What a small, happy country can teach a huge and fractious one. And what it can’t.
By Megan McArdle
February 22, 2018, 11:00 PM PST
… Denmark showed up in American politics during the first Democratic primary debate in October 2015, when Senator Bernie Sanders cited it when asked about his vision of democratic socialism. “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn what they have accomplished for their working people,” Sanders said.
Americans soon learned that Denmark was indeed the happiest country in the world, according to the United Nations World Happiness Report. And also one of the richest, with a per-capita gross domestic product just a few thousand dollars less than the U.S. one. Income inequality is extremely low there, thanks to a combination of high entry-level wages and low executive salaries. Danes enjoy more economic freedom than Americans, according to a Heritage Foundation tally. To the consternation of many conservative economic theorists, they were somehow pulling this off despite the highest tax burden in the world.
… So I went to see for myself.
To an American, Copenhagen can feel like a supersize college campus. The city center is dominated by charming old buildings and cobblestone streets. Thanks to government environmental policies (new vehicles are taxed at 100 percent) and some of the best bike lanes in the world, half the city bikes to work every day, which conveys a youthful feel. The lack of economic pressure also feels collegiate to those of us who studied on a combination of loans and parental contributions.
And so, a curmudgeon might note, does the homogeneity of the people you see around you. Although roughly 10 percent of the population consists of immigrants, in the downtown at least, the crowds look strikingly white and blond.
All this is apt to make conservatives roll their eyes. …
Those conservatives are probably right; they would hate living in Denmark. But that doesn’t mean the Danes do. Even the market liberals I talked to (the closest Denmark has to an American-style libertarian), were pretty pleased with the place.
“A lot of the public sector is incredibly efficient,” said Martin Agerup, the head of Cepos, a Danish free-market think tank.
Don’t get me wrong: Agerup wanted change because Denmark has genuine problems. …
But these are, on the scale of things, reasonably minor problems. They can be fixed. Moreover, there’s some chance that they will be fixed because Denmark’s political culture is remarkably effective at tackling problems that have stymied the rest of the world.
For example, almost alone among the developed countries, Denmark has solved its pension problem, keeping budgets in balance, generously pre-funding private retirement accounts, and linking retirement ages to rising lifespans. After 15 years of watching every other country fail to address the coming demographic bulge, it’s hard not to think that if the Danes can do that, they can do anything.
So, sorry, conservatives: Denmark really does combine high wages with high employment, high taxes with prosperity, fiscal responsibility with high levels of government spending. No wonder leftists ask if policymakers couldn’t do something like that in the U.S.
But also … sorry, leftists. After a week in Copenhagen, the conclusion I came to is that no, they probably can’t. Not because the Danish model doesn’t work, but because it’s so very, very Danish.
A while back, I went to Utah to ask why residents of that state are more upwardly mobile than other Americans. On measures of social mobility, in fact, Utah looks a lot like Denmark. In Salt Lake City, a child born into the bottom fifth of the income-distribution scale has about a 10.8 percent chance of making it into the top fifth; in Denmark, that figure is 11.7 percent.
In other ways, Utah looks little like Denmark: It is highly religious, socially conservative and fiscally restrained. And yet both emit the same feeling of extreme cohesion. You see it in the statistics, but you also see it in everyday life; for example, in their unusually functional governments. …
I heard similar things on my recent trip. You can see it in the data: Overall, Danes report high levels of trust in one another and in their government.
The right of center ruling coalition in Denmark for most of this century has been staunchly immigration restrictionist.
Jeff Bezos recently hired Ms. McArdle as a Washington Post columnist. A better choice than his previous hire, Max Boot. Being the richest man in the world has its privileges and it’s good to see Bezos daring to indulge himself more this time than in his submissive choice of Boot.