Denmark: Happily 'Social-istic'
|When given a chance to bend the rules to suit herself, a Dane instinctively asks, "What if everybody did that?"|
Excerpted from the 'Denmark: Highly Taxed and Highly Content' chapter of Travel as a Political Act, published by Nation Books.
By Rick Steves
Danish society seems to be a finely tuned social internal-combustion engine in a glass box: Highly taxed, highly connected, and highly regulated, with all the gears properly engaged. Their system is a hybrid that, it seems, has evolved as far as socialism can go without violating the necessary fundamentals of capitalism and democracy. It's socialistic...but, with its unique emphasis on society, it's also 'social-istic.'
What happens when a tune-up is needed? My Danish friends tell me they rely on their government. Rather than doing what's best for corporations, the Danish government clearly looks out for the people's interests. The Danes say, "If our government lets us down, we let ourselves down."
This strong social ethic permeates the whole of Danish society. A traveler can find it in its raw and indigenous form in the rural corners and small towns — places where anyone is allowed to pick berries and nuts, but "no more than would fit in your hat."
On a recent visit to a Danish small town, I saw this social ethic in the way a local friend of mine reacted to a controversy. The biggest hotel in his town started renting bikes to compete with Mrs. Hansen's bike rental shop. My friend was disappointed in the hotel manager, saying, "They don't need to do that — bike rental has been Mrs. Hansen's livelihood since she was a little girl." Of course, there's no law forbidding it. And with our American business ethic, we'd just say that competition is good. But in Denmark, to look out for Mrs. Hansen's little bike rental business was a matter of neighborly decency.
Other countries have struggled to become more 'social-istic'...and failed. So how do the Danes pull it off? I think their success relates to their acceptance of their social contract. Any society needs to subscribe to a social contract — basically, what you agree to give up in order to live together peacefully. Densely populated Europe generally embraces Rousseau's social contract: In order to get along well, everyone will contribute a little more than their share and give up a little more than their share. Then, together, we'll all be fine.
The Danes — who take this mindset to the extreme — are particularly conscientious about not exploiting loopholes. They are keenly aware of the so-called "free rider problem": If you knew you could get away with it, would you do something to get more than your fair share? The Danes recognize that if everyone did this, their system would collapse. Therefore, they don't. It seems to me that the Danes make choices considering what would happen to their society (not just to themselves) if everyone cheated on this, sued someone for that, freeloaded here, or ignored that rule there.
In contrast, the United States subscribes to John Locke's version of the social contract: a "don't fence me in" ideal of rugged individualism, where you can do anything you like as long as you don't hurt your neighbor. Just keep the government off our backs. In some ways, this suits us: As we have always had more elbow room, we can get away with our "rugged individualism." Thanks to our wide-open spaces, determination to be self-sufficient, and relative population sparsity, it's easier — and arguably less disruptive — for us to ignore the free rider problem.
A good example of how the Danish social ethic differs from others is a simple one: Danes are famous for not jaywalking. Even if the roads are empty at 3 a.m., pedestrians still stop and wait at a red light. If there's no traffic in sight, my American individualism whispers, "Why obey a silly rule?" And so I jaywalk, boldly, assuming that my fellow pedestrians will appreciate my lead and follow me. In most countries, they do. But when I jaywalk in Denmark, the locals frown at me like I'm a bad influence on the children present. That social pressure impacts even a hurried, jaywalking tourist. So, rather than feel like an evil person, I wait for the light.
I don't know how well I'd fit in if I lived in Denmark. But their personal and societal formula intrigues me. On my last visit, I asked Danish people I met about their society—and why they're so happy. Here's a sampling of what they told me:
"Yes, we are the most contented people. Regular workers pay on average 50 percent taxes — big shots pay up to 70 percent. Of course, we expect and we get a good value for our taxes. We've had national healthcare since the 1930s. We know nothing else. If I don't like the shape of my nose, I pay to fix that. But all my basic health needs are taken care of. Here in Denmark, all education is free. And our taxes even provide university students with $800 a month for living expenses for up to six years. We Danes believe a family's economic status should have nothing to do with two fundamental rights: the quality of their healthcare or the quality of the education their children receive. I believe you in America pay triple per person what we pay as a society for healthcare. Your system may be better for business...but ours is better for people. Perhaps a major negative consequence of our socialism is that since Danes are so accustomed to everything being taken care of by the government, we may not be very helpful or considerate towards each other when in need."
When I saw a tombstone store with Tak for Alt ("Thanks for Everything") pre-carved into each headstone, I figured it was a message from the dearly departed after enjoying a very blessed life in Denmark. But I asked a Dane, and learned that it's a message from the living bidding their loved one farewell (similar to our "Rest in Peace"). Still, I think when a Dane dies, it's a good message from both sides: Tak for Alt.