At the time when the world’s richest 1% own 44% of the wealth and the lowest 56.6% people own less than 2% of the global wealth (source), many of the scholars, economists, politicians and policymakers are looking for ways to remedy the situation. In this backdrop, the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark have shown great performance not only in terms of income equality but also in creating high standards of living.
Academics have been seeing this region as a role model for making policies and providing social security. These countries are unique in the sense that they have adopted a socioeconomic model which combines the features of capitalism like free markets and efficiency with social benefits like free education, healthcare and pension payment for retirees. These social welfare schemes are financed through the taxpayers’ money and are administered by the government keeping in mind the interest of all the citizens. This system essentially minimises the gulf between the rich and poor through redistributive taxes. The model is popularly known in the world as the Scandinavian Model or the Nordic Model.
Social Democracy or Democratic Socialism?
The prevailing sentiment in the world is that the Scandinavian nations achieved what they did by adopting socialism. The truth is far from that.
- The only element of socialism which seems to exist in the Scandinavian model is the rampant presence of welfare schemes provided by the state. Apart from that, the means of production are owned by private individuals and the resource allocation takes place through the forces of demand and supply, not through central planning.
- It is important to point out that the Scandinavian nations developed their current economic system after years of free economy and trade. They were economic successes even before they built their welfare states. It was not the government benefits that created wealth, but it was the wealth of people that allowed the luxury of such generous programs by imposing high tax rates.
- In contrast to the general perception about the Scandinavian economies, there is actually an absence of government interference. None of these Scandinavian countries have minimum wage laws. Instead, wages are decided by collective-bargaining between unions and employers, and not through government-imposed floors. In fact, the Nordic nations have some of the highest unionization rates in the world.
- Sweden has complete school choice as the government provides its citizens with education vouchers. The vouchers provide funding to a student at any school whether public or private. This choice benefits the citizens and the future of the nations. If these nations were to be socialist, they wouldn’t have promoted free choice.
In addition to these facts, the Scandinavian countries rank quite high on the index of economic freedom given by the Fraser Institute. All the countries are in the top quartile in the rankings. In fact, all the three Scandinavian nations are among the top ten countries to start a business according to the Ease of Doing Business Ranking, 2020 given by the World Bank. The best proof of the free-trade background of Scandinavian countries might be Volvo’s buyout by Geely of Hong Kong in 2010 and the bankruptcy of Saab in 2012, in which the Swedish government did not interfere in any way even though they were two of its most iconic companies.
The Nordic countries offer government-paid healthcare, tuition-free education, and generous social safety nets for all. It is allowing businesses to be productive without interfering which in turn produces the high incomes that support the tax collections. The system prevalent in these nations is actually social democracy in which the government aims to promote the public welfare through heavy taxation and spending, within the framework of a capitalist economy. This is what the Scandinavians practice.
Is it Sustainable?
Though it is working wonderfully for the time, it is losing ground due to many reasons. There is two fundamental phenomena which come into play namely the “Wagner’s Law” and the “Baumol’s Law”. Wagner’s Law says that the demand for welfare services tends to increase faster than income. According to Baumol’s Law, productivity in the production of welfare services tends to increase at a lower rate than that in the production of goods and services. If we assume equal wage growth across all sectors, costs must increase faster in the production of welfare services than in the economy as a whole. These two taken together imply that the total spending on welfare services rise faster than GDP over time. As these services are tax-financed, the tax burden must also rise continuously with GDP. Starting from an already high tax burden, further increases in tax wedges will eventually cause serious harm to employment and growth. This is particularly imperative in view of the consequences of globalization and demographic change.
Globalisation is in general beneficial to economic growth as it provides an opportunity to increase the returns to factors of production through the international exchange of goods and services and factor mobility. Nonetheless, increasing international mobility of labour can jeopardise the welfare state and the Scandinavian model. As social welfare schemes belong to all citizens, it becomes increasingly possible for them to benefit from the services without paying the taxes (bearing the cost) due to international factor mobility. For example, citizens who have spent most of their working lives abroad may return to their home country after retirement to collect the benefits of free hospital care and care for the elderly.
The most serious challenge to the Nordic model is caused by the changing demographics given the extensive role of the public sector in providing age-dependent social services and benefits. The age composition of the population in most European countries have changed dramatically in recent years. The shift is driven by two factors: a “baby boom effect” as the generation has reached retirement age, and a continued increase in life expectancy. As a consequence, dependency ratios have been increasing since 2010 in all the Scandinavian nations and now stands at 57% in Denmark, 53% in Norway and 61% in Sweden. The balance between those contributing to and those benefiting from the welfare state is shifting to such an extent that the financial sustainability of the system is in danger.
How it evolved?
Till the 1950s, Nordic countries were the top free-market, competition-based nations in the world. In the ‘70s, however, intense social government and regulatory systems were put in place with high tax rates. All of the economic growth came to an end in the early ‘90s with the burst of the housing bubble and the advent of a recession. Sweden’s economic growth fell to 1% lower than the rest of Europe and 2% lower than in the United States of America.
By the ‘90s, government spending was up to 70% of GDP, and the debt to GDP ratio was 72%. Even the unemployment rate rose by 5%. The Scandinavian states were strained and were forced to increase taxes drastically to keep their model alive. As soon as policymakers saw the socialist approach failing, things changed. In 1991, parts of health care were privatized, schooling vouchers were first introduced, and some welfare programs were cut back. In 1993, the collapse of the housing bubble forced the Swedish State to scale down their generous welfare system in a context of lower growth, growing unemployment, and to manage public accounts. Between 1995 and 2000, the debt-to-GDP ratio was dropped down to 50%, and citizens earned more income owing to the new 28% tax rate. As of today, Sweden’s public spending has decreased to 49.3% of their GDP, and their corporate tax rate is 22%, below the OECD’s average of 23.9%. Denmark and Norway allow private firms to run public hospitals and Sweden has privatized part of its retirement system.
Are the Scandinavian countries a model for the rest of developed countries? We may answer in affirmation by looking at the top rankings achieved by them for most of the elements that make a country successful: education outcomes, health and life expectancy, happiness index and economic development. But a large part of the Scandinavian system is unique and reflects the Scandinavians’ long tradition of governance which emphasizes on consensus, compromise and trust. Also, the Scandinavian nations raised the taxation rate only after their economy grew and the citizens had high incomes. A government should never begin with enormously high rates and expect its citizens to keep pace. The population of the region is merely 21 million which is fundamentally homogeneous and thus any big and multi-ethnic state might not be able to adopt the Nordic model. Instead of adopting the model, nations should view it as an inspiration and customise their policies according to their needs and demographics.