Whenever there’s a discussion of the Nordic nations, I feel conflicted. I don’t like the punitively high tax rates and socially destructive levels of redistribution in nations such as Denmark, but I also admire the very laissez-faire policies those countries have when it comes to regulation, trade, and property rights.
Indeed, on those latter issues, it’s worth noting that Nordic nations are more free market-oriented than the United States according to the experts at the Fraser Institute who put together Economic Freedom of the World.
Moreover, Nordic nations in general have lower business tax burdens and investment tax burdens than the United States. And Denmark and Sweden have both taken some modest steps to restrain government spending, so even in the realm of fiscal policy you can find some admirable developments.
But these countries need more than “modest steps” since the burden of government spending is still enormous. And excessive social-welfare expenditures are a major problem since such outlays depress labor force participation and encourage dependency.
I mention all these good and bad features of Nordic nations because Senator Bernie Sanders has suggested, as part of his presidential campaign, that the United States should become more like Sweden and Denmark.
If I got to pick and choose which policies we copied, I would agree.
But since Senator Sanders almost surely wants us to copy their fiscal policies (and presumably has no idea that those countries are pro-free market in other areas), I feel compelled to explain that he’s wrong.
And the good news is that other people are producing the evidence, which makes my job easy. Nima Sanandaji is a Swedish economist who just wrote a very illuminating article on this topic for the Cayman Financial Review.
He starts by noting how statists embrace the Nordic Model.
Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have high-tax social democratic systems that for long have been admired by the left. …The high regard comes as no surprise. Nordic societies are uniquely successful. Not only are they characterised by high living standards, but also by other attractive features such as low crime rates, long life expectations, high degrees of social cohesion and relatively even income distributions. …This is often seen as proof that a ”third way” policy between socialism and capitalism works well, and that other societies can reach the same favourable social outcomes simply by expanding the size of government.
But Nima explains that Nordic nations became rich when they had free markets and small government.
The best that can be said about the Nordic welfare state is that the damage is somewhat contained because of cultural norms.
If one studies Nordic history and society in depth, however, it quickly becomes evident that the simplistic analysis is flawed. …High levels of trust, strong work ethic, civic participation, social cohesion, individual responsibility and family values are long-standing features of Nordic society that pre-date the welfare state. These deeper social institutions explain why Sweden, Denmark and Norway could so quickly grow from impoverished nations to wealthy ones as industrialisation and the market economy were introduced in the late 19th century. …The same norms explain why large welfare systems could be implemented in the mid-20th century. Strong work ethics and high levels of trust made it possible to levy high taxes and offer generous benefits with limited risk of abuse and undesirable incentive effects. It is important to stress that the direction of causality seems to be from cultures with strong social capital towards welfare states that have not had serious adverse consequences, and not the other way around.
Dr. Sanandaji then hypothesizes that we can learn a lot by comparing Americans of Nordic descent with those that didn’t emigrate.
…the Nordic success culture is maintained when people from this region move abroad. …The American descendants of Nordic migrants live in a very different policy environment compared with the residents of the Nordic countries. The former live in an environment with less welfare, lower taxes and (in general) freer markets. Interestingly, the social and economic success of Nordic-Americans is on a par with or even better than their cousins in the Nordic countries. …Close to 12 million Americans have Nordic (Scandinavian) origins.
And he produces some dramatic data.
Simply said, people of Nordic descent do very well in America, where the fiscal burden is lower than it is back in Scandinavia.
According to the 2010 US Census, the median household income in the United States is $51,914. This can be compared with a median household income of $61,920 for Danish Americans, $59,379 for Finish-Americans, $60,935 for Norwegian Americans and $61,549 for Swedish Americans. There is also a group identifying themselves simply as “Scandinavian Americans” in the US Census. The median household income for this group is even higher at $66,219.
But here’s the most remarkable information from his article. Nordic-Americans are far more productive than their cousins back home.
Danish Americans have a contribution to GDP per capita 37 per cent higher than Danes still living in Denmark; Swedish Americans contribute 39 per cent more to GDP per capita than Swedes living in Sweden; and Finnish Americans contribute 47 per cent more than Finns living in Finland. …there is prima facie evidence that the decedents of Nordic people who move to the U.S. are significantly better off than those who stay at home.
Here’s the infographic Nima sent with his article.
Wow, this is game, set, match, as far as I’m concerned. Nima produced similar data a few years ago looking just as Swedes.
But this new data makes it clear that we’re not just looking at a one-nation phenomenon. The lesson is clear. Nordic people manage to be somewhat productive in high-tax, big-government nations.
And Nima also points out that there is less poverty among Scandinavians in America than there is among Scandinavians in Scandinavia.
Nordic descendants in the U.S. today have half the poverty rate of the average of Americans – a consistent finding for decades. In other words, Nordic Americans have lower poverty rates than Nordic citizens.
So here’s the lesson that will be a nightmare for Bernie Sanders. It turns out that his role models actually teach us that big government makes people less prosperous.
…in the long run, the large welfare states have eroded incentives, and ultimately the social norms that bounded Nordic societies together. The U.S. system, with greater emphasis on personal responsibility, is more in line with the traditional Nordic system that allowed for the culture of success to develop in the first place. Thus, we should not be surprised that Nordic Americans have both higher living standard and lower poverty than their cousins in the Nordic welfare states.
To summarize, the recipe for prosperity is free markets (which you find in Scandinavia) and small government (which is absent in those countries).
But Senator Sanders wants to copy the bad parts of Nordic nations while ignoring the good parts. For those who care about real-world evidence, Dr. Sanandaji’s data suggests we should take the opposite approach.