Accompanying these myriad benefits is the sort of egalitarian ethos that ought to have warmed Irving Howe's heart. Extravagant wealth is scorned. Social solidarity resounds through the fjords.
The result is a thoroughly decent little society - and an affluent one. Norway has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe. Its economic growth has ranged from 3 to 5 percent in recent years. Inflation is less than 2 percent. Its people enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.
The material success of Norway's social democracy must perplex disciples of economist Milton Friedman. But the explanation is simple. To put it in vulgar economic terms: Investment in ``human capital'' pays big dividends - bigger than investment in physical capital, if you do it right.
In the United States, we tend not to do it right. Most of our welfare spending is means-tested, not universal; it relieves distress but rewards socially morbid behaviors. In Norway, they do it right; everyone gains from it, beginning with the prenatal care they receive in the womb, and everyone has a stake in it. That is why the country has a healthy, superbly educated and financially serene workforce.
No wonder Norwegian business executives are content - even though they earn only twice what their workers do, not 10 or a hundred times like their American counterparts. ``It may be costly, but there is social peace,'' Stein-Erik Hagen, CEO of Norway's largest supermarket chain, recently commented on the country's system. ``There are no poor people in Norway, and I don't want to see any. There are no strikes, and no high demand for salary increases.''
No poor people, and I don't want to see any.
Now there's a likable sentiment, one free of cant and untainted by moral smugness.
Oscar Wilde expressed it even better in his 1891 polemic, ``The Soul of Man under Socialism.'' The chief advantage of socialism, Wilde observed, was that it would ``relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others, which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.'' (It certainly presses on those of us who live in American cities.)
The healthiest thing about Norwegian ``socialism'' (as most Americans would deem it) is that it is not the product of any class struggle a la Marx, accompanied by corny anthems, militant rhetoric and a nauseating romance of the proletariat.
Rather, it was put into place by nice middle-class people who were motivated by a secularized vestige of Judeo-Christian ethics.
Jim Holt is editor of the New Leader magazine.