The Best Place on Earth, Provided You Grow Your Own Tobacco and Distill Your Own Whisky


Every year, the BBC fashions a slightly modified UN press release into an slightly breathless news story, advising Britons to sell their homes and relocate to Scandinavia. "Norway is the best place in the world to live while Niger is the least desirable, according to an annual report by the United Nations."  The results rarely change; Oslo, say the sages at Turtle Bay, is the greatest place on Earth.

In fairness, the BBC concedes that the "consistently high rating for desirable living standards, is, in large part, [due to] the result of the discovery of offshore oil and gas deposits in the late 1960s," though it should also be pointed out that oil-free Sweden also tops the UN rankings. While many critics challenge the study's metrics, after a few days in Oslo let me address only one: the jaw-dropping rates of taxation.

For instance, a Reason-reading Norwegian friend (who, incidentally, works in parliament) points out that "For a bottle of Jack Daniels (1 liter), you'll pay approximately 250NOK in taxes….That`s about $41." Because it is 120 proof—alcohol is taxed both by strength and volume—this small bottle of Absinthe would earn the government $62.70 in tax revenue.

The state run liquor store is admirably honest, calling itself Vinmonopolet ("The Wine Monopoly") and declaring on its website a goal of "remov[ing] the private profit motive from sales of wine, spirits and strong beer." The party cadres staffing the shops are on the lookout for those who might abuse their drinking rights: "Vinmonopolet's shop assistance (sic) are in direct contact with their customers, creating optimal conditions for exercising social control."

So how much were my delicious Marlboro Lights? A pack of 20 will set you back $15, though only half the country is dumb enough to submit to state price gouging. A recent study showed that, in 1990, 91 percent of Norwegians purchased their cigarettes within Norway. After a steep rise in taxes, that number shrunk to 52 percent by 2008 (I write this from just over the border in Sweden, where my 81-year-old host just returned from a beer, wine, and vodka junket in Germany). But all of this tax revenue, my parliamentary comrade told me in an email, is well spent: "An article in the newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday showed that a cow in Norway is subsidized with up to 40,000 NOK ($6,777) a year of taxpayer's money."

It is a lovely country, full of terrifyingly nice people, but after five days, I can no longer afford to subsidize Bessie in Bergen or Jens' rheumatism prescription. I am taking donations, though, after discovering that my taxi ride to the airport will cost $122.