We’ve been devising arrangements to manage the tricky business of living together in groups since the dawn of human time.
These arrangements have acquired a fancy name: governance. We’ve tried nearly everything — mostly brutal, occasionally enlightened. Now, after 240 years of governance that strives imperfectly toward enlightened, some citizens of this nation want to try something else.
I speak of devotees of presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders.
Success does seem to flow to societies where rules for governing are built on a foundation of empathy. That “do unto others” thing. Absence of empathy by the governing for the governed lies at the dark heart of tyranny.
So you have to ask: Why is anyone applauding a bully like Trump, who seeks votes by denigrating and mistreating other human beings? Worse yet, what does approval of Trump’s racist, sexist, pathologically self-celebratory, fact-free fear mongering tell us about our fitness to govern ourselves? Hello?
The insufferably supercilious Cruz professes to be an evangelical Christian, though Christians usually focus on love, not hate and threats of annihilation. Cruz gives the impression of being anxious to turn the White House into an evangelical annex, continuing the cynical Republican ploy of knowingly promising evangelical voters more than legally can be delivered under our form of government. They’d like him to remove the wall that separates church from state.
No surprise that Sanders’ idealistic, math-challenged effort to alleviate injustice — i.e., the alarming growth of social inequality — resonates with people stung by foolishly unfettered capitalism, the younger generation especially. Unlike Trump and Cruz, Sanders isn’t unworthy of the presidency due to character flaws. He has other problems: The present Congress will not enact his proposals. Still, his arguments merit scrutiny.
Sanders rightly worries about the destabilizing danger to our democracy caused by obscene gaps in rewards for America’s richest — and its poorly regulated corporations — compared with the paltry rewards allotted to rightly resentful workers whose toil helps make those riches possible. His best evidence of this danger is the popularity of Donald Trump.
Born in one of those Scandinavian socialist democracies that Sanders wants us to emulate, I welcome his arguments on the American political stage. However, my enthusiasm for his enthusiasm for my former homeland’s governance is tempered by more than 50 years of up-close and personal observation of how life in the socialist paradise of Norway has played out for its citizens as individuals.
The upshot? Cosseting people with too many generous social benefits can hamper their work ethic and their acceptance of personal responsibility for their fate. But smartly done, sensible social benefits can alleviate human misery and enable personal growth. Governing with empathy — and common sense — is complicated.
Norway’s experiment with what’s sometimes derided as “nanny state” governance is worth a look because that country repeatedly is named the world’s best place to live by the United Nations. In 2008, I went to Norway to try to discover what the UN was seeing that I’d missed on more than a dozen extended visits since 1963.
Here’s what Norwegian socialism entails:
• Five million people, mostly white, irreligious Lutherans.
• Half the work force working for government.
• A debt-free, wealthy nation, thanks to North Sea oil.
• A rabidly egalitarian democracy where the good of society is valued above that of the individual.
• Self-effacing citizens socialized to think first of others.
• Willingness of citizens to defer to decisions handed down by “the authorities.”
• Political power flowing down to, not up from, citizens from the figurehead king via parliament.
Recognize these United States in any of that?
Or this? Hesitant to exercise personal initiative, Norwegians make decisions by consensus, so individual accountability is virtually untraceable and few readily admit to being the boss of anything. The self-absorbed individualism that poisons civic behavior here is not smiled upon.
What do they get?
Tuition-free university degrees, subsidized child care, paid parental leave for either parent of newborns, generous pensions. Medical care is “free” but often requires long waits.
Vacations are long, work hours short: 37.5 a week. Yet there’s much moaning — laughable to overworked Americans — about “brutal” demands of Norway’s work places. Though generally healthy, Norwegians routinely abuse paid sick leave; there’s a shocking national rate of worker absenteeism. These are not your hardy Nordics from days of yore.
What do they pay?
Tax rates are intolerable by American standards, the cost of food and clothing exorbitant. The sales tax is 25 percent. Norwegians have been warned to expect an average income tax bill perhaps as high as 65 percent, up from the present 37 percent, to pay for their benefits if oil prices drop more.
Only 4 percent of Norway’s $800 billion in oil profits — stashed in the world’s largest sovereign investment fund — can be tapped annually. Infrastructure, health care and education need serious investment, but the bulk of the oil money is untouchable, locked up to pay pension benefits for coming generations.
Bottom line? Unlike Americans, Norwegians are willing to heavily tax themselves to ensure the well-being of everyone. That’s because it’s a culturally ingrained ethic. They’re socialized to think their nation is stronger for it. We’re socialized to think our nation would be poorer for it. Your call, people.
We’ve never promised equality of outcomes in this country, just equality of opportunity. Of course, if we truly had equality of opportunity, that would do quite nicely.
Solveig Torvik is the author of The World’s Best Place, Norway and the Norwegians. She lives in Winthrop.