Friday, September 1, 2017

Is The Nordic Theory Of Everything Really As Great As It Sounds?

Several weeks ago I had the privilege to talk with Mella McCormick, a philosophy professor at Northwestern Michigan College, about a book called The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen. Here’s Mella’s overview:

The book compares the Nordic approach to life with that of the United States, which interestingly enough is polar opposite in many ways; for example, the Nordic countries provide their citizens with free universal health-care, free higher education, paid maternity and paternity leave, to name a few things. 
Despite the United States' proposed claims to value principles such as liberty, freedom, independence, the U.S. has created a system that makes its citizens dependent on others: students are dependent on parents to help pay for higher education and thus become beholden to them (this could potentially influence where the student goes to school, what she studies, selected career path, etc.); employees are dependent on their employees for health benefits, thus potentially enslaving a person to a job that he does not like or finds unfulfilling but cannot afford to leave; due to the high cost of geriatric care, adult children are left with the task of caring for their elderly parents which could potentially corrupt the elderly-parent/adult-child relationship (i.e. elderly parents feel like a "burden" to their children, children feel overwhelmed by medical tasks they are not trained to perform).
Partanen argues that the social services that Nordic countries provide for their citizens is what allows them to lead more authentic, free, and liberating lives, not less, as the anti-socialist rhetoric that portrays Nordic countries as "welfare states" would have you believe.
According to "For Generous Parental Leave and Great Schools, Move to Finland" (New York Times Review), there are many facts to support this contention:
  • Finland’s child poverty rate is less than 5 percent, compared with 25 percent for American children. 
  • Smoothly functioning and comprehensive health insurance 
  • A full year of partially paid disability leave 
  • Nearly a full year of paid parental leave for each child and a smaller monthly benefit for an additional two years (should I or the father of my child choose to stay at home longer with our child) 
  • Affordable high-quality day care 
  • One of the world’s best K-12 education systems 
  • Free college and free graduate school.
“The core idea,” Partanen writes of the Nordic Theory Of Love, “is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.” A Norwegian friend said it this way:

"The basic view on government in Norway is that you elect people whose responsibility it is to help create a society where people aren't necessarily 'dependent' on others or government but actually have a fair chance at creating a good life for themselves with the help of good government regulations and equal opportunities."

As compelling as the NTOE sounds, not everyone agrees with this theory. Here is the overview for The Swedish Theory Of Love (a film that played in the Nordic Film Festival this year):
"In February 1972, a group of Swedish politicians came together to draft a new vision for the future. They wanted to challenge traditional social structures and articulated a new goal: a society made up of autonomous individuals. One of the points in the manifesto they drew up was that no citizen should be dependent on any other. Four decades later, Sweden is the loneliest country in the world. We top the international statistics for people who live alone and for people who die alone. The Swedish Theory of Love brings all of the flaws and faults in Scandinavian perfection to the surface and shines a light on the flip side of modern life."
The negative statistics aren't great:
  • Denmark has the highest taxes in the world (58 – 72%) 
  • Alcohol-related disease is the leading cause of death for Finnish men, and second for women. 
  • Denmark has the highest level of private debt in the world. 
  • Finland’s suicide rate is the highest in Western Europe and the highest murder rate in Western Europe 
  • Sweden is ahead of the US in their ecological footprint (Worldwide Fund For Nature) 
  • The proportion of people below the poverty line in Sweden has doubled over the last decade 
  • In Iceland, 10% of people use antidepressants. Denmark, Portugal, Sweden, Finland all follow close behind (these are some of the world's highest averages) 
  • Denmark leads the world in cancer rates; Denmark and Norway are both ahead of the US (World Cancer Research Fund International) 
  • Denmark had bestiality brothels until recently (5% of Danish men report bestiality)

I found an interesting conversation on Quora. The question being discussed is, "In what ways is Norway a better or worse place to live than the U.S., in your opinion?" Some of the comments support the NTOE for much the same reasons already listed; here are few of the responses that challenge it:

"The potential for big payoffs (being successful, in daily terms) is bigger in the US. If you do well, you do better. This is the biggest pro I see in the US. It makes people eagerly work hard and values like optimism, ambitiousness and risk-taking higher, and willingness to do transactions are valued more. The Norwegian system is built to make everybody as equal as possible, so big salaries (for instance) are taxed higher. We were collectively poor farmers and fishermen until oil was found in our country. Now we are collectively rich tertiary sector workers. The system wants everybody to be the same. New things can possibly disrupt the old, and that's uncomfortable. Not talking to a stranger is better that risking new unwanted impulses."
"I currently live in Oslo, where I was born and raised, and I managed to get a well paying job after finishing school. I currently make more than all of my friends my own age. I still would have NO chance to buy an apartment, much less a house, even close to Oslo at this point. Even when I have enough for a 15% down payment, the bank won't lend me enough money to buy anything else than a tiny apartment in a less desirable part of town. In Oslo [an apartment] would cost at least $2000-$3000 a month that I paid $550 a month in the US."
"Norway is the best place in the world to be average. Deviate slightly from that, and expect hardship. Nobody is poor, but nobody’s really rich either. The few financially successful people are generally maligned. If you can live with this, Norway provides pure, safe and materially comfortable living. And the best salmon in the world. It’s also a great place for easy living. Just don’t expect excitement. Expect to pay a premium for any consumer items or services beyond “average,” as such items contradict the social democratic mindset.”
“True that salaries are higher here in Norway, but taxes are so high also and everything is so ridiculously expensive that you can't afford many things.. In Saint Louis with a modest grad student salary I could have my own apartment with minimum comfort, AC/ heating laundry etc., a decent car, go out often, etc. Here a grad student (making x5 times as much as in the USA) has to live in communal areas. If you don't care about privacy or comfort this is just perfect.”
 * * * * * * * * * *

There are several important questions that stand out to me as I look at this issue.
  • Assuming the critics are correct, maybe they are missing the point. Maybe privacy and comfort are overrated. Maybe average is okay - don't we all complain about the 'rat race'? Maybe placing a premium on upward mobility, the accumulation of stuff, and the need to be exceptional aren't all they are cracked up to be. Norway may be swinging the pendulum too far - that's the criticism, right? -  but at least they have moved it in a corrective direction. 
  • Could it be that the United States has been inadvertently undermining one of its highly valued goals by misunderstanding how entering into a social contract that expands government might be the best path to freedom?
  • The NTOE seems to suggest that dependence (interdependence?) leads to negative relational outcomes. Philosophers, theologians and social theorists have generally leaned towards the idea that we have evolved or been created to flourish in communities or in social contracts, which we usually think of as requiring some sense of interdependence. Does the NTOE challenge this, or is it simply clarifying what kinds of (inter)dependence are good for us?
Both the proponents and critics of the Nordic Theory Of Everything value freedom and community. On this we can all agree. As to the study of how obligations and dependence help or harm these goals, I doubt the debate will end any time soon. I lean strongly toward the idea that it's not obligation and dependence that are the problem: it's the human hearts involved.

I like how the NTOE is forcing us to reconsider where and how corruption and manipulation creeps in to our communities and even our families. I would like even more if the conversation kept taking us deeper into the battleground inside the human heart. If our hearts are good and pure, I suspect all systems will work well. If not, I fear they are all doomed to fail.


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