Not Perfect, But Better: Notes from a Nordic Tour

The Nordic countries better understand the public because they’re so 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 those tacky Hop On, Hop Off buses have narration about 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 eco-friendly, artfully designed airport. Take the fast, 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.