The Copenhagen Consensus

Reading Adam Smith in Denmark

Adam Smith observed in 1776 that economies work best when governments keep their clumsy thumbs off the free market's "invisible hand." Two generations later, in 1817, the British economist David Ricardo extended Smith's insights to global trade. Just as market forces lead to the right price and quantity of products domestically, Ricardo argued, free foreign trade optimizes economic outcomes internationally.

Reading Adam Smith in Copenhagen -- the center of the small, open, and highly successful Danish economy -- is a kind of out-of-body experience. On the one hand, the Danes are passionate free traders. They score well in the ratings constructed by pro-market organizations. The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index ranks Denmark third, just behind the United States and Switzerland. Denmark's financial markets are clean and transparent, its barriers to imports minimal, its labor markets the most flexible in Europe, its multinational corporations dynamic and largely unmolested by industrial policies, and its unemployment rate of 2.8 percent the second lowest in the OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

On the other hand, Denmark spends about 50 percent of its GDP on public outlays and has the world's second-highest tax rate, after Sweden; strong trade unions; and one of the world's most equal income distributions. For the half of GDP that they pay in taxes, the Danes get not just universal health insurance but also generous child-care and family-leave arrangements, unemployment compensation that typically covers around 95 percent of lost wages, free higher education, secure pensions in old age, and the world's most creative system of worker retraining.

Does Denmark have some secret formula that combines the best of Adam Smith with the best of the welfare state? Is there something culturally unique about the open-minded Danes? Can a model like the Danish one survive as a social democratic island in a turbulent sea of globalization, where unregulated markets tend to swamp mixed economic systems? What does Denmark have to teach the rest of the industrial world?

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