Scandinavia is a Collectivist Paradise? Not So Much.

A touch too much in the way of conformity, high taxes, and "benign totalitarianism"


In the imagination of the American Left, Scandinavia, that cluster of northern European countries defined by sky-high taxes, expansive welfare policies, and seemingly limitless enthusiasm for snow-related activities, presents the ideal alternative to the rough-and-tumble of American capitalism. They're peaceful. They're prosperous. And they routinely dominate the top spots in global "happiness rankings."

Enter The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, a cover-to-cover delight from English journalist Michael Booth puncturing the caricature of the region as a semi-socialist paradise. The book, which has just been published in the U.S., is especially powerful in its dissection of the culturally corrosive effects of Scandinavia's expansive state power, which seems to "smother its people's motivation, ambition, and spirit."

A full fifth of Danish adults don't work and live exclusively on public benefits. Norwegian media is so deeply dull that one of its most popular television shows ever is—this is for real—a seven-hour real-time feed from a camera mounted on a train traversing mountains. Booth calls the prevailing Swedish political norms "benign totalitarianism." 

And yet, Booth's book is not a takedown. It's just a realistic portrait. And plenty of other things he details about these countries are genuinely admirable. Sweden has spent the last couple decades on a Thatcher-like crusade to privatize large swaths of its public sector and now boasts one of the more business-friendly tax and regulatory environments in the world. Denmark has remarkably high levels of social trust: it's common for diners to leave their toddlers in strollers outside the restaurant. There's also Finland's exceptional gender equality, Norway's savvy management of its massive oil wealth, and Iceland's…uhh…muscle mass?

Reason recently chatted with Booth about his book's core insights.

One of your overriding observations is that Scandinavian cultures tend to breed what Americans would perceive as a stultifying conformity. You give this impression of Denmark, for instance, as a nation filled with dull Ned Flander-types—a bunch of public sector retirees that spend their summers at communal singing retreats.

In other cultures, you have "tall poppy syndrome," where if a reality star makes a record or buys a Lamborghini, they'll get pilloried in the media. The difference in Scandinavia is that tall poppy syndrome applies to everyone all the time. So if you show naked ambition or arrogance, you will get cut down to size. "Don't think you are that special, don't show off, don't boast." No one wears a suit and tie in parliament. It's extraordinary.

If you want an incredibly equal, socially cohesive society, you definitely lose something by way of individuality, eccentricity, diversity. Often I'm asked, "Could the Nordic template be applied to Britain or America?" And the answer is no. You can't just hope that people will suddenly become conformist and driven by equality. It doesn't work that way.

On the other hand, I live here in Denmark, almost out of my own free will. [He's married to a Dane.] And I appreciate so much about it right now. But yeah, there are reservations of course. To put it really brutally simply: living here can be a bit boring.

And that emphasis on equality saturates Scandinavia's much-vaunted public schools, right?

We sent our kids to a mainstream state school, which is based on the principles of raising the lower ability children up to the median. It's all-inclusive, so you can't exclude children if they're badly behaved or have special needs or that kind of thing. That didn't work from our point of view. Our children didn't take well to having chairs thrown at them and teachers not turning up.

I was in Copenhagen a while ago and I saw two or three kids have an impromptu running race on the pavement and one of the kids won and did an American-football-style celebration. His mother grabbed him by the arm and scolded him for that.

My son's class did a production of Treasure Island. The teachers rotated the class so that in every scene someone different played Long John Silver or Jack Hawkins or whatever. It made absolute nonsense of any sense of drama or narrative. But again, it was this idea: Everyone should have their turn. Everyone should be treated equally, rather than celebrate one student who was a great singer or actor.

You seem to have mixed feelings about Denmark's tax rates.

We literally have the highest taxes in the world. They're not just quite high: They're the absolute highest.

I don't see that mirrored in quality of services. The education system ranks about level with the United Kingdom, which is not great shakes and nothing to be proud of. Similarly, the health service is struggling and creaking. Its not commensurate with the highest taxes in the world.

A quick detour to the semi-feral people of Iceland: Their distinctive traits seem to be this overbearing need to try to channel an ancient Viking machismo and the fact that there are so few of them.

If you meet an Icelander, you should consider it as if you've seen a snow leopard. They are kind of an endangered species—well, they're not endangered, actually, because they're good at breeding. They're all quite closely interrelated, which is a bit awkward when it comes to breeding. So there's an app so if you're in a bar in Reykjavík and you meet another Icelander you take a fancy to, you can both use this app to make sure you're not too closely related before you pair off.

Some of these Scandinavian countries have tightly restrictive immigration policies driven by radical right-wing parties that are quickly growing in popularity. You point out that Anders Breivik, the neo-nazi psychopath behind the 2011 mass shooting in Norway, was a member of a political party that now controls something like 15 percent of the Norwegian parliament.

Scandinavian immigration policies are very different depending on what country you're talking about. Sweden has an amazingly humanitarian, open-door policy, which has been extremely beneficial to their economy over the last few years. Norway has been very closed off, with record numbers of repatriations recently.

Breivik left that party because he didn't find them extreme enough, in their defense. But after his attacks, in which 77 people died, the biggest mass killing in the history of Norway, the party actually for the first time was elected into a coalition government. And their leader is the finance minister now. You could call it a mixed message about how Norwegians feel about immigration and integration.

Sweden's immigration policies are obviously admirable, but you detail the serious problems it's had with integration.

Sweden has tended toward ghettoization. Sweden has all sorts of problems because it makes this whole conversation a bit of a taboo. There's a kind of self-censorship in the Swedish media. For the last 100 years, it has considered itself the modernist, progressive country, a moral guiding light for Europe, if not the world. It's an uncomfortable truth to have to face up to that maybe they've got it a little bit wrong.

Now that you've immersed yourself in Scandinavian culture, what most sticks out to you when you visit the United States?

The obvious thing is the diversity—ethnic diversity, economic diversity, cultural diversity. They're exponentially larger in the States. And a superficial things but it means a lot: People are just so friendly and chatty and nice, which you do not get in Scandinavia. Coming to the U.S. is like a warm bath. People talk to you on the street.  

As far as politics, you have such an extremely polarized political landscape. It's totally anathema to the coalition, consensus-built model that works in Scandinavia.