Bob Strong / Reuters The old town district of Stockholm, March 2009.

Misreading the Nordic Model

How American Admirers Get Scandinavia Wrong

Bernie Sanders, the left-wing populist who for months competed with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, has popularized a simple vision for reform: introduce a Nordic-style welfare state in the United States. In a debate with Clinton, Sanders explained that his aim is to popularize the concept of Scandinavian democratic socialism: “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn what they have accomplished for their working people.”

Sanders and his supporters are not alone in praising the Nordic model. In 2013, President Barack Obama followed suit by making the first bilateral visit by a U.S. president to Sweden, complimenting his hosts about their country’s economic model. He escalated the praise at a U.S.-Nordic summit in May 2016, where he explained: "In a world of growing economic disparities, Nordic countries have some of the least income inequality in the world—which may explain one of the reasons that they're some of the happiest people in the world, despite not getting much sun. . . . There have been times where I’ve said, why don’t we just put all these small countries in charge for a while? And they could clean things up."

Admiration for the Nordic welfare state runs deep among U.S. academics, journalists, and politicians on the left. It’s easy to understand why—at first glance, the Nordic countries appear prosperous yet enjoy equal distribution of wealth and good social outcomes. A closer look, however, shows that what American liberals like about Nordic societies is not a product of socialism. The success of Nordic countries has more to do with their unique culture—and free markets—than with their welfare state policies.

NORDIC CAPITALISM

A 2015 story by PBS titled “What Can the U.S. Learn from Denmark?” is a good example of how many Americans view Scandinavia. The article heaps praise on the Danish social model, explaining that “Danes get free or heavily subsidized health care” and “compensation when they’re

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