Not everything is politics

Over at New Geography, in Rethinking the Scandinavian model, Nima Sanandaji writes that not everything is politics because cultural attributes matter.

Or, if you prefer Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

Here’s Sanandaji:

If one disregards the importance of thinking carefully about causality, the argument for adopting a Nordic style economic policy in other nations seems obvious. The Nordic nations – in particular Sweden, which is most often used as an international role‑model – have large welfare states and are successful in a broad array of sectors. This is often seen as proof that a ”third way” policy between socialism and capitalism works well, and that other societies can reach the same favourable social outcomes simply by expanding the size of government. If one studies Nordic history and society in‑depth, however, it quickly becomes evident that the simplistic analysis is flawed.

To understand the Nordic experience one must bear in mind that the large welfare state is not the only thing that sets these countries apart from the rest of the world. The countries also have homogenous populations with non-governmental social institutions that are uniquely adapted to the modern world. High levels of trust, strong work ethic, civic participation, social cohesion, individual responsibility and family values are long-standing features of Nordic society that pre-date the welfare state. These deeper social institutions explain why Sweden, Denmark and Norway could so quickly grow from impoverished nations to wealthy ones as industrialisation and the market economy were introduced in the late 19th century. They also play an important role in Finland’s growing prosperity after the Second World War…

Similarly, it comes as no surprise that descendants of the Nordics who migrated to the US in the 19th century are still characterised by favourable social outcomes, such as a low poverty rate and high incomes. In fact, as shown below, Nordic Americans have considerably higher living standard in capitalist America than their cousins in the Nordics. This is interesting, since those Nordic citizens who migrated to the United States in large groups during the 19th and 20th centuries were anything but an elite group. Rather, it was often the poor who left for the opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic.

A key lesson from the success of Nordic society lies in what can broadly be defined as “culture matters”. We should not be surprised that it is these nations, with their historically strong work ethic and community-based social institutions, have had fewer adverse effects from their welfare states and are therefore used as the poster child for those wishing to extol the benefits of active welfare policies. On the other hand, Southern European countries with similar sized welfare states and size of government have had less favourable outcomes.

Or as Kevin D. Williamson wrote:

Everybody says they want Sweden; presumably, the people in Venezuela would prefer Sweden, too. Consider the VA system, the IRS, your local DMV, and ask yourself whether American institutions are more likely to produce Swedish outcomes or Venezuelan outcomes under any imaginable central-planning scheme being consider by the populists of the left.

Elsewhere he’s argued that there’s a whole lot of nationalism wrapped up in socialism:

The socialist country she has in mind is Norway, which of course isn’t a socialist country at all: It’s an oil emirate…  Monson is a classic American radical, which is to say, a wounded teenager in an adult’s body: Asked what drew her to socialism and Bernie, she says that she is “very atheist,” and that her Catholic parents were not accepting of this. She goes on to cite her “social views,” and by the time she gets around to the economic questions, she’s not Helle Thorning-Schmidt — she’s Pat Buchanan, complaining about “sending our jobs overseas.”

L’Internationale, my patootie. This is national socialism.

In the Bernieverse, there’s a whole lot of nationalism mixed up in the socialism. He is, in fact, leading a national-socialist movement, which is a queasy and uncomfortable thing to write about a man who is the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and whose family was largely wiped out in the Holocaust. But there is no other way to characterize his views and his politics. The incessant reliance on xenophobic (and largely untrue) tropes holding that the current economic woes of the United States are the result of scheming foreigners, especially the wicked Chinese, “stealing our jobs” …

Like most of these advocates of “economic patriotism” (Barack Obama’s favored phrase) Bernie worries a great deal about trade with brown people — Asians, Latin Americans — but has never, so far as public records show, made so much as a peep about our very large trade deficit with Sweden, which as a share of bilateral trade volume is about the same as our trade deficit with China, or about the size of our trade deficit with Canada, our largest trading partner. Sanders doesn’t rail about the Canadians stealing our jobs — his ire is reserved almost exclusively for the Chinese and the Mexicans

That the relative success of the Western European welfare states, and particularly of the Scandinavian states, is rooted in cultural and ethnic homogeneity is a longstanding conservative criticism of Bernie-style schemes to re-create the Danish model in New Jersey and Texas and Mississippi. The conservative takeaway is: Don’t build a Scandinavian welfare state in Florida. But if you understand the challenges of diversity and you still want to build a Scandinavian welfare state, or at least a German one, that points to some uncomfortable conclusions.

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