But this vision of homogeneous, altruistic Nordic lands is mostly a fantasy. The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship. Rather, Nordic people have made their decisions out of self-interest. Nordic nations offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble. This is what Americans fail to understand: My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me.
When I lived in Finland, as a middle-class citizen I paid income tax at a rate not much higher than what I now pay in New York City. True, Nordic countries have somewhat higher taxes on consumption than America, and overall they collect more tax revenue than the U.S. currently does—partly from the wealthy. But, as an example, here are some of the things I personally got in return for my taxes: nearly a full year of paid parental leave for each child (plus a smaller monthly payment for an additional two years, were I or the father of my child to choose to stay at home with our child longer), affordable high-quality day care for my kids, one of the world’s best public K-12 education systems, free college, free graduate school, nearly free world-class health care delivered through a pretty decent universal network, and a full year of partially paid disability leave.
As far as I was concerned, it was a great deal. And it was equally beneficial for others. From a Nordic perspective, nothing Bernie Sanders is proposing is the least bit crazy—pretty much all Nordic countries have had policies like these in place for years.
But wait, most Americans would say: Those policies work well because all Nordics share a sense of kinship and have fond feelings for each other. That might be nice if it were true, but it’s not, as anyone who has followed recent political debates about immigration or economic policy in Nordic countries understands….
Nordic countries are well-ranked when it comes to helping facilitate starting a business. At the most basic level, what the Nordic approach does is reduce the risk of starting a company, since basic services such as education and health care are covered for regardless of the fledgling company’s fate. In addition, companies themselves are freed from the burdens of having to offer such services for their employees at the scale American companies do. And if the entrepreneur succeeds, they are rewarded by tax rates on capital gains that are lower than the rate on wages.
Nordic economies go through cycles like all countries, and they make mistakes like everyone else—Finland is in the midst of a recession right now, whereas the Swedish economy is doing phenomenally well. As in any region, some Nordic companies eventually crash and burn, and others never get off the ground….
In an age when more and more people are working as entrepreneurs or on short-term projects, and when global competition is requiring all citizens to be better prepared to handle economic turbulence, every nation needs to ensure that its people have the education, health care, and other support structures they need to take risks, start businesses, and build a better future for themselves and for their country. It’s simply a matter of keeping up with the times.
Americans are not wrong to abhor the specters of socialism and big government. In fact, as a proud Finn, I often like to remind my American friends that my countrymen in Finland fought two brutal wars against the Soviet Union to preserve Finland’s freedom and independence against socialism. No one wants to live in a society that doesn’t support individual liberty, entrepreneurship, and open markets.
But the truth is that free-market capitalism and universal social policies go well together—this isn’t about big government, it’s about smart government. I suspect that despite Hillary Clinton’s efforts to distance herself from Sanders, she probably knows this. After all, Clinton is also endorsing policies that sound an awful lot like what the Nordics have done: paid family leave, better public schools, and affordable day care, health care and college for all.
The United States is its own country, and no one expects it to become a Nordic utopia. But Nordic countries aren’t utopias either. What they’ve done has little to do with culture, size, or homogeneity, and everything to do with figuring out how to flourish and compete in the 21st century.
In the U.S., supporters of not only Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but also of Donald Trump, are worried about exactly the kinds of problems that universal social policies can help solve: worsening income inequality, shrinking opportunity, the decline of the middle class, and the survival of the ordinary family in the face of globalization. What America needs right now, desperately, isn’t to keep fighting the socialist bogeymen of the past, but to see the future—at least one presidential candidate should show them that.