The U.S. is Not Norway (or Greece, or Germany, or Canada…)

In his Washington Post column on Monday, E.J. Dionne pointed to Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Australia, and Germany as examples of countries where a social-democratic welfare state has produced the results we should be looking for: greater income equality and social mobility, more generous social benefits, and so on.

“[W]e need more active and thoughtful government policies to become again the nation we claim to be,” writes Dionne.

Some thoughts…

The seven nations named by Dionne have a combined population of some 165 million, give or take, or about half that of the United States. Their economies, combined, produce about half as much as the United States.

Norway, for example, has slightly more people than Alabama, and an economy the size of Indiana’s. (If you prefer a more ecclesial metric, there are about as many Catholics in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as there are people in Norway.)

Now, I will leave it to Norwegians to decide what kind of government they want, but imagine the challenges Norway would face if it also tried to govern Germany, Australia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Canada according to its particular brand of democratic socialism. Now add the populations of Italy, Poland, Greece, Portugal, Hungary, Austria, and Israel and you have a population roughly equal to the U.S.

Even accounting for massively complex questions of language and national identity, one expects that one-size-fits-all social and economic policies might be received differently in, to pick examples with real world resonance, Athens and Berlin. It is one thing to have centralized control of healthcare, for example, when your country has, as Norway does, a population little more than half the size of New York City; it is another thing entirely to micro-manage the welfare of a third of a billion lives.

The point is this: One may have principled objections to the kind of social welfare states we see in Europe, as one may have principled disagreements with Dionne’s Progressive prescriptions for American government. But even on the level of purely practical concerns — and one of the hallmarks of Progressives like Dionne and President Obama is the self-proclaimed devotion to “practical solutions” — the European model would be massively overmatched by the sheer size and diversity of these United States.

Our system of federalism has long allowed for great diversity in the laws by which we are governed. The more the federal government takes it upon itself to regulate the minutiae of everyday life, the more federalism is precluded for serving the role for which it was designed. A federal cradle-to-grave welfare regime on the European model would necessarily relegate the sovereign States to the status of functionaries of federal policy decisions.

Robust federalism isn’t just a pious relic of late eighteenth century political thought. It is a necessary component of good government in this country — especially in this county! — not because federalism is sufficient for good government, but because in a nation this size, federalism keeps government close to the governed where it can actually be responsive to the needs and demands of the people.

In terms of Catholic social doctrine, the decentralizing effect of federalism is both a practical means for protecting and promoting subsidiarity, and a practical means for promoting and protecting solidarity, which always grows from those subsidiary institutions, beginning with the family, in which we learn the fundamentals of responsible freedom. The kind of massive centralization that erodes subsidiarity, whether by force or by the willful abdication by citizens of their responsibility to the common good, does not result in too much solidarity — no such thing exists — it destroys solidarity, resulting in profound alienation and, in the words of Pope Leo XIII, “utter confusion in the community.”

(The relationship between government and culture is complex, and the particular histories of various European cultures and regimes, even more so. But we would be remiss to assume that the demographic, spiritual, and cultural decline of Europe is unrelated to its politics. Not to put too fine a point on it, the decidedly un-fecund, irreligious, welfare-state clients inhabiting much of Europe these days have rarely impressed me with their capacity for true social solidarity.)

So there is a grain of truth in the complaints of many American Progressives that the U.S. is “ungovernable.” If their model of governance is a European social-assistance state, then, yes, the United States is probably ungovernable, at least if it is also to remain a free and vibrant democracy. Uniform, centralized governance of daily life in a nation the size of ours entails a massive capacity to control the citizenry, and that means coercion. This does not seem to dissuade our Progressive friends from pining for just such a system of government. (Though it does perhaps explain Sinophilia Chic, a la Thomas Friedman.)

To govern the United States the way Norway is governed, should such a thing be wished, would require a disproportionately massive increase in the power and scope of the federal government, and a corresponding decrease in the independence and capacity of state and local authorities, to say nothing of individual liberty and responsibility. A much larger, much less responsive central government would be catastrophic to the common good, supplanting local governments, further distancing the citizenry from their representatives, and upsetting fragile subsidiary institutions with the blunt implements of centralized bureaucratic control.

The result would not be Norway writ large, but a Leviathan the proportions of which no free people has ever known. It is doubtful that a people so governed could long remain a people capable of living freely.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.


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  • Julie T.

    Stephen, your piece brings some much-needed sanity to the conversation about America’s economic and social woes. Unfortunately, in their bid for political power, our current president and his fellow Democrats have injected a level of class envy and resentment not seen in several decades. It makes civil conversation nearly impossible, especially when so many Americans hold outdated information about Scandinavia as current truth. I would be a wealthy woman if I had a nickle for every time I’ve heard a “progressive,” especially if said person is under the age of 35, point to Sweden or Denmark or Norway as a workers’ paradise. There are two relevant articles that bolster your argument and both can be accessed online. The first was written by Johnny Munkhammar, a member of Sweden’s parliament, and published by the Wall Street Journal. It is especially informative. His article is found here:

    The second article was appeared in Forbes this past May:

  • John Morrison

    Having lived in both Norway and the United States, the Scandinavian countries seem to be the most responsible stewards of a social democracy that I can think of. But you are correct that this is (probably) not something that can be duplicated in the US.

    My Norwegian friends don’t mind the high personal income taxes and VAT b/c most feel they are getting a good R.O.I. on their tax dollars. To deliver these same services in the US would require a massive, standardized bureaucracy that is often anathema to delivering efficient services. And something like StatOil (which is a substantial contributor to the sovereign wealth fund) wouldn’t (couldn’t and shouldn’t) happen in the US.



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