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Archive for the ‘Denmark’ Category

In yesterday’s column, I shared a humorous video mocking the everywhere-its-ever-been-tried global failure of socialism.

And I tried to preempt the typical response of my left-wing friends by pointing out that Scandinavian nations are not role models for statism.

In global ranking of economic liberty, Nordic nations score relatively high, with Denmark and Finland in the top 20. Scandinavian nations have large welfare states, but otherwise have very laissez-faire economic policies. Nordic nations got rich when government was small, but growth has slowed since welfare states were imposed.

Based on some of the emails I received, some critics have a hard time understanding this argument.

All of which is very frustrating since I’ve repeatedly tried to make this point. So I pondered the issue for hours, trying to figure out whether there was some way of helping people grasp the issue.

Maybe this chart from Economic Freedom of the World will help. It shows, based on the five major categories of economic liberty, that the once-significant gap between the United States and Scandinavia has almost completely disappeared.

In other words, anyone who claims that Scandinavian nations are socialist must also think that the United States also is socialist.

To be sure, there are differences. If you look at specific categories of economic liberty, America gets a noticeably better score than Nordic nations on fiscal policy.

But we get a significantly worse score for governance issues such as property rights, corruption, and the rule of law.

We also do a bit worse on trade and slightly better on regulation.

The bottom line is that both the United States and Scandinavian nations are market-oriented, but also saddled with plenty of bad government policies. If that makes us socialist, then what’s the right term for nations where government has a much bigger footprint, such as France, Italy, or Greece?

How about Venezuela and Zimbabwe?

Or North Korea and Cuba?

What I’m saying is that there’s a spectrum and we should be cognizant that there are different degrees of statism. And nations closer to one end are much different from countries closer to the other end.

Plenty of other people make similar arguments about the Nordic countries.

Tim Worstall, writing about Finland for CapX, emphasizes the laissez-faire nature of Scandinavian nations, while also pointing out that there’s a degree of decentralization that makes big government somewhat less inefficient.

…high tax rates do indeed reduce economic growth rates by undercutting incentives. So do interfering bureaucracy and state planning. And so if you’re going to go overboard on one of those two then you’ve got to be minimalist on the other point. In other words, you’ve got to kill off bureaucracy in order to leave room for the tax rates and still have a growing economy. …That is more or less how Finland and other Scandinavians do things. …The other important point is quite how decentralised they all are. …A much larger piece of the pay packet goes to the local government… That money raised locally is then spent locally too. …There’s thus an efficiency to the system, something that gets lost when…people send their cash off to the national government to be distributed without that local accountability. …if you want that Scandi life then you’ve got to do it as they do. Very local government and taxation plus a distinctly less economically interventionist government.

Amen. Local government oftentimes is bad, but it’s rarely as bad as a centralized system.

I also found a must-read 2016 article for FEE by Corey Iacono.

Democratic socialism purports to combine majority rule with state control of the means of production. However, the Scandinavian countries are not good examples of democratic socialism in action because they aren’t socialist. In the Scandinavian countries, like all other developed nations, the means of production are primarily owned by private individuals, not the community or the government, and resources are allocated to their respective uses by the market, not government or community planning. …it is true that the Scandinavian countries provide…a generous social safety net and universal healthcare, an extensive welfare state is not the same thing as socialism. …The Scandinavians embrace a brand of free-market capitalism… The Economist magazine describes the Scandinavian countries as “stout free-traders who resist the temptation to intervene even to protect iconic companies.” …These countries all also rank in the top 10 easiest countries to do business.

If you don’t believe Worstall and Iacono, check out this table of data I prepared back in 2015.

I took the Economic Freedom of the World rankings and I removed the variables for fiscal policy.

And what you find is that Denmark, Sweden, and Finland were all in the top 10 for economic liberty. And Norway was #14.

That’s compared to #24 for the United States.

Heck, there were plenty of other European nations that ranked as being more free market than the United States.

So we should be grateful that we only have a medium-sized welfare state. Because our better score on fiscal policy helps to offset our comparatively anemic scores on the other four variables.

Having pointed out that the United States now has only a rather small advantage over Scandinavian nations when looking at all five measures of economic liberty, that’s still better than nothing.

It probably explains, for instance, why Americans of Scandinavian descent earn so much more than their cousins who remained back home.

And why Americans of all backgrounds generally enjoy higher living standards than folks in Europe, even the ones in Nordic nations.

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Statists occasionally get very angry about some of my views.

My support for “tax havens” periodically seems to touch a raw nerve, for instance, though I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised since some people are so crazy that they have even urged military action against these low-tax jurisdictions.

I also get some angry responses when I praise Ronald Reagan’s achievements. I’ve even had a few leftists get all agitated simply because I occasionally share a hypothetical poll from 2013 showing that Reagan would beat Obama in a landslide.

But what really gets these folks angry is when I argue that recipients of welfare and redistribution should feel shame and embarrassment. As far as they’re concerned, I’m being a heartless jerk who wants to inflict emotional pain on vulnerable people.

Though, to be fair, their anger usually dissipates when I explain that my real goal is to protect people from long-term dependency on government. And it’s also hard for them to stay agitated when I point out that I’m basically making the same argument as Franklin Roosevelt, who famously warned about welfare being “a narcotic” and “a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

In other words, I don’t like the welfare state because I care about both the best interests of taxpayers and also about the best interests of poor people. And this is why I repeatedly share data showing how American was making impressive progress against poverty before there was a welfare state. But once the federal government declared a “War on Poverty,” the poverty rate stopped falling.

But that’s only part of my argument. I also think there are very worrisome implications for overall society when people start thinking that they have a “right” to welfare and redistribution. At the risk of sounding like a cranky libertarian, I fear that any nation will face a very grim future once too many people lose the ethic of self-reliance and think it’s morally and ethically acceptable to be moochers.

Indeed, my theory of “Goldfish Government” is based in part on what happens when a sufficient number of voters think it’s okay to steal from their neighbors, using government as a middleman. Short-sighted politicians play a big role in this self-destructive process, of course, along with unfavorable demographic changes.

And when people want examples, I just point to nations such as Greece, Italy, and France. Or states such as California and Illinois.

At this stage, a clever leftist will usually interject and argue I’m being unfair. They’ll say that Nordic nations such as Denmark and Sweden are proof that a big welfare state is compatible with a prosperous and stable society.

Au contraire, as our French friends might say. Yes, the Nordic nations may be relatively successful big-government countries, but there are three very important things to understand.

  1. The Nordic nations became comparatively rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when economic policy was dominated by free markets and small government.
  2. The adoption of high taxes and big welfare states (particularly an explosion in the burden of government spending starting in the 1960s) weakened economic performance.
  3. In recent years, Nordic nations have sought to undo the damage of big government with pro-market reforms and limits on the fiscal burden of government.

But let’s specifically focus today on whether the Nordic nations are somehow an exception to the rule that welfare and redistribution have a pernicious impact on a society. In other words, does welfare in nations such as Denmark and Sweden undermine “social capital”? Is there a negative impact on the work ethic and spirit of self-reliance?

Fortunately, we have some very good data from a new, must-read book by Nima Sanandaji, who grew up in Sweden. Entitled Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism, Nima’s book is a comprehensive analysis of public policy in that part of the world, both what’s good and what needs improvement.

One of his 11 chapters is about “The Generous Welfare Trap” and it’s filled with very valuable information about the human and societal cost of the welfare state.

Though I can’t resist pointing out that he starts his analysis by citing President Roosevelt.

Franklin D. Roosevelt…was concerned that the institution he was fostering…might destroy the spirit of self-reliance. Two years into his presidency, he held a speech to Congress…the president warned that…”continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” …In today’s political climate, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s view on public benefits would seem quite harsh.

Nima then looks at whether the Nordic nations somehow might be proof that FDR was wrong.

Yet there has been a persistent conviction among the modern proponents of welfare states that it is indeed-somehow-possible to create stable systems with generous benefits and high taxes. The main line of reasoning is based on the Nordics. The welfare states in this part of the world seem to, at least at first glance, succeed in providing extensive services and generous cash benefits without eroding personal responsibility. If generous welfare works in Sweden and Denmark, why not also in the rest of the world?

The problem, as Nima points out, is that these policies don’t work in his part of the world.

And not just because of the fiscal burden. His main point is that the welfare state is weakening people’s integrity.

…the World Values Survey shows that erosion of norms is very much a thing in the Nordics. In the beginning of the 1980s, 82 percent of Swedes and 80 percent of Norwegians agreed with the statement “Claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled is never justifiable.” …However, as the population adjusted their behavior to new economic policies, benefit morale dropped steadily. In the survey conducted between 2005 and 2008, only 56 percent of Norwegians and 61 percent of Swedes believed  that it was never right to claim benefits to which they were not entitled. The survey conducted between 2010 and 2015 only included Sweden out of the Nordic countries. It found that benefit morale had continued to fall, as merely 55 percent of Swedes answered that it was never right to overuse benefits. …Over time even the Nordic people have changed their attitudes as social democratic policies have made it less rewarding to work hard and more rewarding to live off the government.

By the way, at the risk of nit-picking, I would have advised Nima to use the term “benefit morality” rather than “benefit morale.” Though I assume almost all readers will understand the point he’s making.

Returning to our topic, Nima also cites some scholarly research that basically echoes my “Theorem of Societal Collapse.”

Martin Halla, Mario Lackner, and Friedrich G. Schneider performed an empirical analysis of the dynamics of the welfare state. They explained that…”the disincentive effects may materialize only with considerable time lags.” ..However, after some time the expansion of welfare programs leads to a deterioration of benefit morale. The three researchers concluded that “the welfare state destroys its own (economic) foundation and we have to approve the hypothesis of the self-destructive welfare state.”

The bottom line, he explains, is that the Nordic nations have been the best possible example of how a welfare state can operate.

But even in these nations, the narcotic of government dependency has slowly but surely done its damage.

Although Nordic welfare states seemed initially able to avoid this moral hazard, today we know beyond doubt that this was not the case. Even the northern European welfare states-founded in societies with exceptionally strong working ethics and emphasis on individual responsibility-have with time caught up to Roosevelt’s harsh predictions.

The good news is that Nordic nations are trying to undo the damage of the welfare state. Many governments in the region are scaling back the generosity of handouts and trying to restore the work ethic.

I don’t want to give away too much information. You need to buy his book to learn more. And the other 10 chapters are just as enlightening.

I’ll close by simply observing that Calvin Coolidge (as quoted by Ronald Reagan) understood today’s topic way back in the 1920s.

P.S. I’ve also cited Nima’s great work on how people of Nordic descent in America are much more productive than their cousins who remained in Scandinavia, as well as his work showing that Nordic nations originally became rich because of Hong Kong-style economic policy. And I’ve also shared some of his fascinating research on the policies that generate super-entrepreneurs.

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As a general rule, I like immigration and I don’t like redistribution.

As such, I share the late Milton Friedman’s concern about the risks of having a welfare state combined with open borders. And based on many conversations all over the country, I think that’s a big reason why many people oppose amnesty (augmented by Republican partisans who fear, probably with some validity, that changing the political landscape of America is the real reason Senator Schumer is a big advocate of amnesty).

So how can we reap the benefits of immigration without the risk of a bigger welfare state?

In part, we should have programs designed to attract people with skills and education.

I’m a big advocate and defender, for instance, of the EB-5 program that gives a preference for foreigners who invest in America’s economy and create jobs.

And if you peruse Mark Perry’s chart, we must be doing something right. Look at all these immigrant groups that are boosting per-capita income for the United States (including people from Lebanon, home of the Princess of the Levant).

I’ve always thought far more Americans would be sympathetic to immigration if they could be convinced that people were coming to America for the right reasons – i.e., to earn money rather than mooch off taxpayers.

With that in mind, Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has a Bloomberg column about Denmark that cites the great work of Nima Sanandaji about how Americans of Nordic descent have much higher incomes than the people remaining in Nordic nations. Tyler’s entire article is worth reading, but I want to focus on a quasi-open-borders proposal that he puts forth in his conclusion.

For all the anti-immigrant sentiment that is circulating at the moment, would it hurt the U.S. to have fully open borders with Denmark? It would boost American gross domestic product and probably also improve American education. History teaches that serious assimilation problems would be unlikely, especially since many Danes already speak English. Open borders wouldn’t attract Danes who want to live off welfare because the benefits are so generous at home. How’s this for a simple rule: Open borders for the residents of any democratic country with more generous transfer payments than Uncle Sam’s.

I can’t think of any reasonable objection to this idea. Everything Tyler says makes sense. People like “Lazy Robert” won’t be lining up to get plane tickets to America. Instead, we’ll get the young and aspirational Danes.

For what it’s worth, I even think he understates the case since the type of people who would migrate to America wouldn’t just boost GDP. They almost surely would do something arguably more important, which is to boost per-capita GDP.

Just think of all the productive entrepreneurs who would take the opportunity to escape over-taxed Denmark and come to the United States. Along with ambitious and skilled people from nations such as Italy, France, and Sweden (though our welfare state is very expensive, so I admit I’m just guessing at nations which would be eligible based on Tyler’s rule about “more generous transfer payments”).

By the way, Denmark apparently has learned a lesson about the risks of being a welfare magnet.

A story from Spiegel Online has the details.

Denmark’s strict immigration laws have saved the country billions in benefits, a government report has claimed. …The extremely strict laws have dramatically reduced the flow of people into Denmark in recent years, and many government figures are delighted with the outcome. “Now that we can see that it does matter who comes into the country, I have no scruples in further restricting those who one can suspect will be a burden on Denmark,” the center-right liberal integration minister, Søren Pind, told the Jyllands Postennewspaper. Pind was talking after the ministry’s report — initiated by the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party (DPP) — came to the conclusion that by tightening immigration laws, Denmark has saved €6.7 billion ($10 billion) over the last 10 years, money which otherwise would supposedly have been spent on social benefits or housing. According to the figures, migrants from non-Western countries who did manage to come to Denmark have cost the state €2.3 billion, while those from the West have actually contributed €295 million to government coffers.

Sounds like Danish lawmakers don’t want to add even more passengers to the nation’s already-overburdened “party boat.”

And who can blame them. The nation already has a crippling problem of too many people depending on government.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-related humor, we have a video about Americans migrating to Peru and a story about American leftists escaping to Canada.

P.P.S. For those interested in the issue of birthright citizenship (a.k.a. anchor babies), I’ve shared some interesting analysis from Will Wilkinson and George Will.

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I’m still in China, as part of a week-long teaching assignment about markets, entrepreneurship, economics, and fiscal policy at Northeastern University in Shenyang.

One point that I’ve tried to get across to the students is that China should not copy the United States. Or France, Japan, or Sweden. To be more specific, I warn them that China won’t become rich if it copies the economic policies that those nations have today.

Instead, I tell them that China should copy the economic policies – very small government, trivial or nonexistent income taxes, very modest regulation – that existed in those nations back in the 1800s and early 1900s. That’s when America and other western countries made the transition from agricultural poverty to industrial prosperity.

In other words, pay attention to the polices that actually produced prosperity, not the policies that happen to be in place in 2016. With this in mind, I’m delighted to share a new National Review column about the ostensibly wonderful Nordic Model from Nima Sanandaji. He starts by noting that statists are big fans of nations such as Sweden and Denmark.

Ezra Klein, the editor of the liberal news website Vox, wrote last fall that “Clinton and Sanders both want to make America look a lot more like Denmark — they both want to…strengthen the social safety net.” … Bill Clinton argues that Finland, Sweden, and Norway offer greater opportunities for individuals… Barack Obama recently…explain[ed] that “in a world of growing economic disparities, Nordic countries have some of the least income inequality in the world.”

Sounds nice, but there’s one itsy-bitsy problem with the left’s hypothesis.

Simply stated, everything good about Nordic nations was already in place before the era of big government.

…the social success of Nordic countries pre-dates progressive welfare-state policies. …their economic and social success had already materialized during a period when these countries combined a small public sector with free-market policies. The welfare state was introduced afterward.

Here are some of the key factoids about fiscal policy.

…in 1960, the tax rate in [Denmark] was merely 25 percent of GDP, lower than the 27 percent rate in the U.S. at the time. In Sweden, the rate was 29 percent, only slightly higher than in the U.S. In fact, much of Nordic prosperity evolved between the time that a capitalist model was introduced in this part of the world during the late 19th century and the mid 20th century – during the free-market era.

And here’s the data about equality (though I think it’s far more important to worry about the degree of upward mobility rather than whether everyone has a similar amount of income).

…high levels of income equality evolved during the same period. Swedish economists Jesper Roine and Daniel Waldenström, for example, explain that “most of the decrease [in income inequality in Sweden] takes place before the expansion of the welfare state and by 1950 Swedish top income shares were already lower than in other countries.” A recent paper by economists Anthony Barnes Atkinson and Jakob Egholt Søgaard reaches a similar conclusion for Denmark and Norway.

Our friends on the left think that government-run healthcare deserves the credit for longer lifespans in the Nordic world.

Nima explains that the evidence points in the other direction.

In 1960, well before large welfare states had been created in Nordic countries, Swedes lived 3.2 years longer than Americans, while Norwegians lived 3.8 years longer and Danes 2.4 years longer. Today, after the Nordic countries have introduced universal health care, the difference has shrunk to 2.9 years in Sweden, 2.6 years in Norway, and 1.5 years in Denmark. The differences in life span have actually shrunk as Nordic countries moved from a small public sector to a democratic-socialist model with universal health coverage.

Not to mention that there are some surreal horror stories in those nations about the consequences of putting government in charge of health care.

Here’s the evidence that I find most persuasive (some of which I already shared because of an excellent article Nima wrote for Cayman Financial Review).

Danish Americans today have fully 55 percent higher living standard than Danes. Similarly, Swedish Americans have a 53 percent higher living standard than Swedes. The gap is even greater, 59 percent, between Finnish Americans and Finns. Even though Norwegian Americans lack the oil wealth of Norway, they have a 3 percent higher living standard than their cousins overseas. …Nordic Americans are more socially successful than their cousins in Scandinavia. They have much lower high-school-dropout rates, much lower unemployment rates, and even slightly lower poverty rates.

Nima concludes his article by noting the great irony of Nordic nations trying to reduce their welfare states at the same time American leftists are trying to move in the other direction.

Nordic-style democratic socialism is all the rage among Democrat activists as well as with liberal intellectuals and journalists. But in the Nordic countries themselves, this ideal has gradually lost its appeal. …During the past few decades, the Nordic countries have gradually been reforming their social systems. Taxes have been cut to stimulate work, public benefits have been limited in order to reduce welfare dependency, pension savings have been partially privatized, for-profit forces have been allowed in the welfare sector, and state monopolies have been opened up to the market. In short, the universal-welfare-state model is being liberalized. Even the social-democratic parties themselves realize the need for change.

The net result of these reforms is that the Nordic nations are a strange combination of many policies that are very good (very little regulation, very strong property rights, very open trade, and stable money) and a couple of policies that are very bad (an onerous tax burden and a bloated welfare state).

I’ve previously shared (many times) observations about the good features of the Nordic nations, so let’s take a closer look at the bad fiscal policies.

Sven Larson authored a study about the Swedish tax system for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. The study is about 10 years old, but it remains the best explanation I’ve seen if you want to understand the ins and outs of taxation in Sweden.

Here’s some of what he wrote, starting with the observation that the fiscal burden used to be considerably smaller than it is in America today.

Sweden was not always a high-tax nation. …the aggregate tax burden after World War II was modest.

But then things began to deteriorate.

…over the next four decades, there was a relentless increase in taxation. The tax burden first reached 50 percent of economic output in 1986 and has generally stayed above that level for the past 20 years.

Though Sven points out that Swedish politicians, if nothing else, at least figured out that it’s not a good idea to be on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve (i.e., they figured out the government was getting less revenue because tax rates were confiscatory).

A major tax reform in 1991 significantly lowered the top marginal tax rate to encourage growth. The top rate had peaked at 87 percent in 1979 and then gradually dropped to 65 percent in 1990 before being cut to 51 percent in 1991. Subsequent tax increases have since pushed the rate to about 57 percent.

In the interest of fairness, let’s acknowledge that there are a few decent features of the Swedish tax system, including the absence of a death tax or wealth tax, along with a modest tax burden on corporations.

But the bottom line is that Sweden’s overall tax system (and the same can be said of Denmark and other Nordic nations) is oppressive. And the system is oppressive because governments spend too much. Indeed, the welfare state in Sweden and Denmark is as large as the infamous French public sector.

To be sure, the Swedes and Danes partially offset the damage of their big welfare states by having hyper-free market policies in other areas. That’s why they rank much higher than France in Economic Freedom of the World even though all three nations get horrible scores for fiscal policy.

Let’s close by circling back to the main premise of this column. Nima explained that good things happened in the Nordic nations before the welfare state exploded in size.

So I decided to see if we could ratify his hypothesis by checking the growth numbers from the impressive Angus Maddison database. Here’s a chart showing the average growth of per-capita GDP in Denmark and Sweden in the 45 years before 1965 (the year used as an unofficial date for when the welfare state began to metastasize) compared to the average growth of per-capita GDP during the 45 years since 1965.

Unsurprisingly, we find that the economy grew faster and generated more prosperity when government was smaller.

Gee, it’s almost as if there’s a negative relationship between the size of government and the health of the economy? What a novel concept!

P.S. All of which means that there’s still no acceptable response for my two-question challenge to the left.

P.P.S. Both Sweden and Denmark have been good examples for my Golden Rule, albeit only for limited periods.

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I wrote last year about the moral vacuum that exists in Europe because gun control laws in nations like France make it very difficult for Jews to protect themselves from barbaric attacks.

But the principle applies more broadly. All law-abiding people should have the human right to protect themselves.

Politicians in Denmark don’t seem to understand this principle. Or maybe the do understand the principle, but they are so morally bankrupt that don’t care. Not only do they have gun control, they even have laws against pepper spray. And they are so fanatical in their desire to turn people into sheep that the government apparently will prosecute a girl who used pepper spray to save herself from rape.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Daily Mail.

A Danish teenager who was sexually assaulted near a migrant asylum centre has been told she will be prosecuted after using pepper spray to fend off her attacker. …she managed to prevent the man from attacking her further by spraying the substance at him. …However, as it is illegal to use pepper spray, the teenage girl is set to face charges.

How disgusting.

And what makes the situation especially frustrating is that the criminals and terrorists in Europe obviously don’t have any problem obtaining firearms.

So the only practical effect of gun control (or bans on pepper spray) is to make life easier for the scum of society.

And the real insult to injury is that a teenage girl who should be hailed as a hero now faces the threat of punishment. Just like the unfortunate British woman who was persecuted for using a knife to deter some thugs.

And here’s some of what the BBC reported about

Italian hospitality for the visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stretched to covering up nude statues. Italy also chose not to serve wine at official meals

Pathetic. Particularly since the Italians bent over backwards for a truly heinous regime.

Kudos to President Hollande in France, by contrast. The Daily Mail notes that he held firm.

A lunch between the French and Iranian presidents in Paris was scrapped today because France refused to remove wine from the menu.

By the way, there clearly is a role for common courtesy and diplomatic protocol. It obviously would be gratuitously rude for a nation to serve pork at a dinner for officials from Israel or any Muslim nation, just as it would inappropriate and insensitive to serve beef for an event for officials from India.

Moreover, officials from one nation should not make over-the-top demands when visiting other countries. Just as it would be wrong for French officials to demand wine at state dinners in Iran, it’s also wrong for Iranian officials to demand the absence of wine at meals in France. After all, it’s not as if they would be expected to partake.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the kerfuffle about wine and statues doesn’t matter compared to the potentially life-and-death issue of whether Europeans should be allowed to defend themselves.

That’s why Europe isn’t merely in trouble because of fiscal bankruptcy, but also because of moral bankruptcy.

P.S. While having the ability to protect your life or to guard against rape isn’t a human right in most European nations, take a look at some of the things that are “rights.”

All this is amusing…in a very sad way.

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I’ve already commented several times on the good and bad features of the Nordic Model, largely to correct the false narrative being advanced by Bernie Sanders (though I was writing on this issue well before the Vermont Senator decided to run for Chief Commissar President of the United States).

In any event, Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist and he says he wants to adopt Scandinavian policies in the United States because he thinks this will boost the poor.

Yet he may want to check his premise. Warren Meyer of Coyote Blog looked at the numbers and concluded that poor people are not better off in Nordic countries.

When folks like Bernie Sanders say that we have more income inequality than Sweden or Denmark, this is certainly true. …Sanders implies that this greater income equality means the poor are better off in these countries, he is very probably wrong.  Because the data tends to show that while the middle class in the US is richer than the middle class in Denmark, and the rich in the US are richer than the rich in Denmark, the poor in the US are not poorer than those in Denmark. And isn’t this what we really care about?  The absolute well-being of the poor?

Regarding his rhetorical question, the answer may not be yes. As Margaret Thatcher famously observed, some statists resent the rich more than they care about the less fortunate.

But the motives of the left is not our focus today. Instead, we want to know whether the poor are worse off in the U.S. than in Nordic nations.

Meyer’s article seeks to measure living standards for different income classes in the United States and then compare them to living standards for different income classes in Denmark and Sweden.

Meyer found some data on this issue from the Economic Policy Institute, the same source that I cited in my 2007 study on the Nordic Model (see Figure 9 on page 11).

But he wanted to update and expand on that data. So he started digging.

I used data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center.  …the same data set used by several folks on the Left (John Cassidy and Kevin Drum) to highlight inequality issues…  I then compared the US to several other countries, looking at the absolute well-being of folks at different income percentile levels.  I have used both exchange rates and purchasing price parity (PPP) for the comparison.

And what did Meyer discover?

…all the way down to at least the 10th percentile poorest people, the poor in the US are as well or better off than the poor in Denmark and Sweden.  And everyone else, including those at the 20th and 25th percentile we would still likely call “poor”, are way better off in the US.

Here’s the data for Denmark.

As you can see, the poor in both nations have similar levels of income, but all other income classes in the United States are better off than their Danish counterparts.

And here’s the comparison of the United States and Sweden.

Once again, it’s very clear that America’s smaller overall burden of government generates  more prosperity.

So here’s the bottom line. If you’re a poor person in America, your income is as high as the incomes of your counterparts in Scandinavia.

But you have a much better chance of out-earning your foreign counterparts if you begin the climb the economic ladder. Yes, that means more “inequality,” but that’s why the term is meaningless. By the standards of any normal and rational person, the US system is producing better outcomes.

Now that we’ve ascertained that the United States is more prosperous than Nordic nations, let’s now say something nice about those countries by defending them against the scurrilous accusation that they follow socialist policies.

I’ve already shared my two cents on this issue, pointing out that neither Bernie Sanders nor Scandinavian nations properly can be considered socialist.

But if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the Prime Minister of Denmark, as reported by Vox.

Bernie Sanders…consistently references the social models of the Nordic states — and especially Denmark — as his idea of what democratic socialism is all about. But…Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said…he doesn’t think the socialist shoe fits. “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism,” he said, “therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

The key statement from the Prime Minister is that Denmark is not a “planned economy,” because that is what you automatically get when the government is in charge of allocating resources and controlling the means of production.

But since that doesn’t happen in Denmark, Mr. Rasmussen is exactly right that his country isn’t socialist.

It’s high tax, and that’s not good. There’s a huge amount of dependency on government because of redistribution programs, and that’s also not good.

But a high-tax welfare state is not the same as socialism. Indeed, nations such as Denmark and Sweden would be somewhere in between France and the United States on my statism spectrum.

By the way, don’t let anyone get away with claiming that Scandinavian nations somehow prove that big government isn’t an obstacle to a country becoming rich.

Yes, Nordic countries are rich by world standards, but the key thing to understand is that they became prosperous in the late 1800s and early 1900s, back when government was very small.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that nations such as Denmark and Sweden adopted big welfare states. And, not coincidentally, that’s when economic growth slowed in those countries.

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Whenever there’s a discussion of the Nordic nations, I feel conflicted.

I don’t like the punitively high tax rates and socially destructive levels of redistribution in nations such as Denmark, but I also admire the very laissez-faire policies those countries have when it comes to regulation, trade, and property rights.

Indeed, on those latter issues, it’s worth noting that Nordic nations are more free market-oriented than the United States according to the experts at the Fraser Institute who put together Economic Freedom of the World.

Take the example of Sweden. That country has robust school choice and a partially privatized social security system.

Moreover, Nordic nations in general have lower business tax burdens and investment tax burdens than the United States. And Denmark and Sweden have both taken some modest steps to restrain government spending, so even in the realm of fiscal policy you can find some admirable developments.

But these countries need more than “modest steps” since the burden of government spending is still enormous. And excessive social-welfare expenditures are a major problem since such outlays depress labor force participation and encourage dependency.

I mention all these good and bad features of Nordic nations because Senator Bernie Sanders has suggested, as part of his presidential campaign, that the United States should become more like Sweden and Denmark.

If I got to pick and choose which policies we copied, I would agree.

But since Senator Sanders almost surely wants us to copy their fiscal policies (and presumably has no idea that those countries are pro-free market in other areas), I feel compelled to explain that he’s wrong.

And the good news is that other people are producing the evidence, which makes my job easy. Nima Sanandaji is a Swedish economist who just wrote a very illuminating article on this topic for the Cayman Financial Review.

He starts by noting how statists embrace the Nordic Model.

Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have high-tax social democratic systems that for long have been admired by the left. …The high regard comes as no surprise. Nordic societies are uniquely successful. Not only are they characterised by high living standards, but also by other attractive features such as low crime rates, long life expectations, high degrees of social cohesion and relatively even income distributions. …This is often seen as proof that a ”third way” policy between socialism and capitalism works well, and that other societies can reach the same favourable social outcomes simply by expanding the size of government.

But Nima explains that Nordic nations became rich when they had free markets and small government.

The best that can be said about the Nordic welfare state is that the damage is somewhat contained because of cultural norms.

If one studies Nordic history and society in depth, however, it quickly becomes evident that the simplistic analysis is flawed. …High levels of trust, strong work ethic, civic participation, social cohesion, individual responsibility and family values are long-standing features of Nordic society that pre-date the welfare state. These deeper social institutions explain why Sweden, Denmark and Norway could so quickly grow from impoverished nations to wealthy ones as industrialisation and the market economy were introduced in the late 19th century. …The same norms explain why large welfare systems could be implemented in the mid-20th century. Strong work ethics and high levels of trust made it possible to levy high taxes and offer generous benefits with limited risk of abuse and undesirable incentive effects. It is important to stress that the direction of causality seems to be from cultures with strong social capital towards welfare states that have not had serious adverse consequences, and not the other way around.

Dr. Sanandaji then hypothesizes that we can learn a lot by comparing Americans of Nordic descent with those that didn’t emigrate.

…the Nordic success culture is maintained when people from this region move abroad. …The American descendants of Nordic migrants live in a very different policy environment compared with the residents of the Nordic countries. The former live in an environment with less welfare, lower taxes and (in general) freer markets. Interestingly, the social and economic success of Nordic-Americans is on a par with or even better than their cousins in the Nordic countries. …Close to 12 million Americans have Nordic (Scandinavian) origins.

And he produces some dramatic data.

Simply said, people of Nordic descent do very well in America, where the fiscal burden is lower than it is back in Scandinavia.

According to the 2010 US Census, the median household income in the United States is $51,914. This can be compared with a median household income of $61,920 for Danish Americans, $59,379 for Finish-Americans, $60,935 for Norwegian Americans and $61,549 for Swedish Americans. There is also a group identifying themselves simply as “Scandinavian Americans” in the US Census. The median household income for this group is even higher at $66,219.

But here’s the most remarkable information from his article. Nordic-Americans are far more productive than their cousins back home.

Danish Americans have a contribution to GDP per capita 37 per cent higher than Danes still living in Denmark; Swedish Americans contribute 39 per cent more to GDP per capita than Swedes living in Sweden; and Finnish Americans contribute 47 per cent more than Finns living in Finland. …there is prima facie evidence that the decedents of Nordic people who move to the U.S. are significantly better off than those who stay at home.

Here’s the infographic Nima sent with his article.

Wow, this is game, set, match, as far as I’m concerned.

Nima produced similar data a few years ago looking just as Swedes.

But this new data makes it clear that we’re not just looking at a one-nation phenomenon. The lesson is clear. Nordic people manage to be somewhat productive in high-tax, big-government nations.

But if they reside in a medium-tax country with a medium-sized government, they are highly productive (so just imagine what they could achieve in Hong Kong or Singapore!).

And Nima also points out that there is less poverty among Scandinavians in America than there is among Scandinavians in Scandinavia.

Nordic descendants in the U.S. today have half the poverty rate of the average of Americans – a consistent finding for decades. In other words, Nordic Americans have lower poverty rates than Nordic citizens.

So here’s the lesson that will be a nightmare for Bernie Sanders. It turns out that his role models actually teach us that big government makes people less prosperous.

…in the long run, the large welfare states have eroded incentives, and ultimately the social norms that bounded Nordic societies together. The U.S. system, with greater emphasis on personal responsibility, is more in line with the traditional Nordic system that allowed for the culture of success to develop in the first place. Thus, we should not be surprised that Nordic Americans have both higher living standard and lower poverty than their cousins in the Nordic welfare states.

To summarize, the recipe for prosperity is free markets (which you find in Scandinavia) and small government (which is absent in those countries).

But Senator Sanders wants to copy the bad parts of Nordic nations while ignoring the good parts. For those who care about real-world evidence, Dr. Sanandaji’s data suggests we should take the opposite approach.

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