In Norway, They Do Things Right - It's An Egalitarian Society Where Ethics Matter

Posted: March 01, 1997

Why has European social democracy been unable to advance further than the welfare state of Scandinavia?'' So the political thinker Irving Howe plaintively asked in his 1985 essay, ``Thinking about Socialism.''

The question seemed odd at the time, and it still does. Why should social democracy want to advance any further? Take Norway, for instance. This little nation is a socialist paradise.

No, the Norwegians have not yet abolished private property; that is not a necessary condition for socialism anyway (as Howe himself conceded). What they have done is to erect the Mother of All Welfare States. The 4.35 million people of Norway are cosseted by their government to an almost unbelievable degree. Day care is free, as are medical and dental care; should you suffer from rheumatism, the state will send you on a monthlong therapeutic junket to the Canary Islands, all expenses paid; every child receives an annual subsidy of $1,620; housing and vacations are generously subsidized, and a ``lifelong learning'' program, about to be passed by Parliament, will give working Norwegians a sabbatical every decade to brush up on their computer skills, say, or even earn a master's in epidemiology.

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.