A Nordic cure for American anxiety

Any time liberals try to expand the American social welfare state, conservatives can be counted on to howl in resistance in the name of freedom.  Government helping parents pay for childcare?  An invasive infringement on the freedom of families to make their own childrearing arrangements, according to the conservative National Review.  Guaranteeing paid family leave for all workers?  A job-killing big government burden on free enterprise, according to conservatives like Sen. Marco Rubio.  Providing universal healthcare through the private insurance market?  Government coercion on the freedom to take your chances without health insurance, according to virtually all Republicans.

We’ve become accustomed to this serve-and-volley routine in American politics.  Liberals pitch their policy ideas in terms of fairness, justice, and equity.  Conservatives furiously respond as the guardians of freedom from government overreach.

But this one-sided conception of what American freedom means warps the debate and obscures a richer, fuller understanding of what it means to enjoy the fruits of liberty in the twenty-first century.  Sometimes it takes a voice from outside of the bubble to show us what we’re missing.

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In The Nordic Theory of Everything, Finnish journalist Anu Partanen provides that voice.  Partanen was born in Finland but moved to the United States as an adult.  Upon landing in America, Partanen quickly noticed that for a country that prides itself as the land of opportunity, American life was remarkably laden with anxiety, dependence, and constriction.  With little in the way of public support, Partanen encountered the reality that Americans are largely on their own to obtain basic modern necessities and navigate complex systems that are publicly provided in other countries.  Americans had little sense of just how unfree their lives were.

Partanen’s home country of Finland provides a robust and modern welfare state.  Back home, Partanen had enjoyed a whole host of public benefits: simple and comprehensive universal healthcare, a year’s worth of paid disability leave, nearly a year of paid parental leave (with the option of lesser-paid leave for an additional two years), affordable public daycare, universally high-performing K-12 education, free college, and free graduate school.

In the United States, however, Partanen was struck by the degree to which Americans are on their own to manage the complexities of modern life, and how this fosters strangely backward relationships.  “[T]he Americans I encountered and read about were being forced to depend more and more on one another,” Partanen writes, “in a throwback to the traditional relationships of old.  And in the process, individuals were becoming beholden to their spouses, parents, children, colleagues, and bosses in ways that constrained their own liberty.”

For instance, Partanen grew disturbed by the grotesquerie of financial tax incentives to marry, and using marriage as a solution to poverty to compensate for lack of government support.  “[I]n Finland,” Partanen explains, “a policy like America’s would be considered government meddling in matters of private morality.”  To Partanen, promoting marriage—“one of the most precious of human experiences”—as a poverty fix “sounds like something from the distant past.”

Partanen explains that the Nordic welfare states arise from what she calls the “Nordic theory of love.”  This is the idea that love and fulsome relationships arise between individuals who are equal and autonomous.  Dependency is anathema to love.  This theory, Partanen explains, “has inspired the broad variety of policy choices in the Nordic nations that together ensure a single, predominant goal: independence, freedom, and opportunity for every member of society.”

These are quintessential American values.  But American fear of the welfare state has endangered them as increasingly hollow aspirations.  There is an odd contradiction in American life, Partanen writes: “Today the United States is at once a hypermodern society in its embrace of the contemporary free-market system, but an antiquarian society in leaving it to families and other community institutions to address the problem the system creates.”

Leaving it to families and others to fill in the gaping holes in our safety net can dampen relationships that ought to be sacred.  The dependency of the elderly on their children to act as caretakers, for instance, breeds resentment and exhaustion.  That’s why Nordic countries provide public eldercare centers.  Nordics, Partanen writes, “want their love for the elderly to remain untainted by the sort of resentments that can arise when aging parents are stuck in relationships of dependency with their own children—relationships that destroy the autonomy, independence, and freedom of everyone involved.”

This is true at the opposite end of life, too.  New parents must solve logistical puzzles to take time off from work to be home with their new child, and to coordinate childcare while staying in the labor force.  Those who are lucky have paid leave as a fringe benefit from their employers, but far from all have this luxury.  The Nordic theory, however, is that “parents should be able to focus on welcoming new life into the world and loving their newborn, rather than being overwhelmed by the logistical challenges involved,” Partanen writes.  That’s why Nordic countries each provide at least nine months of paid leave for new parents to stay home with their children.  And Nordic countries provide public daycare for working parents, sparing them the exhausted mental bandwidth that American parents expend figuring out how to juggle work and childcare.

The Nordic brand of freedom means the absence of burden.  Children don’t bear the burden of their parents’ income status—kids of all classes can access high-quality education and are entitled to a basic child allowance.  Workers aren’t stuck at a job for fear of losing health insurance—and employers aren’t burdened with running complicated social insurance schemes, either.  Entrepreneurs can put business ideas in practice, knowing that there’s a safety net to catch them if they fail, and that their startup won’t be tasked with paying for costly employee benefits.

Skeptics might argue that this freedom is merely replacing one dependency with another—making citizens dependent on government instead of on family, neighbors, civil society, and themselves.  Indeed, the prospect of government dependency has long been the bogeyman in American politics.  Why should Nordic dependency on the state be preferable to American informal dependency elsewhere?

Henrik Herggren, a Swedish public intellectual, has one answer.  In The Myth of the Nearly Perfect People, author Michael Booth deals with similar themes of Nordic freedom and personal independence, and poses the question of government dependency to Herggren.  According to Herggren:

“[Swedes] are not arguing that people are totally independent, because they are dependent on the state. [. . .] [But] [y]ou can get an awful lot of autonomy by accepting a democratic state is actually furnishing you with the means to be autonomous in this way, and reach a certain self-realization.  [. . .]  [T]he point here is not that the state is saying this is how you should live your life, but it is providing you with the support structure.  Society is unequal and people don’t have the same opportunities, but we are trying to lift everybody to the same level so they can achieve the same kind of freedom and self-realization, which only a small group could do previously.”

In Herggren’s view, the state can provide a support structure and a set of guideposts to create equal opportunity in a way that no other actor or institution can.  Any other arrangement of dependency—on families, on employers, on charities—will create varying and unpredictable levels of support.  Only the state can guarantee a basic level of opportunity to all, setting everyone on a path of self-exploration and meaningful freedom.

So what is to be done for the stressed-out and stretched-thin United States?  Partanen has a clear vision for what the country needs.  “What Americans need,” she writes, “so that they can stop struggling so hard to be superachievers, is simple: affordable high-quality health care, day care, education, living wages, and paid vacations.”  In short, real freedom requires government to step in to provide the goods needed to loosen the squeeze on everyday Americans.

Of course, Nordic citizens pay handsomely for these types of generous public services.  But as Partanen explains, when you tally up all of the United States’s public and private expenditures on items like health care, pensions, unemployment benefits, and childcare, it winds up spending as much as Sweden does as a share of its GDP.  Given the bounty that her tax bill bought, Partanen says, “it was a bargain.”

The United States is stuck in an outmoded, negative view of freedom.  This brand of freedom is negative in that it focuses solely on freedom from government infringement on personal liberty.  But modern society calls for a more positive understanding of freedom—a freedom from knowing that certain basic goods and services are accessible to fall back on in order to meaningfully actualize personal liberty.

“Today nations that have progressed into the twenty-first century see freedom as something much richer,” Partanen writes.  “They see freedom as the assurance that all individuals get real opportunity, so they’re free to pursue the good life for themselves, and real protection from the lottery of bad luck, so they’re free from unnecessary fear and anxiety.”

Let’s hope we join these nations soon.  Our incomplete idea of freedom is obscuring all of the ways that we are already unfree and dependent, constrained and burdened.  A modern and comprehensive welfare state is necessary to replace mounting American anxiety with real American freedom.

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