There is a lot of talk around about how to “make America great.” It seems to me common sense that if we really want to “make America great”, then we must be prepared to learn from societies that are doing better than we are. In business, medicine, and other fields, organizations take pride in discovering “best practices” and adopting them. This is one common way large organizations learn and evolve.
So, what are the “best practices” among developed nations?
Perhaps you have seen news stories about international studies that evaluate countries on their levels of happiness, equality, health, openness, freedom, opportunity, and being a good place to live. In just about every one of those rankings, the top countries turn out to be the Nordic nations of Scandinavia. They are the places where life expectancy tops the charts, where interpersonal trust and personal happiness abound, where people feel free and secure, where health care and quality of life are at their highest, where education is top-notch and free (or very inexpensive), where innovation and invention are widespread, where upward social mobility is most possible and most frequent, where crime and violence are low, and where poverty and inequality are minimal.
In other words, the Nordic nations are an obvious place to look for “best practices.” So, what are these “best practices?” The best general term to describe the Nordic system is “social democracy, a term not often heard in the United States. Social democracy describes a system of democratic governance where the goal of government is to provide security and freedom for all by actively intervening in the economic marketplace to promote economic and social growth and distribution in ways that benefit everyone.
The most important common characteristics of a social democracy include an economic marketplace where goods and services are traded, the rule of law, real political democracy where wealth does not equate to political power, strong labor unions, and economic cooperatives, and universal social programs that provide the necessities of a secure life to all. The result is a society that builds trust, respect, and civic involvement because people feel secure and free and they are aware that their situations stem from the policies and institutions that they have created together.
A key “best practice” is conducting politics through a national dialogue between citizens intended to produce basic operating standards for markets, workplaces, and other economic institutions. Still, business remains privately owned and operated. In other words, social democracies organize and regulate the marketplace, but they do not replace it. Unions are strong players in the national drama and benefit from rules that require employee participation in private and public economic decision-making. Wages and working conditions are negotiated, not mandated. A final important economic role of government is to look to the country’s long-range future, directing resources to areas of innovation and growth.
The basic notion here is that the market is a good and fair distributor of resources and opportunities only when it is guided by a set of cultural norms and legal rules aimed at justice and equity for all. In addition, the Nordic social democracies have learned that some basic needs and resources must be removed from the marketplace and distributed more fairly and equitably by public institutions. They agree that housing, food, health, education, access to leisure and the arts, and the like should not depend solely on how much income and wealth one has.
Social democracies operate according to the rule of law. Private property and private contracts are protected by the government. Profits and incomes are taxed progressively to fund social programs, like parental leave, early childhood education and childcare, universal healthcare, and free education (including higher education) that benefit everyone from the very rich to the less well off.
Often, when Americans hear about these kinds of policies, they reject them that they are too costly. To put it bluntly, that is simply not true. Many of these policies would pay for themselves through the savings generated by replacing the expense and bureaucracy of existing partial and means-tested programs. Other savings would be generated by reducing the high costs of inequality and poverty in areas such as medical care, criminal justice, community disorganization, and the like. In addition, social democracy in the US could be paid for by some relatively unproblematic combination of taxes on wealth and financial speculation, increased taxes on very high incomes, fairer taxes on corporations, and long overdue reductions in defense spending.
The much bigger hurdle in preventing social democracy in the United States is our culture of distrust and disrespect. Levels of interpersonal trust and positive civic involvement in our nation are low and continue to decline. Our first societal premise must be that we are all in this together rather than the belief that this is a dog eat dog world where the only responsibility each of us has is to “look out for number one.”
Although it is an extremely daunting task, we can build such a healthier national culture. It begins with how we teach our children and extends to how we conduct ourselves. It includes being careful about what values we promote in our national discourse and our entertainment and artistic endeavors.
It is, perhaps some comfort to know, that the Scandinavian social democracies themselves took some time to develop these “best practices.” They were once like us, racked with inequality and distrust, saddled with a government controlled by the wealthy. In response, consumers, workers, and small farmers came together to form a social and political movement capable of producing real social change. Together, they built societies based on real freedom, trust, and lived community.
Couldn’t America do the same?