Opinion

If democratic socialism is so bad, why is Norway so great?

Norway is the most socialist country in the world. It's also a much better place to live than the United States.

The spectacular upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her recent New York congressional primary election has catapulted the topic of democratic socialism to the top of America's political discussion. Conservatives have argued that the leftist politics of Ocasio-Cortez represent a policy program guaranteed to fail, and a sure electoral loser for Democrats. (Plenty of moderate liberals, including my colleague Damon Linker, have cosigned the latter part of that argument, too.)

Let's set aside electoral politics for now and focus solely on democratic socialist policies. Helpfully, we have a country that very closely approximates the democratic socialist ideal. It's a place that is not only very far from a hellish dystopia, but also considerably more successful than the United States on virtually every social metric one can name.

I'm talking about Norway.

As I explain here, democratic socialism is a political tradition aiming broadly at democratic control of the economy, achieved through electoral processes. In concrete terms, that generally means a completed cradle-to-grave welfare state plus democratic ownership of big swathes of the economy through mechanisms like a social wealth fund or state-owned enterprises. Importantly, this definition rules out authoritarian systems like the state socialism seen in the Soviet Union. Democracy means at a minimum regular, free, and fair elections, where a conservative party has a real chance of victory.

On the policy side, American conservatives have one international example in their case against democratic socialism: Venezuela. That country is ostensibly socialist and undergoing a severe economic crisis — so bad they're running out of toilet paper, says Tucker Carlson — and therefore leftism always causes economic disaster. The initial problem with this argument is that Venezuela is not a real democracy, as President Nicolas Maduro has been blatantly rigging constitutional and electoral processes to cling to power. Venezuela may embrace socialism, but it definitely doesn't embrace democratic socialism.

A more important rejoinder to this argument is Norway (and the other Nordic countries to a lesser extent). Norwegian workers are heavily protected, with 70 percent of workers covered by union contracts, and over a third directly employed by the government. The Norwegian state operates a gigantic sovereign wealth fund, and its financial assets total 331 percent of its GDP (as compared to an American figure of 25 percent). Meanwhile, its state-owned enterprises are worth 87 percent of GDP. Of all the domestic wealth in Norway, the government owns 59 percent, and fully three-quarters of the non-home wealth (as most Norwegians own their home).

Reliable statistics on the Venezuelan economy are hard to come by, but Norway is unquestionably more socialist than Venezuela according to the above definition. Indeed, it is considerably more socialist than supposedly-communist China, where only 31 percent of national wealth is owned by the state.

Norway is not some destitute hellscape. Indeed, not only are Norwegian stores well-stocked with toilet paper, it is actually considerably more wealthy than the U.S., with a GDP of over $70,000 per person. Even when you correct for the moderately large oil sector (which accounts for a bit less than a quarter of its exports), it still has a cutting-edge, ultra-productive economy — far from some petro-state living off oil rents like Dubai.

Socially, it routinely ranks as the happiest (2017) or second-happiest (2018) country in the world. The rest of the Nordics are also usually among the top five as well — even more remarkable when you factor in the phenomenon of seasonal affective disorder and the extreme northerly position of the Scandinavian peninsula.

On a snapshot of other quality-of-life measures, Norway boasts:

How does all that compare to the United States? Well, our economy is somewhat less wealthy, with per capita GDP of $59,500 — but to be fair, that is about the highest outside of oil-rich or tax haven countries. Socially, however, the picture is much worse: America ranks in the mid-teens for happiest countries, while its life expectancy is two years behind Norway, and actually fell in 2016 and 2017. America's infant mortality rate is three times higher. Its murder rate is over 10 times higher, as is its incarceration rate.

Surely there are complicated factors here not accounted for by economic systems. But it's impossible to believe that better social health has nothing to do with the Norwegian state using its economic control to provide everyone with generous health care, high wages, shorter working hours, and other such goodies, while the more private, capitalist U.S. system creates situations like this:

The fact is, when it comes to building a decent place to live, Norway is completely blowing America out of the water. So while conservatives have been pointedly ignoring the most obvious and relevant piece of evidence in their spittle-flecked tirades against socialism, Norwegians can and do point to the United States as an example of what happens when you let capitalism run wild — and with a great deal more justice.

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