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'The Nordic Theory of Everything' wishes the US were more Scandinavian

A Finnish journalist explains what the United States can learn from Nordic countries

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    The Nordic Theory of Everything:
    In Search of a Better Life
    By Anu Partanen
    HarperCollins Publishers
    432 pp.
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In 2014, a study appeared in the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology demonstrating that religious convictions support beliefs that the world works properly. Religious individuals were more likely in surveys to answer that capitalism is fair, American society is just, and that hard work is
rewarded.

This study doesn’t appear in Anu Partanen’s new book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, but it demonstrates the glaring flaws of her work. Partanen, a Finnish journalist living in New York, argues that the United States has much to learn from Nordic societies. Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland routinely top the lists of rankings indicating quality-of-life measures. In areas ranging from health care to education, Nordic countries lead the world. “The Nordic nations had found an approach to government that deployed policies in a smarter way to create in individual citizens not a culture of dependency, but rather, a new culture of personal self-sufficiency that matched modern life,” Partanen writes.

Partanen recently moved to America for the man who eventually became her husband and found that America lagged far behind other advanced countries in offering their citizens the best lives possible. She is quick in "The Nordic Theory of Everything" to emphasize that she loves many American individuals and admires the country’s optimism and resourcefulness. But in terms of its public policy, American society leaves her disappointed and shocked.

Single-payer health care, government-sponsored daycare, generous unemployment benefits – programs like these boost both equality and freedom.

Some of the most compelling parts of Partanen’s book illustrate how what many Americans consider to be the ultimate indicator of liberty – the freedom from burdensome government – is actually a trap that confines tens of millions of people to overworking at jobs they dislike, attending mediocre schools, and suffering from anxiety at having to navigate life while constantly worrying about necessities. Conversely, because Nordic governments assure citizens of the basic fundamentals of modern life, individuals are free to actually pursue the lives they wish to lead.

From this left-wing reviewer’s perspective, virtually everything "The Nordic Theory of Everything" claims about the superiority of the countries in Northern Europe is correct. Indeed, the book might have added more: Violence is barely touched upon, but America leads the post-industrialized world in most forms of violent crime, particularly gun violence. One of the few places in which America does best – generous immigration policies and robust assimilation of newcomers – has come under assault from the Republican Party.

And yet, Partanen’s book is infuriating even for a reader – perhaps especially for a reader – who agrees with all its political positions. She writes that, “with some smart policy choices, the United States could surely achieve similar results” to what Nordic countries have achieved. Surely anyone who studies the
United States, however, should have an understanding of the immense barriers the country’s size, religiosity, culture, history, political system, and racial and ethnic cleavages place to making and implementing these policy choices. A huge chunk of the American populace would love to implement
the policies Partanen advocates. The problem is that they cannot.

Start with religion. Persuasive parts of Partanen’s book suggest that cohabitating couples are no worse off than married ones, and that the self-sufficient children and elderly people fostered in Northern Europe are better off than co-dependent families in America. But unlike Europe – indeed, unlike every
other wealthy country in the world – the US has a high degree of people of faith. Although all religions are diverse and have both progressive and reactionary wings, religious individuals tend to be more traditional and conservative than secular people. Suggesting that Americans should alter their family lives in favor of other familial arrangements runs up against the enormous wall that is religion. How does Partanen imagine a politician proposing making major adjustments to American family life faring at the ballot box?

Suppose there were a politician willing to sacrifice her career by overhauling basic patterns of American life. She would still have to overcome the tremendous obstacles of Congress, the presidential veto, and the Supreme Court. All the Nordic countries – in fact, all rich countries in the world – have systems of government that make passing legislation easier than America’s does. There is only one country in all of Europe that, like the United States, has a president. That country is Belarus, the last dictatorship on the continent. Many political scientists believe the presidential system to be profoundly flawed, but it is a fact that American reformers must reckon with. "The Nordic Theory of Everything" simply ignores it. Add in the other many unique features of US society, from its founding in opposition to government overreach to the diversity that makes social solidarity difficult – and you have a recipe for a weak social system.

There is no history in Partanen’s book, no acknowledgement that millions of Americans who right now are struggling to remake the country along the lines of Nordic societies and failing because of systemic and institutional hurdles. "The Nordic Theory of Everything" is an earnest, breezy book by a well intentioned writer. But its ignorance about the limited possibilities of change in America makes it as frustrating and flimsy as a piece of unassembled Ikea furniture.

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