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The Nordic model comprises the economic and social policies, as well as typical cultural practices, common to the Nordic countries (Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden). This includes a comprehensive welfare state and multi-level collective bargaining, with a high percentage of the workforce unionised, while being based on the economic foundations of free market capitalism. The Nordic model began to gain attention after World War II.
The Scandinavian countries were all monarchies, with Finland and Iceland becoming republics in the 20th century. Currently, the Nordic countries have been described as being highly democratic. Although there are significant differences among the Nordic countries, they all have some common traits. These include support for a universalist welfare state aimed specifically at enhancing individual autonomy and promoting social mobility; a corporatist system involving a tripartite arrangement where representatives of labour and employers negotiate wages and labour market policy mediated by the government; and a commitment to private ownership (with some caveats), a mixed economy and free trade.
Each of the Nordic countries has its own economic and social models, sometimes with large differences from its neighbours. As of 2018, all of the Nordic countries rank highly on the Inequality-adjusted HDI and the Global Peace Index. In 2019, all five of the Nordic countries ranked in the top 10 on the World Happiness Report.
"Embracing globalization and sharing risks" characterises the Nordic model as follows:
The Nordic countries share active labour market policies as part of a corporatist economic model intended to reduce conflict between labour and the interests of capital. The corporatist system is most extensive in Sweden and Norway, where employer federations and labour representatives bargain at the national level mediated by the government. Labour market interventions are aimed at providing job retraining and relocation.
The Nordic labour market is flexible, with laws making it easy for employers to hire and shed workers or introduce labour-saving technology. To mitigate the negative effect on workers, the government labour market policies are designed to provide generous social welfare, job retraining and relocation to limit any conflicts between capital and labour that might arise from this process.
The Nordic model is underpinned by a free market capitalist economic system that features high degrees of private ownership with the exception of Norway, which includes a large number of state-owned enterprises and state ownership in publicly listed firms.
The Nordic model is described as a system of competitive capitalism combined with a large percentage of the population employed by the public sector (roughly 30% of the work force). In 2013, The Economist described its countries as "stout free-traders who resist the temptation to intervene even to protect iconic companies" while also looking for ways to temper capitalism's harsher effects, and declared that the Nordic countries "are probably the best-governed in the world". Some economists have referred to the Nordic economic model as a form of "cuddly" capitalism, with low levels of inequality, generous welfare states and reduced concentration of top incomes and contrast it with the more "cut-throat" capitalism of the United States, which has high levels of inequality and a larger concentration of top incomes.
Beginning in the 1990s, the Swedish economy pursued neoliberal reforms that reduced the role of the public sector, leading to the fastest growth in inequality of any OECD economy. However, Sweden's income inequality still remains lower than most other countries.
The state of Norway has ownership stakes in many of the country's largest publicly listed companies, owning 37% of the Oslo stockmarket and operating the country's largest non-listed companies including Equinor and Statkraft. The Economist reports that "after the second world war the government nationalised all German business interests in Norway and ended up owning 44% of Norsk Hydro's shares. The formula of controlling business through shares rather than regulation seemed to work well, so the government used it wherever possible. 'We invented the Chinese way of doing things before the Chinese', says Torger Reve of the Norwegian Business School".
The government also operates a sovereign wealth fund, the Government Pension Fund of Norway—whose partial objective is to prepare Norway for a post-oil future, but "unusually among oil-producing nations, it is also a big advocate of human rights—and a powerful one, thanks to its control of the Nobel peace prize".
Norway is the only major economy in the West where younger generations are getting richer, with a 13% increase in disposable income for 2018, bucking the trend seen in other Western nations of Millennials becoming poorer than the generations which came before.
The Nordic welfare model refers to the welfare policies of the Nordic countries, which also tie into their labour market policies. The Nordic model of welfare is distinguished from other types of welfare states by its emphasis on maximising labour force participation, promoting gender equality, egalitarian and extensive benefit levels, the large magnitude of income redistribution and liberal use of expansionary fiscal policy.
While there are differences among the Nordic countries, they all share a broad commitment to social cohesion, a universal nature of welfare provision in order to safeguard individualism by providing protection for vulnerable individuals and groups in society and maximising public participation in social decision-making. It is characterised by flexibility and openness to innovation in the provision of welfare. The Nordic welfare systems are mainly funded through taxation.
Despite the common values, the Nordic countries take different approaches to the practical administration of the welfare state. Denmark features a high degree of private sector provision of public services and welfare, alongside an assimilation immigration policy. Iceland's welfare model is based on a "welfare-to-work" (see workfare) model while part of Finland's welfare state includes the voluntary sector playing a significant role in providing care for the elderly. Norway relies most extensively on public provision of welfare.
The Nordic model has been successful at significantly reducing poverty. In 2011, poverty rates before taking into account the effects of taxes and transfers stood at 24.7% in Denmark, 31.9% in Finland, 21.6% in Iceland, 25.6% in Norway and 26.5% in Sweden. After accounting for taxes and transfers, the poverty rates for the same year became 6%, 7.5%, 5.7%, 7.7% and 9.7% respectively, for an average reduction of 18.7 p.p. Compared to the United States, which has a poverty level pre-tax of 28.3% and post-tax of 17.4% for a reduction of 10.9 p.p., the effects of tax and transfers on poverty in all the Nordic countries are substantially bigger. However, in comparison to France (27 p.p. reduction) and Germany (24.2 p.p. reduction) the taxes and transfers in the Nordic countries are smaller on average.
When it comes to gender equality, it can be said that the Nordic countries hold the one of the smallest gaps in gender employment inequality of all OECD countries –less than 8 points in all Nordic countries according to International Labour Organization (ILO) standards. They have been at the front of the implementation of policies that promote gender equality –for example, the Scandinavian governments were some of the first to make it unlawful for companies to dismiss women on grounds of marriage or motherhood. Mothers in Nordic countries are more likely to be working mothers than in any other region and families enjoy pioneering legislation on parental leave policies that compensate parents for moving from work to home to care for their child, including fathers. Although the specifics of gender equality policies in regards to the work place vary from country to country, there is a widespread focus in Nordic countries to highlight “continuous full-time employment” for both men and women, as well as single parents as they fully recognize that some of the most salient gender gaps arise from parenthood. Aside from receiving incentives to take shareable parental leave, Nordic families benefit from subsidized early childhood education and care and activities for out-of-school hours for those children that have enrolled in full-time education.
The Nordic countries have been at the forefront of championing gender equality and this has been historically shown by substantial increases in women’s employment –between 1965 and 1990, Sweden’s employment rate for women in working-age (15–64) went from 52.8% to 81.0%. In 2016, nearly three out of every four women in working-age in the Nordic countries were taking part in paid work. Nevertheless, some challenges still face the Nordic model as women are still the main users of the shareable parental leave (fathers use less than 30% of their paid parental-leave-days), foreign women are being subjected to under-representation, and a nation like Finland still holds an important gender pay-gap (on average, women only receive 83 cents for every euro a male counterpart gets).
Scandinavian countries have Lutheranism as their main religion. Schroder argues that Lutheranism promotes the idea of a nationwide community of believers and it promotes state involvement in economic and social life. This allows nationwide welfare solidarity and economic co-ordination. Currently, a large number of Scandinavians have been described as being irreligious.
The Nordic model has been positively received by some American politicians and political commentators. Jerry Mander has likened the Nordic model to a kind of "hybrid" system which features a blend of capitalist economics with socialist values, representing an alternative to American-style capitalism. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has pointed to Scandinavia and the Nordic model as something the United States can learn from, in particular with respect to the benefits and social protections the Nordic model affords workers and its provision of universal healthcare. According to Naomi Klein, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sought to move the Soviet Union in a similar direction to the Nordic system, combining free markets with a social safety net, but still retaining public ownership of key sectors of the economy—ingredients that he believed would transform the Soviet Union into "a socialist beacon for all mankind".
The Nordic model has also been positively received by various social scientists and economists. American professor of sociology and political science Lane Kenworthy advocates for the United States to make a gradual transition toward a social democracy similar to those of the Nordic countries, defining social democracy as such: "The idea behind social democracy was to make capitalism better. There is disagreement about how exactly to do that, and others might think the proposals in my book aren't true social democracy. But I think of it as a commitment to use government to make life better for people in a capitalist economy. To a large extent, that consists of using public insurance programs—government transfers and services".
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has noted that there is higher social mobility in the Scandinavian countries than in the United States and argues that Scandinavia is now the land of opportunity that the United States once was. American author Ann Jones, who lived in Norway for four years, contends that "the Nordic countries give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone" whereas in the United States "neoliberal politics puts the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens".
Economist Jeffrey Sachs is a proponent of the Nordic model, having pointed out that the Nordic model is "the proof that modern capitalism can be combined with decency, fairness, trust, honesty, and environmental sustainability".
George Lakey, author of Viking Economics, asserts that Americans generally misunderstand the nature of the Nordic "welfare state":
Americans imagine that "welfare state" means the U.S. welfare system on steroids. Actually, the Nordics scrapped their American-style welfare system at least 60 years ago, and substituted universal services, which means everyone—rich and poor—gets free higher education, free medical services, free eldercare, etc.
In his role as economic adviser to Poland and Yugoslavia in their post-socialist transitional period, Jeffrey Sachs noted that the specific forms of Western-style capitalism such as Swedish-style social democracy and Thatcherite liberalism are virtually identical:
The eastern countries must reject any lingering ideas about a “third way”, such as a chimerical “market socialism” based on public ownership or worker self-management, and go straight for a western-style market economy...The main debate in economic reform should therefore be about the means of transition, not the ends. Eastern Europe will still argue over the ends: for example, whether to aim for Swedish-style social democracy or Thatcherite liberalism. But that can wait. Sweden and Britain alike have nearly complete private ownership, private financial markets and active labour markets. Eastern Europe today [in 1990] has none of these institutions; for it, the alternative models of Western Europe are almost identical.
In a speech at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen addressed the American misconception that the Nordic model is a form of socialism, stating: "I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore, I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy".
Socialist economists John Roemer and Pranab Bardhan criticise Nordic-style social democracy for its questionable effectiveness in promoting relative egalitarianism as well as its sustainability. They point out that Nordic social democracy requires a strong labour movement to sustain the heavy redistribution required, arguing that it is idealistic to think similar levels of redistribution can be accomplished in countries with weaker labour movements. They note that even in the Scandinavian countries social democracy has been in decline since the weakening of the labour movement in the early 1990s, arguing that the sustainability of social democracy is limited. Roemer and Bardham argue that establishing a market socialist economy by changing enterprise ownership would be more effective than social democratic redistribution at promoting egalitarian outcomes, particularly in countries with weak labour movements.
Historian Guðmundur Jónsson argues that it would be inaccurate to include Iceland in one aspect of the Nordic model, that of consensus democracy. He writes that "Icelandic democracy is better described as more adversarial than consensual in style and practice. The labour market was rife with conflict and strikes more frequent than in Europe, resulting in strained government–trade union relationship. Secondly, Iceland did not share the Nordic tradition of power-sharing or corporatism as regards labour market policies or macro-economic policy management, primarily because of the weakness of Social Democrats and the Left in general. Thirdly, the legislative process did not show a strong tendency towards consensus-building between government and opposition with regard to government seeking consultation or support for key legislation. Fourthly, the political style in legislative procedures and public debate in general tended to be adversarial rather than consensual in nature".
In their paper "The Scandinavian Fantasy: The Sources of Intergeneration Mobility in Denmark and the U.S.", Rasmus Landersøn and James J. Heckman compared American and Danish social mobility and found that social mobility is not as high as figures might suggest in the Nordic countries—although they did find that Denmark ranks higher in income mobility. When looking exclusively at wages (before taxes and transfers), Danish and American social mobility are very similar. It is only after taxes and transfers are taken into account that Danish social mobility improves, indicating that Danish economic redistribution policies simply give the impression of greater mobility. Additionally, Denmark's greater investment in public education did not improve educational mobility significantly, meaning children of non-college educated parents are still unlikely to receive college education, though this public investment did result in improved cognitive skills amongst poor Danish children compared to their American peers. The researchers also found evidence that generous welfare policies could discourage the pursuit of higher-level education due to decreasing the economic benefits that college education level jobs offer and increasing welfare for workers of a lower education level.
Nima Sanandaji, a libertarian, has also criticised the Nordic model, questioning the link between the model and socio-economic outcomes in works of his such as Scandinavian Unexceptionalism and Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism.
According to sociologist Lane Kenworthy, in the context of the Nordic model of "social democracy", the ideology of the Nordic labour parties refers to a set of policies for promoting economic security and opportunity within the framework of capitalism rather than a replacement for capitalism.
The Nordic model is a term coined to capture the unique combination of free market capitalism and social benefits that have given rise to a society that enjoys a host of top-quality services, including free education and free healthcare, as well as generous, guaranteed pension payments for retirees. These benefits are funded by taxpayers and administered by the government for the benefit of all citizens.
First, like the Anglo-Saxon economies, the Nordic economies are overwhelmingly private-sector owned, open to trade, and oriented to international markets. Financial, labor, and product market forces operate powerfully throughout non-state sector. In short, these are capitalist economies...Second, there is no single Nordic model, and still less, an unchanging Nordic model. What has been consistently true for decades is a high level of public social outlays as a share of national income, and a sustained commitment to social insurance and redistributive social support for the poor, disabled, and otherwise vulnerable parts of the population.
By the late 1950s, labor had been incorporated alongside Swedish business in fully elaborated corporatist institutions of collective bargaining and policy making, public as well as private, supply-side (as for labour training) as well as demand side (e.g., Keynesian). During the 1950s and 1960s, similar neocorpratist institutions developed in Denmark and Norway, in Austria and the Netherlands, and somewhat later, in Belgium and Finland.
The model is underpinned by a capitalist economy that encourages creative destruction. While the laws make it is easy for companies to shed workers and implement transformative business models, employees are supported by generous social welfare programs.
Liberal corporatism is largely self-organized between labor and management, with only a supporting role for government. Leading examples of such systems are found in small, ethnically homogeneous countries with strong traditions of social democratic or labor party rule, such as Sweden's Nordic neighbors. Using a scale of 0.0 to 2.0 and subjectively assigning values based on six previous studies, Frederic Pryor in 1988 found Norway and Sweden the most corporatist at 2.0 each, followed by Austria at 1.8, the Netherlands at 1.5, Finland, Denmark, and Belgium at 1.3 each, and Switzerland and West Germany at 1.0 each…with the exception of Iceland all the Nordic countries have higher taxes, larger welfare states, and greater corporatist tendencies than most social market economies.
You go to Scandinavia, and you will find that people have a much higher standard of living, in terms of education, health care, and decent paying jobs.
In short, Gorbachev aimed to lead the Soviet Union towards the Scandinavian social democratic model.
...we believe that social democracy requires rather special political circumstances that are absent in many countries for which our market socialism proposal may be feasible. Since it (social democracy) permits a powerful capitalist class to exist (90 percent of productive assets are privately owned in Sweden), only a strong and unified labor movement can win the redistribution through taxes that is characteristic of social democracy. It is idealistic to believe that tax concessions of this magnitude can be effected simply through electoral democracy without an organized labor movement, when capitalists organize and finance influential political parties. Even in the Scandinavian countries, strong apex labor organizations have been difficult to sustain and social democracy is somewhat on the decline now.