Nima Sanandaji, president of the European Centre for Entrepreneurship and Policy Reform, is a free market advocate living in Sweden. So is he worried about the direction the Nordic welfare states are headed?
He’s worried about socialism in the U.S.
Sanandaji was talking to radio host Larry Elder about what will happen to the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden, in the next 25 years when he expressed concern about the United States.
“The left in the U.S., their main ideological goal is to turn America into a Nordic-style welfare state,” Sanandaji said, noting Sen. Bernie Sanders, President Obama and Bill Clinton have all praised the Nordic countries for their social democratic models.
But the irony, according to Sanandaji, is the Nordic countries themselves are losing faith in democratic socialism.
“For the past two, three decades, all the Nordic countries have been introducing market reforms,” he revealed. “They’ve been cutting the generosity of the welfare state, they’ve been reducing taxes, they’ve been liberalizing, they’ve been moving toward more individual freedom, more markets. America is moving towards the kind of democratic socialism which largely has been abandoned in the Nordics.”
During his interview on “The Larry Elder Show,” Sanandaji noted four of the five Nordic countries (Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland) currently have center-right governments that are implementing market-based reforms. Only Sweden has a social democratic government.
“And you know what?” he asked rhetorically. “The Social Democrats in Sweden have never been in modern times as weak as they are today. They have never had as little support as today, and they are not even socialist. Even they are doing some market reforms.”
If democratic socialism has benefited the Nordic nations so much, as American leftists believe, why are they all moving away from it?
Sanandaji, author of the new book “Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism,” said the answer is that socialism is not responsible for the social success the Nordic countries have enjoyed in the past few decades. In fact, these countries were successful long before they adopted democratic socialism.
“The thing you should know about Nordic countries is they have the strongest working ethics on the planet probably,” Sanandaji said. “These are very cold countries, they have a very unforgiving climate and they have independent farmers who own the land. So what happened in this Protestant part of the world was the people adopted really, really strong work ethics, responsibility ethics, very strong cooperation with each other.”
They also had modest public sectors and low taxes until about 1960. Sanandaji pointed out the Nordic nations prospered greatly from the late 1800s through the first half of the 1900s, during a period when they were essentially libertarian, with very little government involvement in the economies.
Here’s Sanandaji’s key point.
“The really important thing that, whenever you can, you should tell a Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton supporter, is that the social success of Nordic countries – the high level of income equality, the high lifespan, the low child mortality, the low poverty – all of that predates the welfare state,” he asserted. “Everything that Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton admire about Nordic countries is about the culture, not the Social Democratic party.”
However, Sanandaji assured Elder’s audience he is not trying to trash the welfare state. On the contrary, he believes there are some good things about welfare states. He and his brother benefited from Sweden’s generous public education funding, both earning doctoral degrees that were fully funded by tax dollars.
“But the thing is, the benefits of the Nordic welfare state, those benefits are associated with a small-government welfare state, you know, by systems where you have low taxes and those taxes are supporting basic education, basic health care – not the current system of big government, which is trapping families in welfare dependency,” the author said.
Sanandaji knows all about the dark side of welfare. When he was a boy in Sweden, his family was trapped in welfare dependency. He claimed that in Iran, where his family lived before immigrating, they were a middle class family, with both parents working. However, that changed when they encountered the massive Swedish welfare state.
“We and many other immigrant families were locked in dependency on the government, and that’s a welfare state which is actually creating harm instead of social good,” Sanandaji said.
In his book, Sanandaji offers evidence the Nordic welfare states actually hold people back. He compares the social successes of Nordic Americans and those who still live in the Nordic countries. He noted Nordic Americans’ ancestors were the poor people in their home countries, so one might think Nordic Americans would be less successful than their cousins overseas.
But that is not what Sanandaji found.
“What I show in the book is Nordic Americans have 50 percent higher prosperity levels in America, compared to in the Nordics,” he told Elder. “So that proves to you that high taxes, big government really reduces prosperity.”
What’s more, he said Nordic Americans have roughly half the unemployment level of their cousins in the Nordic countries, as well as a much lower high school dropout rate and a much lower poverty rate.
“So when you combine Nordic cultural success – hard work, individual responsibility – with the American political system, you don’t only get more prosperity, you actually get less poverty,” Sanandaji concluded.
And yet politicians like Bernie Sanders point to the Nordics as examples of the success of socialism.
Sanders said in 2015, “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn what they have accomplished for their working people.”
What the Nordic countries have accomplished, according to Sanandaji, is building a culture of hard work, responsibility and cooperation that has allowed their people to thrive. Democratic socialism has nothing to do with their success, he stressed. That is what American leftists must understand.
“Scandinavian countries have a culture of success, and this success creates a lot of prosperity,” Sanandaji explained. “What I show in ‘Debunking Utopia’ is [American leftists] are in fact wrong, because they completely misunderstand the historic roots of Nordic success.”