Americans Choke on the Term “Welfare State”

The Nordic countries, such as Finland, may actually be more American than the United States.

The Nordic countries, such as Finland, may actually be more American than the United States.

Americans tend to think that the Nordic countries’ generous social services programs come at the expense of economic opportunity, partly because of what seem to be high taxes. But that may be a myth. In the Atlantic, Uri Friedman quotes Hillary Clinton, who spouts the conventional wisdom about the differences between the United States and the Nordic countries.

“We are not Denmark. … We are the United States of America. … [W]hen I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.”

Friedman himself:

Opportunity. Freedom. Independence. These words are bound up with American identity and the American Dream. The problem is that they’re often repeated like an incantation, with little reflection on the extent to which they still ring true in America, and are still exceptionally American.

Anu Partanen’s new book, The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, argues that the freedom and opportunity Americans cherish are currently thriving more in Nordic countries than in the United States. (The Nordic countries comprise Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland.)

Along, that is, with the social services programs. And what about those taxes? Friedman interviewed Ms. Partanen.

Friedman: Many Americans might say, “This all sounds great, but you guys are paying sky-high taxes. We don’t want anything to do with that.” How would you respond?

Partanen: First of all, the taxes are not necessarily as high as many Americans think. One of the myths I encounter often is that Americans are like, “You pay 70 percent of your income in taxes.” No, we do not. For someone who lives in a city like San Francisco or New York City—where you have federal taxes, state taxes, city taxes, property taxes—the tax burden is not very different [than the tax burden in Finland]. I discuss my own taxes in the book and I discovered this to be true: that I did pay about the same or even more in New York than I would have paid on my income in Finland. I’ve talked to many Nordics in the U.S. who say the same thing.

The second thing is that there’s no point in discussing the levels of taxes in different countries unless you discuss what you get for your taxes. Americans in many states, certainly, or cities—they might pay less taxes [on] their income or [on] property than Nordics do. But then, on top of that, they pay for their day care, they pay for their health insurance, they pay for college tuition—all these things that Nordics get for their taxes.

But wait: We have a huge military and the option of intervening in the hot spot of our choice. What real American would give that up for the benefits that the Nordic countries enjoy? (Oh, right. Most of us.)