But greater equality, the Scandinavian story helps us understand, doesn’t just suddenly appear.
I was a young American studying in Norway, years ago, when I learned how simple life can be. My lesson came when I caught a bad case of the flu in Oslo.
In Norway, my Norwegian wife explained, everyone has a family doctor. But I felt too sick to get out of bed and go see a doctor. No problem. Our doctor made a house call and came to see us. After treating me, the doctor explained that I would have a small co-pay. The Norwegian health care system would cover his basic fee.
What if I’d been living at the other end of Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, and had a brain tumor that required specialized surgery? In that case, the health system would have flown me to Oslo for care — for, again, just a small co-pay. The system even covered all of us foreign students. Quality health care, in Scandinavia, rates as a right.
You might assume that such an egalitarian system must be grossly expensive. Not true. Norway pays about two-thirds what the United States does for health care, per capita. The government gathers funding for health care through taxation, then pays the nation’s health care bill. This “single-payer” system save money, big time.
In researching my new book, Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too, I learned that Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland all share the same model with Norway and get the same results: quality health care for all at a big savings.
How can the Nordic nations do so well on necessities like health care? Some Americans dismiss the Scandinavian achievement as “Nordic exceptionalism.” Nordic cultural “values,” the story goes, make it easy for Scandinavians to have what we would love to get.
But the Nordic nations a century ago had their same cultures they have now, and yet their countries at that time overflowed with injustice and inequality. Back then, Sweden and Norway were hemorrhaging out their people. Heartbroken families said goodbye forever to loved ones setting off on ships bound for the United States and Canada, fleeing the chronic poverty and misery of Scandinavia to make a fresh start. The Nordic countries they fled amounted to “pretend democracies.” These nations had parliaments and free elections, but somehow the economic elite would always get its way — while the majority continued to suffer.
That majority would finally see through the pretense and realize that the Nordic elite wasn’t going to alleviate poverty and inequality. Change would only happen if the people organized to force it. And they did. Workers formed movements, as did farmers, and university students from professional families often became allies of these social movements for equality.
In Scandinavia, after World War I, mass social movements didn’t just protest inequality. They put forth a vision of a new society where equality could become a reality.
In Denmark, just after World War I, the worker and farmer movements created so much turbulence — and used nonviolent direct action so effectively — that they pushed back the elite and forced a political change.
The stories of change in Sweden and Norway would be even more dramatic. Growing economic inequality after World War I generated a scary polarization that nurtured Nazi parties grew. By the early 1930s, many feared Sweden and Norway might reach for a “fascist solution,” as Germany and Italy had.
How did the Swedes and Norwegians go on to avoid the mistakes made in Germany and Italy? That question matters. Many Americans today fear that our growing polarization could lead to fascism.
So what did the Swedes and Norwegians do right? The mass social movements in both countries worked hard to unite on a democratic vision and a nonviolent strategy for change. The Swedes in 1931 and Norwegians in 1936 forced their economic elites out of their dominant role through nonviolent direct action, and they pulled that off despite the elite’s use of police and troops to try to enforce injustice.
Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes did not just protest inequality. They instead put forth a vision of a new society where equality could become a reality. Once in power, movement activists rolled up their sleeves and virtually abolished poverty! With the help of economists, the people designed a new model that generated not only more equality than nations had ever experienced, but also more individual freedom.
The Scandinavians have far more individual freedom today than U.S.’ers do. Even in the economic realm, Norwegians have more start-ups per capita than the United States! The Nordics designed structures that typically generate more equality and more freedom at the same time.
Health care offers only one example of this dynamic. Medical schools are free in Norway. If the Norwegian med schools turn out to be full when you want to learn to be a physician, the system will send you to med school in Denmark or Sweden, or even the UK, not only tuition-free, but with a stipend for expenses.
No one I interviewed for my book Viking Economics wants their country to be seen as paradise. Norwegians tell me they live in a nation of complainers. In all the Nordic countries, people are constantly researching outcomes to find out how to improve.
Widespread public debates, for instance, are going on in these nations about the racism that shows up when they open the doors to immigration. Sweden took in more refugees from the Middle East two years ago than any other European nation. One Norwegian in five is foreign-born.
Debates about carbon pollution, meanwhile, have become heated. Norway now ranks as the only Nordic oil exporter, and a growing movement of Norwegians insists that the oil be left in the ground.
Despite Scandinavia’s flaws, the international comparisons using the Gini measure of income inequality make it clear: The Nordic economic model produces dramatically higher levels of equality than economies in the United States or UK. One result: vibrant democracies with very high rates of voter participation and far more press freedom than in the United States.
The Nordics still have problems, but by pushing their economic elite out of dominance they have given themselves the ongoing capacity to solve those problems. Their example raises the question: When will we in the United States focus on a positive egalitarian vision and train ourselves for the nonviolent direct action campaigns that will get us what we want?
George Lakey recently retired from teaching at Swarthmore College and is on tour with his book, now released in paperback from Melville House, Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too. His “Living Revolution” column appears at WagingNonviolence.org. Lakey participates in nonviolent direct action campaigning through the Earth Quaker Action Team (eqat.org).
Author, professor, and social change activist George Lakey explores the history of the Nordic social movements that have fostered equality — and the world's most livable societies.