The Nordic Theory of Everything

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Anu Partanen. The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life. New York: Harper, 2016.

This book nicely complements George Lakey’s Viking Economics, which I reviewed last summer. Both authors are interested in comparing the United States to the Nordic countries. While Lakey focuses especially on Norway, Partanen focuses on Finland. Lakey is more factual and sociological, while Partanen is more impressionistic and journalistic. Partanen emigrated from Finland in 2008 to the US to be with her future husband, an American she met at a conference. She became a US citizen in 2013.

Partanen is hardly anti-American, and she expresses her admiration for “all-American optimism, gumption, ingenuity, and knack for magically transforming challenging circumstances into profitable advantage.” Nevertheless, she finds much to criticize here. Having grown up in Finland, she finds many aspects of American life curiously backward: “…To leave Finland or any other Nordic country behind and settle in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century was to experience an extraordinary—and extraordinarily harsh—form of travel backward in time.” She felt that she was “…lost in a wilderness. And in the American wilderness, you’re on your own.” She says that America has been looking toward its “Wild West past,” while Nordic countries are looking more to the future.

Who’s really modern? Who’s really free?

American society has been celebrated for providing certain “benefits of modernity,” especially freedom, independence and opportunity. But Partanen observes:

…In order to compete and to survive, the Americans I encountered and read about were being forced to depend more and more on one another, in a throwback to the traditional relationships of old. And in the process, individuals were becoming beholden to their spouses, parents, children, colleagues, and bosses in ways that constrained their own liberty.

As she sees it, the problem is that American families lack forms of social support that are essential for achieving and thriving in today’s world:

American society, despite all its high-tech innovation and mobility, just doesn’t provide the basic support structures for families—support structures that all Nordic countries provide absolutely as a matter of course to everyone, as does nearly every other modern wealthy country on the planet.

Compared to Finnish children, American children are economically dependent on their parents for a longer time, since they get less help obtaining the education and vocational training they need to succeed. Elderly parents are more dependent on their adult children, because less elder care is provided as a universal social service. Workers are more dependent on employers for health insurance and retirement plans. Because the US is behind the Nordic countries in gender equality, American women are more dependent on their husbands’ careers, along with the health and retirement benefits that come with them.

Partanen describes a “Nordic theory of love,” which asserts that “authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.” Americans believe in strong families, but put severe strains on them by weighing them down with more responsibilities than many couples can bear. Partanen does not say “It takes a village,” but that’s the general idea. Americans pursue an extreme idea of independence that doesn’t really work out in practice, while Finns share social responsibilities in ways that leave individuals better off.

In an interesting formulation that I hadn’t heard before, Partanen says that the Nordic societies have “taken modernity to its logical conclusion.” Universal social services available as a matter of right create a “new culture of personal self-sufficiency” that is more relevant to the demands of modern life. The result is actually more freedom, independence and opportunity than Americans have.  As Ed Miliband, leader of the British Labour Party, said several years ago, “If you want the American Dream…go to Finland.”

“Welfare” or well-being?

I can hear defenders of the American system now, objecting that what Partanen is calling independence is really just dependency on “Big Government.” How true that is may depend on whether public benefits are designed to enable individual achievement or replace it.  As Partanen describes Finnish public policy, the emphasis is not on paying people not to work, but helping them obtain the qualifications for work and balance their careers with family responsibilities. For example, paid parental leaves are kept short because they are “meant to be breaks in steady careers, not a way of life.”

Partanen says that she never heard the terms “Big Government” or “welfare state” until she came to the United States. She had to learn that for many Americans these are pejorative terms, conjuring up images of lazy people collecting unearned benefits. That explains why so many Americans are critical of government social programs, even as the need for those programs has expanded from the poor to the middle class. A large proportion of the population relies on Medicaid to pay for nursing homes, federal loans to go to college, CHIP to pay for children’s health care, Social Security to retire without falling into poverty, and on and on. But Americans often resent the government for providing these things and vote against the taxes to pay for them, even if that means starving the very programs on which they rely. The result is a patchwork of benefits that leaves too many needs unmet.

When Americans hear that Nordic countries provide more public benefits than we do, they imagine those countries as even bigger welfare states, presumably robbing their citizens of their independence and initiative. Partanen prefers to call them “well-being” states, and she describes them as liberating rather than subordinating their citizens:

Unlike in some bogeyman welfare state, participation in a well-being state does not require you to bow in submission before the altar of altruism, sacrificing your own advancement to help the unlucky. It supports your own personal freedom, your own autonomy, and each individual’s ability to determine his or her own fate, since we don’t need to depend on the financial largesse of parents, spouses, or employers for the fundamental services—health care, education, and aid during times of crisis—that each of us requires to fulfill our potential. On top of that there’s a less tangible benefit: the pride and satisfaction of participating in a society that truly enables equality of opportunity for all.

Citizens of Nordic countries do pay higher taxes, but not as much as many Americans imagine. The average Finn pays about 6% more than the average American. Partanen sees that as a reasonable price to pay for all they get in return.

In the next post, I’ll address the question of whether the Nordic approach fosters or undermines excellence.


One Response to The Nordic Theory of Everything

  1. Jeremy C. says:

    I really enjoyed this book. As you point out, what was most refreshing about Partanen’s approach is that it’s not so much a factual, data-driven defense of “Big Government” but a more of a wholesale re-framing of the core ideas of “freedom,” “independence,” and “mobility.” And that’s a big deal, since it’s hardly been an absence of compelling data that’s stifled the Left’s argument for expansion of the welfare state…but a need to win over people with a better argument. (Corey Robin sort of gets at this pretty well in this piece:

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