“Scandinavia’s best lesson”

An interesting piece discusses the “real” lessons of Scandinavia.

It opens “During this presidential campaign season, Scandinavia’s democratic socialism has had something of a starring role in Democratic discussions. In the debate on October 13, U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders extolled the virtues of Europe’s north: “We should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway,” he argued, “and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” Sanders’ paean elicited a flat rebuke from Hillary Clinton: “We are not Denmark.” In truth, there are many things that the United States can learn from Scandinavia, but not what Sanders implies. Scandinavian countries call themselves foregangslande, or pioneers, and they have much to show in terms of forward-looking and innovative policy. Most everyone is familiar with the progressive ideas—from gender equality, universal health care, and energy sustainability—that have turned the region into a model for Bernie Sanderses everywhere”.

The article goes on to mention that this image has become tarnished, “However, in recent years, Europe’s north has also been home to more controversial practices—namely, restrictive immigration measures and austerity policies. They have also been rocked by the rise of radical populism. Because of their wealth and relatively small size, countries in northern Europe have had to face economic and social issues before some of the other Western countries. And the results reveal that it is best to be careful what you wish for. For the better part of the past century, Nordic countries seemed to provide a third way between East and West. At the height of the Cold War, this positioning was understood in diplomatic terms; some of the countries remained neutral. But before then and again more recently, it was a social-economic label. The region seemed to mix free markets and universal social protection better than anyone else”.

The piece adds “In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, policymakers and observers have understandably been tempted to draw back on the Scandinavian model for inspiration. But in the intervening years, the Nordic socioeconomic experience has changed beyond anything Childs could recognize. What made Scandinavia distinctive then was the state’s deep reach into the market; in recent years, it has retreated. Experiments such as the voucher system have introduced private choice in key public sectors such as health care and education. In Sweden, public spending as a percentage of the GDP has shrunk by a quarter over the past two decades. Bookshelves have filled with titles such as From Social State to Minimal State, a treatise by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, later to become Danish prime minister, in which he advocated an increase in private initiative”.

However the problem with this is example is that Rasmussen is from Vestre a liberal party that has an ideological commitment to shrinking the state. So to therefore imply that this is some kind of consensus is misleading, at the very least.

The author writes “In time, Scandinavians’ self-perceptions have changed. Globalisation and delocalisation have challenged the competitiveness of some of the region’s industrial champions. Inflows of migrants have made Nordic cultures more diverse. Over time, the Scandinavians have slowly crept away from traditional social democratic tenets toward more pragmatic and yet conservative positions. Even conservative icons such as Joseph Schumpeter and Ayn Rand have become increasingly popular at these latitudes. If Europe’s north still represents a middle way, it is not between free market capitalism and socialism. It is between two radically different visions of democratic politics. On the one hand, Europe’s north pioneered the kind of efficient and impartial technocracy that has been emulated elsewhere, most notably in the European Union. The region is a paragon of bureaucratic autonomy (defined as the extent to which the civil service is uncorrupt and operates without interference from political power). Not coincidentally, “getting to Denmark” is used metaphorically by scholars such as Francis Fukuyama and the World Bank before him as shorthand for states’ modernization and good governance”.

The author bemoans the rise of the technocracy and subsequent lack of accountable as it eats away at the consensus and communitarian values that have been the hallmark of much of Scandinavian governance yet the problems of technocracy and a lack of accountability and transparency are not uniquely Scandinavian but come from a general desire of politicians not to make decisions which could harm their electoral prospects.

He concludes “What Scandinavia has to offer the United States is more than a utopian vision of universal health care; it offers lessons about the future of liberal democracy. Scandinavia has accumulated valuable experience trying to reconcile technocracy and populism, a balance that can quickly deteriorate when it is not founded on a watertight social contract between the citizens and the state. The upheavals and wide divergence among Scandinavian countries in their responses to Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis testify to the risk. Indeed, Scandinavia’s best lesson for others is that, in the future, state success will rest on finding a middle way between the forces that pull liberal democracy in opposite directions”.


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