Despite Sanders’ Praise, ‘Nordic Model’ Will Not Work for U.S.

“What’s wrong with that?” Bernie Sanders answered, almost defensively, to George Stephanopoulos on the Late Night Show on Sept. 18. What is wrong with higher voter turnout with free undergraduate school and better retirement benefits? He enumerated on democratic socialism, and specifically, how America could benefit from the Nordic Model. Who wouldn’t want a radical shift towards wealth equality, better public schools, better healthcare and lower crime rates? In a perfect society—one in which none of these ideals would have repercussions on the individual—the questions are almost rhetorical: if you believe in a higher quality of life for all citizens, then you would agree with these statements. However in reality, their execution is a little more nuanced. Because of the differences between Scandinavian cultures and American culture, the Nordic Model is not a realistic goal for the United States to attain through higher taxes and greater government regulation.

The Nordic Model is a name for the general system of government policy used in some Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway. This system includes free trade school and undergraduate education, health insurance for all citizens, and a prison system geared towards rehabilitation rather than incarceration. And in these countries, the model, although imperfect, seems to be working quite well. Sweden had an 82.61 percent voter turnout rate in 2014. Higher education tuition is not required in Denmark and Norway.

What is interesting about the Nordic Model is that the means by which it is obtained in these Scandinavian countries is not what one would expect. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, these countries operated on a much higher tax model. They would tax their citizens high amounts and spend the money on public service projects. According to the Scandinavian Journal of Economics, in 1993, Sweden’s public spending reached 67 percent of GDP. However, this taxation model failed these countries in the late 1990’s. Sweden experienced a financial crisis worse than their depression in the 1930s: Within the span of a couple of years, the GDP decreased by 13 percent and unemployment rose to 18.9 percent from a mere 3.5 percent.

A model of higher tax rates for reallocation of GDP towards government-sponsored programs did not work. So, these countries tried something else. Now, Denmark, Sweden and Norway allow public and private sectors to compete. Sweden and Denmark allow private schools to compete with public schools by instating a school voucher system. In Denmark and Norway, private firms may run public hospitals. Furthermore, tax rates within these countries have been substantially lowered, and Sweden has a higher “fiscal freedom” rating than the United States.

This is where the flaw in Sanders' model lies: he vouches for the same end as these Scandinavian countries, but advocates to accomplish this end by different means. He wants to raise tax rates in the United States and reallocate funding toward government programs without creating competitive markets between public and private sectors.  According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, the United States tax rate is already at 35 percent for taxable yearly income exceeding $335,000. Tax rates in Scandinavian countries range from 22 to 27 percent. Pursuing a model that would require higher taxation, but basing this model on countries with lower taxation presents a problem. Sanders is pushing to attain a goal by means that have already proven to fail in these countries.

Furthermore, Sanders has failed to acknowledge the cultural background of these countries that gives a borderline welfare state leverage. Europe is rooted deep in tradition. There is a reason why crime rates such as infanticide, child kidnapping, and rape are significantly lower than in the United States. These countries have, over time, built a culture of tradition and community that allows for some social norms and not for others. With tradition shared by a large number of people from a similar background, certain societal beliefs are enforced de facto by a communal belief system.

The United States, however, is comprised of a vast network of individuals from different cultures and beliefs. Instituting any sort of radical economic and political system might not be effective. In a country where individualism is valued over tradition, a substantial increase in government welfare and subsequent increase in taxes would not coincide with our need for individual determination. In the United States, it is hard to enforce laws through social pressure instead of through our justice system because of the country’s relative youth and thus lack of mature culture.

However idealistic, Bernie Sanders has a point: the United States would be better off if we could achieve a better healthcare system, more competitive and universal schooling, and lower crime and recidivism rates. However, the means by which we strive for this ideal must be scrutinized. Although interesting, Sanders' platform needs some contemplation and change based on culture, history and facts.

Emma Houston CM '19 is from Boston, Mass., and is interested in majoring in philosophy and physics.

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