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Scandinavia is the American left’s Shangri-La. It is the land of social democracy and of all good things. It is the answer to any objection that new welfare benefits can’t be adopted here: But look how well they work in Sweden.

Bernie Sanders reverted to this article of faith when challenged over his socialism at last week’s Democratic debate. He invited America to sit at the knee of Scandinavia. “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway,” he said, “and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

There are a couple of things wrong with the left’s romance with these countries, as Swedish analyst Nima Sanandaji notes in a recent monograph. It doesn’t fully appreciate the sources of Nordic success, or how Scandinavia has turned away from the socialism so alluring to its international admirers.

The first thing to know is that Scandinavia is inhabited by Scandinavians, a hardworking, responsible people who have had high levels of social trust and cohesion for a very long time. These are splendid qualities for any place to have. As Sanandaji points out, Scandinavia already had high life expectancy and other health indicators before it expanded its welfare state, and already had more equal societies.

You can take the Scandinavians out of Scandinavia, but not the Scandinavia out of the Scandinavians. Sure enough, they have thrived here in the United States outside of their social-democracy hothouse. The descendants of Scandinavian immigrants have median incomes 20 percent higher than the U.S. average, and their poverty rate is half the average, according to Sanandaji.

No one remembers, but Scandinavia wasn’t always a watchword for social democracy. Indeed, Sweden was such a free-market success story that Republicans should be citing it in their debates. It started as a poor country in the late 19th century, then achieved takeoff under a dynamic capitalist system into the middle of the 20th century. Its boom coincided with the time when its taxes were lower than in the United States and the rest of Europe.

When Bernie Sanders and his ilk hold up Scandinavia as an exemplar, they are really thinking of a couple of decades beginning in the early 1970s when Sweden and others got their full Sanders on.

In Sweden, the effective marginal tax rate topped 100 percent in some circumstances. There is a reason that IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad fled the country in 1973. Sweden instituted a scheme to confiscate corporate profits and hand them over to labor unions. The idea was, in the words of a Swedish economist, to have “a market economy without individual capitalists and entrepreneurs.”

This was about as logical as it sounded — and delivered predictable results. The socialist golden years weren’t so golden for economic performance. Entrepreneurship plummeted. Job creation and wages sputtered.

The Scandinavian story the past few decades has been a turn against socialism. Taxes have fallen, and markets have been liberalized. Kamprad returned to Sweden.

It became obvious that generous-enough welfare benefits can undermine the initiative of even the heartiest Scandinavian stock, and these countries have been adjusting accordingly. An article in The New York Times a couple of years ago recounted the backlash against welfare dependence in Denmark. It cited a study that projected in 2013 that only three of 98 municipalities would have a majority of residents working.

If no one will mistake these countries for Texas, they allow enough economic openness to stay vibrant. “Scandinavian countries,” Sanandaji writes, “compensate for high taxes and labor market rigidities by following liberal policies in other areas, such as business freedom and openness to trade.” Denmark, of all places, is ranked 11th on The Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom, right above the United States.

Nothing will undermine the left’s faith in the Scandinavian model, but Bernie Sanders could learn a thing or two from the reformers in the countries that he so admires.

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Rich Lowry can be reached at comments.lowry@


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(27) comments


It is no secret the the American worker is the globes most productive worker on Earth. Over the last 40 years American worker productivity has increases well over 150%.....yet the wages of these amazing productive American workers has remained stagnant for these 40 years while the incomes of the corporate donor class has skyrocketed well over 500%.

That is not only unfair and is immoral.

Worker productivity gains should be followed by worker wage's fair, it is common sense, it is moral. But this hasn't happened.

This is the crux of the democratic socialist economic policy. If you don't share your increased production and profits with your workers, and if these workers need government assistance to survive and live above poverty, then it is only just that the government levy taxes on these greedy corporations to defray the costs of keeping their employees out of poverty.

Not too complicated.

you think you know

I've never worked in a factory or production facility, so admittadly my experience is limited.

How exactly is that figure of 150% increase in productivity measured? Would it not be fair to say that automation has likely been the biggest factor behind that 150% figure?


Regarding the Walton family....4 of America's top 10 richest Americans, my problem with them and their hoarding of billions of the Nation's wealth is quite simple. Why must you and I and the rest of the American taxpayer base subsidize WalMart employees? Why can't these uber rich do nothings part with a few billion a year to properly pay their employees a living wage? By subsidizing the working poor we are, in fact, lining the pockets and bank accounts of our overly paid donor class.

Most folks supporting the Waltons 'right' to live like aristocracy are also the same folks who continually speak up against China as a threat, economic and militarily. Are these (you) folks unaware that the primary B-Plan of Wal-mart is to buy cheap krappe from Chinese manufacturers and simply resell them here in America? If any corporation has aided China's emergence as the world economic superpower it has been the Waltons WalMart.

I beg all of you who care about America to boycott Walmart


There is nothing foolish about looking across the globe at other systems or mechanisms of governance in a civilized Society for ideas and programs that appear to work. Quite, the opposite, it would be foolish not to.


oldhomey, that was the best post I've ever seen here. Humor can work wonders.


Nordic nations have the highest scores on international 'life satisfaction' indexes. Socially, they are the most advanced nations in the world. Conservatives think that sucks. Religion participation is among the lowest of all nations. Conservative think that really, really sucks. How do you control people without the wrath of a fake god? Conservatives could not survive in a Nordic nation. Too much freedom and intelligence going on. Ther prefer Texas, America's Afghanistan.


Looks like Rich has a "Crush" on pizza, doughnuts, soda, and chips.


got to love his high school picture.


Uff dah! My grandson, oldhomey, he yust channeled me and sent me dis silly writing by dot smartypants Lowry. Vot a danged fool he iss. He yust don't know nuttin about Norske history. Our people dot's in America now, vee vuss poor folk in Norvay, and all da oligarchs running Norvay had da system rigged only fer dem, not us. Vee all came here to a country dot vould give us a chance, wit leaders like Fighting Bob LaFollette, vun of my biggest heroes. Da good government in Norvay veren't around until 1935. Vee all know der's no perfect Eden nowhere, not even in Norvay, and da times change so da laws got to change to keep up. Sure da vay tings were in 1970 are different now, but all our folk back dere still are pretty danged smart, changing vut needs changin, but day still have great social velfare dere. If I vuss still around, I'd cut up smartypants Lowry's argument and cook it in lye, yust like he's alvays lyin'. I'd slice him up like lefse, I vould. I'd kick him in da pants, sure.


A retired or disabled plumber, cop, or electrician doesn't produce right now. Would you cut their Social Security or disability benefits while asking "what have you done for me lately?" "What have you produced lately?"

What do the rich actually produce? Most entrepreneurs are very productive at organizing a business, yes, but is the compensation they receive proportionate to what they actually produce? At the end of the day, most actual production comes from the down-in-the-trenches workers. Why be so indignant when a tiny slice of the pie comes the workers' way?

"The wealth share of America’s top 3 percent, Fed researchers calculate, rose from 44.8 percent of the nation’s wealth in 1989 to 51.8 percent in 2007 and 54.4 percent in 2013. The top 3 percent now hold over double the wealth of America’s poorest 90 percent of families."

you think you know

Did the Walton family not have the idea for Walmart, did Henry Ford not have the idea how to mass produce the automobile, did Donald Trump not have the idea to continue his real estate empire? You use the word 'produce' like there has to be a physical object at the end of the process to count. Without the boss, (whether they're rich or not, and in the majority of business, which is small business, they're not the millionaires you and your ilk scream about on a daily basis) there is nothing for workers to physically produce. It truly is a chicken or egg scenario. Yes, the people on the floor physically produce the goods. But could they do that without the boss in the office selling the product being produced, and therefore keeping the workers working to produce more?

The answer above is no. Without the boss the worker has nothing to do, without the worker the boss has nothing to sell. At the end of the day, who's contribution has more impact on the success? Typically, the boss.


I will agree that those whose imagination and drive have created a new product and industry should be very richly rewarded as innovators, but I certainly would not put Sam Walton, who based his retailing idea on paying his workers as little as possible while driving American manufacturers to produce goods with smaller price points a worthy innovator. And CERTAINLY I would not put his heirs in that category. You MUST be joking by adding Trump to your list. So, you think you know, let us turn to our corporate hierarchies and our Wall Street executives who actually make up a much larger percentage of the top 3%. Do backstabbing executives who survive to the top deserve to be paid tens of millions a year, even when they demonstrably oversee diminishing corporate returns? Do Wall Street fat cats who gin the system in their own favor deserve a hundred million a year? Do their first-year MBA hires earn the $200,000 to $300,000 starting salaries? Talk about unearned income. Wake up, pal.

you think you know

Unearned in your eyes. Do you know what they do, honestly? I don't, and I highly doubt you do either. As a customer, your ability to determine the wage of a CEO should stop at how you do your shopping. That clearly is the difference with people in this debate, who in the h*ll gives you the right to determine how much a private company pays their leader?

There needs to be laws, and if a person operates within those laws and make a hundred million a year, then yes they deserve it. Because the people who invest, buy, borrow, whatever with that person gives them that money. Again, who are you to determine that an MBA grad isn't providing services worth $200k a year?

If the government steps in to limit wages on private businesses it will destroy this country, without question.

And yes, I would add Trump to my list. Although he does take advantage of the system, legally, his foresight and his success has lead to huge success for him and thousands of his employees.


you think you know (and CERTAINLY you know very little, my friend as exposed in your comment below), you obviously don't read very much. The business pages are filled with stories of failing companies, directed to ruin by incompetent leaders who nonetheless make millions and leave with golden parachutes written into their contracts no matter if they were failures or not. You paid no attention, evidently, in the aftermath of the 2007 meltdown and Wall Street nabobs begged for bailouts but obdurately insisted that their huge bonuses continue, despite their malfeasance. Most of us work for huge corporations, or once did, at least, and certainly we have a right to be critical of how our corporate leadership is paid, and we do if we are shareholders in any corporation. So that gives me a lot of rights to critique their leadership, my bozo friend. The literature is rich with documented cases of vastly overpaid, unproductive corporate leaders. And you slavishly drool over them. Drool on.


Jerry Herazmus: "While it is true that Scandinavians pay higher taxes on average than U.S. citizens, Scandinavians arguably enjoy a higher standard of living than Americans. When several quality-of-life indices are examined — such as percentage of people earning a college degree, happiness levels, percentage of people with health insurance, life expectancy, infant mortality rates, high school completion rates, murder rates, incarceration rates and per capita cost of healthcare — Scandinavia handily outperforms the United States."

Bingo! Scandinavian cities are not ruled by street gangs, the roads are fixed, the people are free and safe at the same time, the rich don't hog all the nation's wealth...The Scandinavian Way just works. Clinton, Bush, Trump...more of what doesn't work. Bernie Sanders, Social Democrat, advocates what works.

BTW, Richie, 1970 was 45 years ago! Look what has happened to the USA over decades of right-wing policies: poverty, broken infrastructure, crime,....

you think you know

As recent as 20 years ago Sweden was nearly bankrupt. At which point they lowered taxes, and loosened restrictions on business. Yes taxes are still higher than they are here, yes they offer more government services. They also have a national population roughly equal to that of New York City.

As far as your claim of 'decades of right-wing policy', take a breath and do some simple math. In the past 45 years, democrats were in control only 8% less than republicans. 6 years less, and yet everything negative that happened is to be blamed on one party huh?

You make yourself, and any half rational claim you might actually have irrelevant when you spout off nonsense like that.


ytyk: "As far as your claim of 'decades of right-wing policy', take a breath and do some simple math. In the past 45 years, democrats were in control only 8% less than republicans. 6 years less, and yet everything negative that happened is to be blamed on one party huh?"

Republicans versus Democrats = Bush versus Bush Lite. Democrats are not Progressives, not Social Democrats..they're tools of the oligarchs just as the Republicans are. Call it the "illusion of choice," as George Carlin said.

On almost any measure, versus the USA, Scandinavia wins. Social democracy wins over Mississippi-style Republican conservatism and wins over any other system the world has ever tried. That's just an empirical fact. Google some Detroit urban blight pics and see for yourself:,29307,1882089_1850974,00.html,29307,1882089,00.html

"Two French photographers immortalize the remains of the motor city on film"

you think you know

Using Detroit to defend 'social democracy' seems like an odd choice, seeing that decades of unions and democratic leadership has caused the blight you are highlighting.

Again, you're comparing a government the size of NYC to the US and drawing a definitive winner, which is pretty ignorant.


ytyk: "...decades of unions and democratic leadership..."

During the era when unions and the Democrats were at their strongest, the 1960s, Detroit thrived. America thrived. With the Republicans, we get economic downturns and even depressions: Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II and soon, Bush III.

Condor Kid

Rich has a crush on Jeb Bush.


The Demorat song...I don't wanna work, I want to bang on the drum all day.


Loon, were you saying anything intelligent? I couldn't hear you over my drumbeat. My guess is you were not.

Mr Wizard

It should be pretty obvious, even to lefties, that no society has ever succeeded by forcing the producers to support those who won't produce.


That is right, Wizard, and that is why we want to see workers forced to work for incompetent corporate leaders who get paid 500 times more than the average worker.

Mr Wizard

Homely, there's that liberal brain disease of yours on display again. Have you ever been forced to take a job? Who says it's up to you how much a "corporate leader" makes? Buy the company and you can be the boss.


No one is forcing 'producers" to support those that don't produce....we want to force producers to support their productive workers and laborers who have demonstrated 40 years of continually increased productivity. Hope that helps your bizarro world view Mr. Lizard

Mr Wizard

Ahhh, Brian the brain trust of Trib Libs. Every producer who has a job and pays taxes is forced by the government to support the non-producers who simply live by government handouts. Have you ever been a producer?

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