The Nordic countries are paradigms of equality, good education, female empowerment, and progressiveness. We know this because we are told. And told and told and told.
To take one example, the latest Global Gender Gap rankings from the World Economic Forum were topped by Iceland (for the fifth year in a row), followed by Finland, Norway, and Sweden. (Denmark came in eighth.) Iceland and Denmark took first and second place respectively in this year’s Global Peace Index (Finland was sixth, Norway took 10th, and the comparatively violent Swedes came in 11th). Sweden was deemed the least fragile country in Foreign Policy’s 2014 Fragile States Index . This year’s four best countries in which to be a woman, according to the Global Post? All Nordic. Four of the top 14 “greenest” countries in the world, according to this year’s Environmental Performance Index? Nordic. (Filthy Finland came in at a still quite green 18th.)
The country examined by the Economist this summer to explore the benefits of paid paternity leave? Sweden. The country touted by long journalistic profiles and best-selling books alike for its education system? Finland. The country profiled by the BBC for its creative approach to bettering the lives of the homeless? Denmark. The first country profiled by Slate in its examination of how good life is elsewhere for working parents? Norway. Where did NBC welcome us to this summer? Sweden.
If only we could be more like the Nordic countries, we say, looking sadly at our ill-assembled Ikea furniture. Then we, too, would be better educated. Then we, too, would be more equally paid. Then we, too, would be more peaceful. Then we, too, would have dreamy blond men narrate our coffee drinking.
But we cannot be more like the Nordic countries. And so it is time—past time, in fact—to say enough already to these pointless comparisons.
First of all, the policies that we hold up as examples of Nordic supremacy are not tasteful turtleneck sweaters crafted from the finest Norwegian wool—we cannot put on a policy here or there and become Nordic. They exist within a broader societal context. The small gender gap, the chance for all students to succeed in school, the respect for the dignity of the homeless, paid leave—all of this exists because the Nordic countries are, proudly, welfare states.
Every one of the aforementioned policies exists because it is part of a welfare state, and because, in the Nordic countries unlike in America, there is no shame (and, in fact, quite a lot of pride) in being a welfare state. There are many who think that we, too, should move to a welfare model. However, in a country wherein healthcare is deemed “a part of a socialist vision for America” (and wherein that is necessarily understood to be a bad thing), the establishment of this kind of political system does not seem very likely.
Even putting aside the vast difference in attitudes toward welfare and equality, these comparisons ask too much. The Nordic countries are too small for the comparisons to work. The population (as estimated by the World Factbook in July of 2014) of all of the Nordic countries combined—Denmark (5,569,077), Finland (5,268,799), Iceland (317,351), Norway (5,147,792), and Sweden (9,723,809)—is roughly equal to the population of Texas. And it is all well and good to say that the education system of New York City stinks compared to that of Finland, but there are about 3 million more people in the former than the latter. This is to say nothing of the homogeneity of the Nordic countries, on which, one could argue, their stability and equality hinges.
Plus, we should keep in mind that the Nordic countries occasionally fall short of their reputation for equality and tolerance. Certainly, the fact that Sweden intends to ameliorate its appalling record on employing foreign non-citizens in the EU by removing the word “race” from legislative documents suggests that the country wouldn’t be quite so progressive and equal were it to have more diversity. Nor does the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland.
We cannot be the Nordic countries. The Nordic countries may not even be able to be what we envision the Nordic countries to be. We can strive to be more forward-thinking, and smarter, and better. But if we strive to be Nordic, we are setting ourselves up for a hirvikolari.