good, but, more important, for bad or even evil.
— George Kateb on Judith Shklar

Nozick in Casteland

Suppose an island exists in a state of nature, long cut off from the outside world. Social conditions in “Casteland” are built on an ancient religion mandating three social classes:

  • Chieftains: a hereditary male line. The eldest automatically becomes “The Chief,” the island’s sole (de facto) authority in social and religious disputes
  • Men: All adult non-Chieftan men. (Chieftans who aren't The Chief are treated like all other men.)
  • Women: All adult women

Now suppose that at a certain point, the development of a minimal state proceeds along the lines sketched in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Several men attempt startup protective associations, but in the end only the Chief’s survives, since all agree that he should administer the rules. And he does so with excellence, perfectly enforcing the rule of law and protecting Lockean rights.

Women in Casteland have the same legal rights as men, but in practice live as an underclass.

Any transactions—buying or selling goods, contracting their labor—not approved by husbands or fathers result in shunning. Shunned women endure isolation, ridicule, and are often (socially) forced into exile. Single women and widows can buy property, but due to bias among lenders and realtors, always end up in ghettos.

For women the only socially accepted work outside the home is 16-hour days making bricks in toxic mud pits. Beyond this they can't find employers who will hire them, or customers to whom they can sell goods or services.

Casteland women feel these social conditions harm them (the island has a strong tradition of feminism) but accept their lot nonetheless. The Chief says the gods have willed their sorrow.

One day, a woman throws down her mud trowel and says: “I demand laws requiring better working conditions and equal employment opportunities. And I demand a say in the rules governing both!” The women around her cheer!

The Chief says no.

“All of the major moral arguments for a more extensive or powerful state are inadequate,” he replies.1

The woman is shunned for impudence, and life in Casteland continues as normal.

What, to this woman, does Nozick say?

  1. See ASU 276

Treasure in the fox's den

Aurelian Craiutu in the LRAB:

The publication of Berlin’s writings slowed down after the appearance of Personal Impressions in 1980. It was only toward the end of the decade that Hardy came up with the idea of collecting more essays in a volume that appeared later as The Crooked Timber of Humanity (1990). A key moment occurred when the editor was invited to visit the cellar of Berlin’s house in Oxford, which Hardy memorably describes as his “Tutankhamun’s tomb” moment. There he discovered a rich treasure consisting of miscellaneous papers, placed in various boxes, suitcases, and trunks. “The quantity of material was overwhelming, terrifying, and exhilarating,” Hardy notes. In total, here and elsewhere in the house, he found around 180,000 leaves, which ended up filling more than 800 boxes in the Bodleian Library. They included many texts that Berlin had put aside decades earlier, some of which had disappeared even from his own memory.

Ape shall often kill ape

Melvin Konner in the Atlantic:

Renowned for his meticulous fieldwork, especially with chimps in Uganda’s Kibale National Park, Wrangham showed just how common chimp brutality is. Goodall had acknowledged with frank regret that her beloved chimpanzees could be quite violent. One mother and daughter killed the infants of other females in their group. Males often coerced and beat females, and would sometimes gang up and attack a chimp from another group.

At Kibale, large groups of chimps range together, and aggression escalates accordingly. Wrangham observed as these bigger parties of males got excited and went out on “patrol” in what looked like an organized way: They walked along their territorial border, attacking lone chimps from neighboring communities when they came across them en route. In his 1996 book, Demonic Males, co-authored with Dale Peterson, Wrangham recapped this and other evidence to draw a dire portrait of humanity (the male version) as inherently violent by evolutionary legacy. Here was vivid support for a Hobbesian view of human nature, rooted in genetics.

Not fully Hobbesian, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless.

The affect of New Atheism

Aisling McCrea in The Outline:

In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that a lot of New Atheism devolved into reactionary, antifeminist, and even white supremacist thought, because it was never really about the things it claimed to be about. The dominant affect of New Atheism wasn’t humility, or reflexivity, or curiosity, all the things one truly needs to improve intellectually. It was smugness.

"Nobel curse" be damned

Oswald's work, for example, has included an examination of Nobel Prize winners' longevity, finding that winning the prize confers an extra year or two of life when compared with those who are simply nominated. Studies of winners of pretty much everything else -- Oscars, Emmys, baseball Hall of Fame induction -- have shown mixed results.

Carolyn Johnson in the Post back in 2015. [via Paul Musgrave]

The appeals of Nozick's transformation machine

Nozick's "transformation machine" is, to my mind, even more provocative than the experience machine.

Suppose the TM can, Matrix-style, upload the entire literature of a given field to your brain. Who among us would refuse?

To be sure, there's a certain pleasure in learning a discipline, but it is slow and often frustrating, and the opportunity costs are great. Imagine how much more rewarding one's reflections would be if one were not just well-read, but fully read.

Other cases are even easier. The process of learning a language is even less rewarding; the process of learning culinary knife skills is positively painful. Would we not infinitely prefer to have such knowledge as quickly as possible?

Nozick's concern is that the TM saps something vital about what it means to be like us. "[I]f the transformation machine could be used indefinitely often... there would remain no limits we need to strain against or try to transcend. Would there be anything left to do?" (44)

Certainly. Brains brimming with the sum of human knowledge doesn't mean there aren't new discoveries to make, or records to set, or inventions to invent. We are still limited by biology (he stipulates the TM can only transform us "compatible with our staying us") and this presents any number of boundaries to how much we can accomplish in a day or a lifetime.

All that the transformation machine offers is a means to avoid the messy process of getting there. And that has its appeals.

Encyclopedist, human, friend

Andrew S. Curran in the NYT:

He’s so interesting and human. He’s vulnerable, open, complicated and very fun to read about. He’s like Montaigne or Benjamin Franklin, too, in that he can become your friend — a lifelong companion. My thesis adviser at N.Y.U., who died last year, once told me the only man she has loved, other than her husband, is Diderot.

Works of genius

This anecdote from Jo Wolff often comes to mind:

I heard Hilary Putnam once say that you can tell a work of philosophical genius because “the smarter you get, the smarter it gets.” I think this is exactly what happens with Rawls.

There are no humans in the Snyderverse

Tom Breihan for the AV Club:

The thing you need to know about Zack Snyder: He doesn’t give a fuck about humans. He never has. Has there ever been a fully-formed, convincingly alive character in any Zack Snyder movie? Off the top of my head, the closest thing to one I can think of is Chips, the dog from the Dawn Of The Dead remake. Snyder’s characters don’t laugh or interrupt each other or trail off mid-thought. They don’t do things that humans do.

Distributed democracy: a sketch

No elections, politicians, or referendums. This is the promise of distributed democracy.

After the 2016 election, I began asking how to prevent another Brexit or Trump, and realized this would require a new model of democratic participation. It would mean replacing elections—and the partisan divisions on which they thrive—with direct democratic control.

Conventional thought says that direct democracy is only suited to localities; only so many people can fit in an assembly, only so many voices heard at a time. We once thought republics too must be small, but the American experiment proved that assumption false. Our century demands new experiments in democracy at scale.

The model I propose—let’s call it distributed democracy—not only solves the problem of scale, but focuses political life on the search for a common good. Electoral government by its nature emphasizes conflict, ambition counteracting ambition. This has given the human race more freedom than it’s ever known, but has proven inadequate for solving the national and global problems we now face.

We wanted popular government, and got government by popularity. This isn't the only way.

In the brief sketch that follows, I set aside most theoretical justifications. I will not explain how this model preserves liberty, draws on local knowledge, minimizes the tax burden, fosters healthy civil society, or offers forms of legitimacy lacking from modern electoral systems, though it accomplishes all these. Our political moment calls for triage—let us move away from injustice first and theorize along the way.


Distributed democracy is built on a network of delegate assemblies. Assemblies are small; perhaps 150 delegates at most. An assembly legislates for, and draws its delegates from, the geographical region containing most of those who are affected by a given issue. Call these regions polities.

Each polity is defined by a single issue domain—East Coast fishing rights, for example—and the wider the region affected, the larger the boundaries of the polity. These boundaries are fluid and overlapping, so that a citizen is simultaneously the member of many polities. Issues of human rights, necessarily affecting all, would be decided at the level encompassing the widest geographical area (which today would most often mean the nation-state).

Assemblies are provided with all the time and evidence and testimony needed for deliberation, and are asked to decide a single question: does the law allow for harm?

This question does not require that citizens be expert in any given issue. How could they, given the many matters government must consider? It demands only that they attend to the evidence presented and draw on their experience in judging questions of fairness. Rather than asking citizens to understand every nuance of policy, we ask them to engage their sympathies.

When an assembly declares that the law does allow harm, it then charges the civil service with finding the most effective and efficient remedy. That expert recommendation is then approved by the assembly in another majority vote on the same question, and is regularly reviewed to ensure efficacy. This encourages iterative improvements across time, and adds a self-correcting quality to the process.

Assembly service is mandatory, much like jury duty is today. Citizens serve on just one assembly at any given time, and rotate through assemblies every six years with staggered terms to promote knowledge sharing. Given the limited demands placed upon them, I expect assembly meetings to be regular but rare.

Still, this work requires more of citizens than is customary in electoral systems, and instead of adding to the demands placed on them, distributed democracy allows for a new model of citizenship that splits obligations of residency from citizenship.

Let citizenship be annually renewed by explicit consent. Its benefits? Access to social insurance and the power to help decide the course of law. Its cost? Civic participation. Those who forgo the former can avoid the latter, and simply pay for necessary geographic public goods (defense, infrastructure, etc.) through taxes paid by all those in the polity.

The distributed quality of this model allows for infinite scale. It is as practical for neighborhoods as it is for planetary systems. And since polities are defined by issue domains and not arbitrary political borders, it encourages regional and international cooperation. It is a politics for humans, however far the species travels.


Much work remains, of course. Not only in elaborating the various aspects of this model, but showing it to be feasible, effective, and more amenable to justice than the status quo.

But we can start today by interrogating its early form, identifying the challenges, and asking how it might be improved. I welcome your thoughts.

On "the will of the people"

The title of Albert Weale’s Will of the People: A Modern Myth announces its conclusion: there is no single “people” and citizens have no single “will.”

The book—a short book, written for the lay Guardian subscriber—does a fine job surveying the notion's real-world problems. Weale is at his strongest in describing its pernicious effects on Brexit:

Judge the will of the people by a popular referendum. Insist that all those who continue to oppose the result of the referendum are opposing the will of the people. Make conformity to the supposed will of the people the test of society’s democratic credentials. Keep repeating this stale formula. Be intolerant of dissent. Challenge the constitutional constraints of the courts and parliament. Allow the bully boys of the press to reinforce this message through attacks on opponents. One people; one will; one party. (112)

A better summary of the consequences has yet to be written. The popular notion of a popular will is, indeed, toxic.

Sadly Weale is mostly uninterested in the broader possibilities of the concept; Rousseau and Arrow and Condorcet make appearances but are never engaged as interlocutors. Rousseau in particular gets a strawman treatment—perhaps quite literally—since Weale concludes that we can judge the Genevan’s well-ordered society by considering “a small and isolated Swiss agricultural community called Törbel” (27). Where the contract, the Legislator, and civil religion feature in the bucolic politics of Törbel, Weale does not say.

Concede that “the will of the people” is a much-abused concept. Should we abandon it entirely? I will suggest not. For all the myriad problems with the social contract tradition, its central insight—that some common good makes government a rational choice—remains compelling. Rousseau expresses this best:

[I]f the opposition of private interests made the establishment of societies necessary, it is the agreement of these same interests that made it possible. It is what these different interests have in common that forms the social bond, and if there were not some point at which all the interests are in agreement, no society could exist. (SC 145, Collected Writings)

That last clause may be false; I’m not yet sure. But it seems correct that common interests help constitute the social bond. Whatever shared interests are present in plural societies must be exceedingly minimal—I think they extend no further than preventing harm—but they seem to exist nonetheless. And to the extent they do exist, they are expressed in a genuine will that the social bond be preserved.

One might respond that such a shared will is trivial, or meaningful but impossible to juridically define, or definable in ideal settings but not in the messy world of politics. All might be true.

But these are objections to the practical value of a popular will, not its existence. To prove that such a will cannot exist, we’ll need to look beyond the popular understanding of the concept.

Of course Trump has something on Lindsey Graham: His voters

Michael Tesler at Monkey Cage:

Graham’s approval rating among South Carolina Republicans declined by 30 percentage points from fall 2014 to 2016. In the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES), nearly two-thirds of Palmetto State Republicans approved of Graham’s job performance. Two years later, only one-third did.

By contrast, 69 percent of South Carolina Republicans in the 2016 CCES approved of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Graham’s colleague, with only 6 percent disapproving of the junior senator’s job performance. Nearly 90 percent of Republicans have approved of Trump throughout his presidency.

The brains of expert meditators

I approach early science like this with skepticism, but still—this is fascinating stuff.

"All of us get gamma for a very short period when we solve a problem we’ve been grappling with, even if it’s something that’s vexed us for months. We get about half second of gamma; it’s the strongest wave in the EEG spectrum....

What was stunning was that the Olympic-level meditators.... shows gamma very strong all the time as a lasting trait no matter what they’re doing. It’s not a state effect, it’s not during their meditation alone, but it’s just their every day state of mind. We actually have no idea what that means experientially. Science has never seen it before."

Bestsellers are getting shorter

As recently as 2011, the average book length of the #1 non-fiction bestseller was 467 pages. By 2017, however, that number has dropped to 273 pages.

Our orange Cyrus

Ralph Drollinger, who has led weekly Bible study groups in the White House attended by Vice President Mike Pence and many other cabinet members, likes the word “king” so much that he frequently turns it into a verb. “Get ready to king in our future lives,” he tells his followers. “Christian believers will — soon, I hope — become the consummate, perfect governing authorities!”

The evangelical kingship fetish should trouble us all.