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Is It Too Simplistic to Say America Should Imitate the Nordic Economies?

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Anu Partanen’s new book challenges “socialist nanny state” stereotypes of her native Finland, and its neighbors.

Canada and the United States have taken a lot of flak from critics who’d like them to be more like the social democracies collectively known as the “Nordics”: Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. Now a naturalized American from Finland has made the strongest case yet that the U.S. (and by implication Canada) really need to go Nordic.

Anu Partanen was thriving as a journalist in Helsinki when she met and fell in love with an American academic. She followed him back to New York City, where she suffered severe culture shock. Aspects of life in Finland that she’d always taken for granted were now gone: health care, free public and post-secondary education, affordable day care and reasonable job prospects – not mention housing.

She was now in a country where all those givens had to be fought for, and paid for. If Partanen had taken her Finnish benefits for granted, Americans seemed to take it equally for granted that such benefits must depend entirely on having a good employer or a good family.

Stranger still, the Americans thought themselves super-individualists when their well-being depended entirely on such relationships. Question those relationships for a moment, and you might lose your job, your family, your status, and your home.

“I was used to hearing the Nordic countries dismissed as ‘socialist nanny states,’” Partanen writes. “But ironically it was here in America that businesses trying to manufacture products and make a buck had somehow gotten saddled with the nanny’s job of taking care of their employees’ health.”

Partanen turned to Nordic thinkers to make sense of her situation and discovered what she describes as “the Swedish theory of love”:

“The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal. This notion represents exactly the values that I grew up with and that I feel are most dear to Finns as well as people from other Nordic nations, not just Swedes, so I like to call it ‘the Nordic theory of love.’”

This is the “theory of everything” that Partanen proposes as the basis of the Nordic nations’ political, economic, and educational success. For many North Americans, her arguments are like going into your first sauna and then feeling the impact of the first splash of water on the hot rocks.

Free of all dependency

Partanen cites a Swedish historian, Lars Trägårdh, who argues that “the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal 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.”

far from being docile servants of nanny states, Partanen argues, the Nordics are bloody-minded individualists – because they can afford to be. That personal autonomy, Partanen says, means that no one has to stay in an abusive marriage (and risk death) because they need the abuser’s income. No one has to borrow from the Bank of Mom and Pop for the down payment on a condo, because everyone leaves post-secondary debt-free. And when Mom and Pop grow old, the kids don’t have to bear the brunt of caring for them: the whole society does that. The kids can spend quality time with their failing parents instead of changing their diapers.

So Nordic husbands and wives do their personal income taxes, individually, on postcards. (Faced with a U.S. tax return, Partanen handed over the baffling process to an accountant.) Nordic kids are also Nordic individuals, deserving personal support regardless of the parents’ success or failure. So the child poverty rate in the Nordics is embarrassingly low compared to the 20 per cent in British Columbia over the last 20 years.

Partanen describes some Nordic companies as examples that American firms might follow – companies that routinely grant months of parental leave to their employees. In such firms, the business plan encourages workers to have plenty of family time and happy children: they’re better workers that way. Far from losing money, Nordic companies prosper and their countries are among the most competitive economies in the world.

An antiquarian America

Partanen shows her journalistic skills in chapters on raising families, education, and health care. She’s done extensive research, dramatized by anecdotes and interviews with both experts and ordinary people. And she contrasts Nordics’ experiences with those of her new American friends, who start hunting for day care long before their babies are born, and then fret about affording a home in a neighbourhood with good schools.

Such worries stem from what she considers “antiquarian” about the supposedly modern U.S.:

“Continuing to live in the past is costing Americans dearly. American families pay in lost income, in stress, and in hardship – all of which spawn an enormous burden of anxiety that I could observe all around me, and that I started to suffer from myself soon after I settled on American shores.”

Some Americans defend their antiquarian system by arguing that the Nordics are small, ethnically homogeneous countries. It’s an implicitly racist argument: All-white countries will naturally do well, but those pesky non-white minorities are why U.S. schools are bad and kids are poor. Partanen points out that many American states are no larger than Nordic nations, and often more homogeneous. (Cities like Stockholm and Helsinki have thriving African, Asian, and Arab communities.)

For all her criticism, Partanen is obviously besotted with her new country’s energy, ambition, friendliness, and optimism. She’s far tougher on the Nordic nations’ dour, negative attitude. The Nordic theory of love may make them the world’s biggest romantics, but she doesn’t always find Nordics the most lovable company. If only they were more exuberantly American, and the Americans more rationally Nordic!

Canadians reading this book will likely see themselves as semi-Nordic, but heavily influenced by American culture. We’re proud of our healthcare, and now the Canada Child Benefit has kicked in. But we tolerate levels of child poverty and education inequality that would topple any Nordic government overnight.

Partanen sometimes lays on more arguments than she really needs, but her book’s key value remains the same: she makes us re-think the whole concept of social democracy, and nudges us from Fraser Institute clichés about the welfare state to the Nordic idea of the “wellbeing state.” We see the purpose of such a state as encouraging its citizens to be free individuals, not faceless subjects of an all-powerful state.

Seen that way, the Nordic theory of everything should attract far more Canadian supporters from the centre and even the right. Who knows? If the Conservatives ever go Nordic, they could give Justin Trudeau a real run for his money.

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