Left-leaning Americans should be thrilled that a new subgenre of political commentary has emerged aimed at explaining why the United States simply can’t brook Nordic-style welfare programs. It’s a theme that wouldn’t prompt expounding unless interest in such programs appeared to be rising, and it is. Yet the reasons adduced to argue that the United States has no hope of establishing programs like the ones enjoyed by Europe’s social democracies are more disturbing than commonly credited.
In a 2014 Slate essay calling for an end to the United States’ Nordic fantasies, Emily Tamkin cited the “homogeneity of the Nordic countries, on which, one could argue, their stability and equality hinges.” This would prove to be a running theme. That same year, Kevin D. Williamson wrote in National Review that “progressives who dream of a Nordic-style welfare state will find themselves challenged by the costs of greater diversity. . . . We’ve been told that diversity is our strength, but the unhappy truth may be something closer to the opposite.” “The number one reason these policies are feasible in Denmark is that the country is extremely homogenous,” Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics told The Post’s Steven Pearlstein in 2016, adding that “the perception among the electorate is that the government will provide for me and for people who, in a linguistic, cultural and ethnic sense, are just like me.” This week, my Post colleague Megan McArdle added that “we cannot have the Danish welfare state because we don’t trust each other enough to vote for such a thing, and if it were somehow imposed, it probably wouldn’t work the way it does in Denmark.”
I think there’s reason to doubt this theory of Scandinavian exceptionalism. But suppose for the sake of argument that the Nordic naysayers are right: What does that tell us about the American experiment?
The United States is a liberal democracy, and a unique one at that: While many of Europe’s liberal democracies were formed with a distinctive nationalist bent — that is, as nation-states, or countries composed primarily of single, self-governing ethnic groups — the United States was never any such thing. Our claim to the right of self-governance wasn’t based in romantic ethno-nationalism but in an Enlightenment civic nationalism that held that authentic, deeply felt national bonds could be forged through mass participation in the idea of American democracy itself. Thus the dream: If you can believe in America, you can be an American.
The idea always had detractors. Romantic nationalists argued that a country built on a contract — the theoretical premise that one can be an American as long as it’s in his or her best interest, and no longer if it isn’t — simply couldn’t be as successful as states united by language, tradition, an intrinsic sense of shared destiny, and so on. Without those crucial binding elements, they claimed, countries were merely transactional arrangements. States whose only purpose was to maintain peace and property could never pursue higher goods (such as equality and justice) but only temporal things, since doing the former would require a kind of self-sacrifice and transcendent vision that a polity built on self-interest couldn’t supply.
On the above view, the United States was always doomed to merely marginal achievements where justice, equality and freedom are concerned. This is where the thinking of romantic nationalists dovetails with today’s Scandi-skeptics: If the United States has a poverty rate about triple that of Denmark, or a child poverty rate about eight times higher, or millions more lacking access to health insurance, each camp would propose, it’s at least partially due to the kind of country we are. We can tinker with policies around the edges, tweak here and there — but we’ll always be fundamentally limited by our own doomed nature. Only the self-consciously homogenous can have really nice things.
And yet, we do, somehow, manage to have some nice things: Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, universal public schools. One could try to argue these programs are categorically different from their universal counterparts abroad, but it seems to me they’re just in an earlier stage of development, incomplete and imperfect, but built with the right principles in mind. The United States might have to chart a different political and sociocultural path to the universal programs Scandinavians enjoy, but if some zeal for justice and equality is there, I’m not sure why we can’t aspire to cultivate more.
Further, for as matter-of-fact as these declarations about the Nordic countries come, it’s worth noting that not everyone agrees. In the words of Finnish-born journalist Anu Partanen, writing in the Atlantic: “This vision of homogenous, altruistic Nordic lands is mostly a fantasy. The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship. Rather, Nordic people have made their decisions out of self-interest.” High social trust and homogeneity may be helpful for a particular kind of moral climate around welfare programs, in other words, but that doesn’t mean those same programs are impossible in their absence. About 20 percent of Canada’s total population is foreign-born, for instance, compared with about 13 percent of America’s; somehow, Canada still manages to have single-payer health care.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow once noted, in the context of a different debate with similar stakes, that “every discussion among economists of the relatively slow growth of the British economy compared with the Continental economies ends up in a blaze of amateur sociology.” The comparison of peoples and nations summons strange conjecture, much of it plainly intuitional. This has been the case since nationalism first stirred novel passions in the 18th century. In my support of Scandinavian-style universal programs, I tend to take a more optimistic view: Whatever else may be said about the American soul or the Danish spirit, I don’t think it takes an ethno-state to run a universal health-care system.