Monday, January 8, 2018

Nordic Societies and the Nordic Theory of Personal Freedom

The Nordic states include the Scandinavian nations of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark plus Iceland and Finland.  They all have similar philosophies with respect to the role of government in society.  To outsiders—especially those in the United States—these governments are thought of as being socialistic because they levy high taxes and provide a broad array of “cradle-to-grave” services that sap individual initiative by creating a dependency upon the “nanny” state.  These are all robustly capitalistic economies so the label of “socialist” is complete nonsense.  However, these states do use their tax revenues to provide free, or nearly free, services such as preschool childcare, education, healthcare, unemployment benefits, and pensions.  But what if the effect of all these services is not to damp individual initiative, but to promote it?  That is the contention made by Anu Partanen in her book The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life.

Partanen, a journalist, is from Finland where she viewed the services provided to her as logical, natural, and very beneficial.  She moved to the United States following a romantic interest (it would be easier for an English-speaking Finnish woman to find work in the US than for an English-speaking man to find work in Finland).  She found it difficult and confusing to have to deal with acquiring all the services her former government had provided through the private sector in her new home.  Her book details this process and provides her comparisons between Finnish/Nordic ways and those of the United States.  Of particular interest are her comments on the differing concepts of individual freedom/liberty as viewed by her new and old homelands.

Many in the United States view liberty/freedom as the lack of restraints on what they might choose to do.  Government is viewed then as an agency which could interfere with your freedom by providing constraints.  From this perspective, government should play as little a role as possible.  However, by having little interference from government, the individual is left with the freedom to pay for his own education, pay for his own healthcare, and spend his life saving to educate his children and to survive the years in which he no longer can work for a living.

This so-called freedom, in fact, enmeshes individuals in a web of constraints imposed by family, friends, and employers.  Is a woman really free if she is unable to quit her unpleasant job because she would lose the healthcare provided by her employer; is she free when she must stay in an unhappy marriage because she is tied to her husband’s benefit plans at work; is she free if she must see her children grow up without the educational and social benefits available to wealthier families; is she free when she must ask her parents and friends for assistance in raising her children?  By limiting the role of government in providing services to individuals, the citizens of the United States have encumbered themselves with a host of other dependencies.

In Partanen’s view, society in the United States operates under an ancient paradigm that is inconsistent with a modern capitalist society.  The modern paradigm would include the notions that the most effective society is one where success is not determined by the income of one’s parents, where the choice of employment is not determined by power of an employer to grant or withhold healthcare benefits, where every child receives the same educational opportunity whether they were born to poor or to wealthy parents, and where one can pursue vocations of choice, not just the ones that promise a healthy income.  In such a society, people would have more freedom, not less.

“Indeed, what if the entire purpose of the state in the twenty-first century, as agreed upon and expressly stated by its citizens, was not to take more power away from people, but just the opposite: to push the modern values of freedom and independence even further, to provide the people with the logistical foundation for the most comprehensive form of individual liberty possible?  It is exactly this exceptional commitment to individualism that defines the Nordic social contract today.  And the results of this approach are plain to see from the Nordic region’s rankings in global surveys, not only in quality of life but in economic dynamism as well.”

“What really motivates….Nordic citizens to support their system isn’t altruism—no one is that selfless—but self-interest.  Nordic societies provide their citizens—all their citizens, and especially the middle class—with maximum autonomy from old-fashioned, traditional ties of dependency, which among other things ends up saving people a lot of money and heartache along with securing personal freedom….Nordic societies are, in fact, the most individualized societies on the face of the earth.”

Partanen lists some of the old-fashioned, traditional dependencies that detract from individual freedom.

“….the goal [of Nordic societies] has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children.  The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”

Partenan refers to what she calls the Nordic theory of love.

“The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.”

Let us pursue the consequences of this theory of love.

Two individuals who are attracted to each other may decide to marry or not.  It makes little difference financially; each person will have their own source of income and file their taxes separately.  If they decide to have a child, both parents will be provided, by law, with generous family leave and be required to make use of it.  As a practical matter, the mother will accept the greater burden early in the infant’s life, but the father must also take off time from work to ensure that both parents will suffer any consequences that might ensue from being away from the workplace for a significant amount of time.  The Nordic states are said to be the most female-friendly in the world.

When both parents are ready to return to work full-time, childcare will be available at minimal cost.  The purpose for providing that state-supported service is enhanced economic efficiency in the workforce, but it is also the first step in producing independent citizens in society.  The goal is not to teach young boys and girls to learn to read and write at an early age, but to teach them how to operate as independent individuals—ones not totally dependent on their parents.  When the child goes to school, it will be to a state-supported institution like ones all the other children go to.  The curse of private education has not descended on the Nordic nations yet.  By the time the child reaches the age of eighteen he/she is expected to be totally independent, financially, form his/her parents—and the parents independent of him/her.  The parents cannot impose any constraint on the young adult’s vocational choices.  If he/she chooses to go to a university, tuition is free and low-cost loans are readily available to provide funds to cover living expenses.  These funds can be paid off in what is essentially a tax of a few percent on earnings.  When the parents grow old and too feeble to care for themselves their needs will be provided by the state.  Neither the parents nor the child have any dependency on the other except for whatever feelings of affection exist.

Partenan says that the Nordic theory of love works and provides strong family and social ties.

“All of this creates relationships that are much freer of resentments, guilt, and baggage.  In this sense then, the Nordic theory of love is an intimate philosophy for how empowered individuals can engage in personal relationships in the modern age.  Liberated from many of the more onerous financial and logistical obligations, we can base our relationships with family, friends, and loved ones more on pure human connection.  We are also freer to express our true feelings in our relationships with others.”

Partanen provides us with these words of advice.

“Seen from a Nordic perspective, the United States is stuck in a conflict, but it’s not the conflict between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s not the old debate about bigger government versus smaller government.  It’s the conflict between the past and the future.”

There is no law against learning from others.  The services provided in Nordic countries are a lot cheaper than one would think.  And the Nordic middle classes seem to have plenty of money left over to spend on those five- and six-week paid vacations they are given each year.


The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

Why Swedish College Students Are Happily in Debt

Scandinavia and Gender Equality

Taxation, Redistribution, and Social Insurance

The Creation of the Middle Class

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