Lessons From Norway

Following my recent post about the merits and applicability of the Nordic Model, I figured I would continue with a more in-depth analysis of the Nordic country that can perhaps be considered the most exemplary: Norway, which has consistently been ranked as the best country in the world in overall human development and prosperity.

Needless to say, a nation with as many plaudits and positive outcomes as Norway deserves some measure of scrutiny. What accounts for the country’s unprecedented success in just about every area of human flourishing, from economic wealth and security to civil liberties and health? How did a country that was once among the poorest in the world rise to the upper echelons of social, economic, and political achievement?

American writer Ann Jones spent four years living in this seemingly idyllic country, and recounts her experiences — and why Norway has succeeded where the U.S. has failed — in an article in TomDispatch, later reproduced for BillMoyers.com. She found that enjoyed short working hours, ample time for family and leisure, an accommodating pace of life, and an overall sense of safety and satisfaction.

Most importantly, Norwegians, like the rest of their Nordic neighbors, take a pragmatic approach to government, supporting policies across the political spectrum based simply on whether they work for the majority of people at minimal cost.

In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power — not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a path in between. That path was contested — by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand and capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other — but it led in the end to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the twentieth century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps, while chucking out the worst.

In 1936, the popular U.S. journalist Marquis Childs first described the result to Americans in the book Sweden: The Middle Way. Since then, all the Scandinavian countries and their Nordic neighbors Finland and Iceland have been improving upon that hybrid system. Today in Norway, negotiations between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise determine the wages and working conditions of most capitalist enterprises, public and private, that create wealth, while high but fair progressive income taxes fund the state’s universal welfare system, benefitting everyone. In addition, those confederations work together to minimize the disparity between high-wage and lower-wage jobs. As a result, Norway ranks with Sweden, Denmark, and Finland among the mostincome-equal countries in the world, and its standard of living tops the charts.

So here’s the big difference: in Norway, capitalism serves the people. The government, elected by the people, sees to that. All eight of the parties that won parliamentary seats in the last national election, including the conservative Høyre party now leading the government, are committed to maintaining the welfare state. In the U.S., however, neoliberal politics put the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens. They’ve done a masterful job of chewing up organized labor. Today, only 11 percent of American workers belong to a union. In Norway, that number is 52 percent; in Denmark, 67 percent; in Sweden, 70 percent.

These are common themes in most analyses of the Nordic model: governing through consensus and collective need, the preference for policies based on utility and pragmatism rather than ideology, and the belief in balancing the needs of different sectors of society, such as between businesses and workers. It is all about balance, which is why. for example, one sees a healthy level of entrepreneurship and economic competitiveness coexisting with strong public institutions and generous welfare. These values are not adversarial, at least not if each side is willing to work together and moderate the other.

Consider the Norwegian welfare state. It’s universal. In other words, aid to the sick or the elderly is not charity, grudgingly donated by elites to those in need. It is the right of every individual citizen. That includes every woman, whether or not she is somebody’s wife, and every child, no matter its parentage. Treating every person as a citizen affirms the individuality of each and the equality of all. It frees every person from being legally possessed by another — a husband, for example or a tyrannical father.

Which brings us to the heart of Scandinavian democracy: the equality of women and men. In the 1970s, Norwegian feminists marched into politics and picked up the pace of democratic change. Norway needed a larger labor force, and women were the answer. Housewives moved into paid work on an equal footing with men, nearly doubling the tax base. That has, in fact, meant more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves. The Ministry of Finance recently calculated that those additional working mothers add to Norway’s net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth” — currently held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth more than $873 billion. By 1981, women were sitting in parliament, in the prime minister’s chair, and in her cabinet.


Paradoxically, setting women free made family life more genuine. Many in Norway say it has made both men and women more themselves and more alike: more understanding and happier. It also helped kids slip from the shadow of helicopter parents. In Norway, mother and father in turn take paid parental leave from work to see a newborn through its first year or more. At age one, however, children start attending a neighborhood barnehage (kindergarten) for schooling spent largely outdoors. By the time kids enter free primary school at age six, they are remarkably self-sufficient, confident, and good-natured. They know their way around town, and if caught in a snowstorm in the forest, how to build a fire and find the makings of a meal. (One kindergarten teacher explained, “We teach them early to use an axe so they understand it’s a tool, not a weapon.”)

In a sense, the state’s role in society is complementary: it enhances and widens opportunity rather than stifle it, gives people a helping hand rather than making them dependent or leaving them to fend for themselves. People are free to pursue their own interests, seeing as they are freed from long working hours and worrying about basic needs. It is not as if Norwegians and other Nordics fall back on the state for everything; were that the case, unemployment, crime, and other vices would be far higher than they are. Social responsibility and individualism remain intact.

Obviously, none of this is to say that Norway or its neighbors are paradises. Jones’ article says as much, as do most analyses of the Nordics. Every society has its welfare cheats,  its criminals and degenerates, its corrupt officials, and so on. But clearly Norway has less of those problems than most places, and by every measure it does a better job mitigating society’s ills and compensating for them through net benefits (e.g., for every welfare cheat are a dozen of hardworking people with more time to spend raising their kids). Norway (and a host of other places) has something to teach us, and we should be open minded about it.

What are your thoughts?

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