Socialism in Scandinavia– Cultural or Political?

When discussing the political systems in successful Nordic countries (ie. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland), typical rhetoric describes each of these countries as “socialist” or as part of a system called “democratic socialism.” Yet a cursory search about the details of these political systems brings the reader to various news and opinion pieces about the possibility that these Scandinavian nations are anything but socialist– in fact, they are purported as some of the most free-market economies in the world. With this in mind, I went about researching the Nordic Model, which is the overarching term that describes the social and economic policies enacted by the aforementioned countries to try and determine if any of these countries actually were socialist by nature– either economically or culturally.

Fully realized socialism would involve an economy that is entirely communally owned, which is obviously impossible in 21st century Europe for any of these countries. With this in mind, the only real options for a non-capitalist classification is democratic socialism or some form of “cultural” socialism– where the beliefs enumerated by socialism, such as redistribution of wealth, an emphasis on the the common individual’s rights, and interest in caring for the labor force and not just the profit margin. During the election of 2016, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders promoted the idea that these Nordic countries fell under the category of “democratic socialists,” as did he, which would emphasize decentralization of power around the economy and the government. However, governmental officials in multiple Scandinavian countries have emphasized their belief in free market economies coupled with established welfare states to ensure the safety net that is necessary for their citizens.

Additionally, much of the success that contemporary American politicians attribute to Nordic socialism can be linked to pre-welfare state policies, such as low taxes in the 1950’s and 60’s. These tax breaks may have contributed to the economic booms that allowed Norway and Sweden to become the most profitable countries in the EU in the early 2000’s and allowed for the beginning of such welfare programs– even if they must now be funded by exorbitant tax systems. These days, current citizens claim that they understand the importance of supporting these social programs not because of their cultural practices or “kindness” but because of the selfish nature of wanting what’s best for oneself.

Some scholars believe that the homogeneity of Nordic cultures allowed for the development of “cultural” socialism, where individuals developed a preference for taking care of one another, especially given that they lived in a difficult environment (ie. the Arctic) and relied heavily on community members to get by. However, sources from within the country share that their preference for the welfare state program stems from self-interest. There is an undoubted advantage to paying a premium price for premium services, be they healthcare, maternity and paternity leave, childcare, or retirement funding.

Even now, however, the tax burden on the individuals in the highest tax bracket for these five countries– Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland– is significantly higher than the highest tax bracket in the United States. This steep burden could be a deterrent in forming new businesses or organizations within the countries, especially given the relative ease with which one can move into another EU member nation. Some critics of these policies believe that no matter how much money one takes from the wealthy, there is no way to evenly redistribute wealth so that it is fairly shared across a population even as small as the one in Denmark. To translate these ideas to a larger population– be it in Sweden, let alone in the United States– seems nearly impossible to some.

With this in mind, it is worth looking at the high rankings in life expectancy, education, literacy, and happiness that can be found in these countries. At the same time, there is also a high rate of suicide, especially in Sweden (whose rate is higher than that in the US). Certainly, the policy around socialism (real or not) does not complete a full picture of the forces at play here. Does the welfare state disproportionately affect citizens’ sense of self and meaning? Do people feel more or less fulfilled being supported by the state instead of meaningful work? Some critics suggest looking to nearby countries like Switzerland, which has similar rankings in education and happiness with very different methods, for answers. What are major differences in thought processes behind these types of countries? What can the United States of America learn from these different nations and groups of people?