It Came From the Swamp

All my life I’ve heard the same story: Socialism works in Scandinavia. The usual example of this practical central planning is Sweden. But occasionally someone notices that Finland is run along a similar model, and, except for the high incidence of alcoholism and suicide, we’re told that the Finns are happy and healthy and all-around moral exemplars. The most recent example of this Finnophilia comes from Newsweek, which proclaimed the small country “the world’s best.”

I’ve had to hear this more than most people, since I’m as Finn as an American can get — without speaking the bizarre language. All my grandparents were Finnish, and, as near as I can tell, all my great-grandparents were born in Finland. I certainly look Finn, and I possess many of the alleged Finnish “national” traits, such as stubbornness (yes, I am going to continue doing this) and emotional reserve (no, I don’t want to hug you).

But there have been several reasons for my skepticism about the Finnish paradise.

The first is that I grew up skeptical of socialism because of family history. In America and Canada, the Finnish immigrant population tends to fall into two categories, the Red Finns and the Church Finns. Both parents’ families hailed from the latter. The exceptions were my great-uncle and aunt, who, in the early ’30s travelled to the Soviet Union from their home in Minnesota, to experience the socialist utopia upfront. After just a few months, they hardly dared speak to each other. Family lore has it that one finally turned to the other and said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting out of here.” Being Finns, and this being before the wars with the Soviet Union, they got out, returning to Minnesota. They never said much about the experience. They kept mum. I wondered about this, growing up. And then I realized: They were afraid of being killed by Minnesotan reds.

They remained apolitical the rest of their lives. They were committed to being ex-fools.

Socialism certainly didn’t work in Russia. And it didn’t work in Karelia, either, to the ruin of many benighted Finnish utopians who returned to near the homeland, only to reap sorrow and death.

At the high point of Communist Party activity in America, nearly half of the membership was made up of Finns. Gus Hall, the Communist Presidential candidate for oh, so many years, was a Finn. Commies were all over the place. The little old lady who lived next door, when I was growing up, was said to have been a Red Finn. She wore multiple layers of gunny sack, and old tennis shoes or leather boots, weather depending. She was a character. But she was not exactly the kind of person to present an aura of mystery and charisma to the idea of a completely equal society. And other non-church Finns, well, they didn’t impress much, either.

My father’s father was a mechanic in the logging industry, and he hated the Wobblies. His sons, including my father, all turned on his politics, and became pro-union Democrats. But none of them leaned any further to the left than Scoop Jackson, as far as I could tell.

Years later I asked a neighbor what happened to all the Red Finns. After Karelia, what? He answered slyly: We’re just Democrats.

The Democracy provided all the socialism they really wanted. That is: Not much.

I asked another Finnish-American, of my age — but one hailing from a solidly Red Finn background — the same question. Where have all the Red Finns gone? She smiled. “We call them drunks.”

The second reason for skepticism about Finnish socialism is definitional. Finland is a social democracy. There may be a large welfare state, and consequent high taxes, but industry isn’t exactly a planned affair in the land of the fens. (The “Finn” in Finland refers to “fen,” and “Suomi,” the Finnish word for the land and people — the nation-state is called “Suomen Tasavalta” — means, basically, a wetland, as we now say in the Western United States.) So, while it is correct to say that the country is more socialistic than the U.S., it does not have socialism as such. Trade is important in the country.

One might ask why, though: Why so socialistic?

Growing up in America, I sort of assumed that the risk-taking Finns moved here. That left the more servile folk in Finland. Every population has the adventurers and the stay-at-homes. The adventurer mindset is similar to the entrepreneurial mindset. The stay-at-homes are more easily cajoled, and those left in Finland (after heroically fighting for their independence, interestingly) embraced the inefficiencies and the grinding bureaucracies more readily than have everyday Americans, including everyday Finnish-Americans.

This theory, a bit problematic at its core, was bolstered by my recent conversations with Tim Sutinen. Sutinen is a decade younger than I am, and was born and raised in Finland. He moved to the U.S. nearly 20 years ago, and has established his own, rather successful small business. He is now running for the state legislature under the “Lower Taxes” party banner. (He invented the party for his campaign, courtesy of Washington state’s peculiar ballot and election laws.)

Sutinen tells me that growing up in Finland was no picnic, not if you wished to excel. The attitude to success, too often, proved basely egalitarian. Most Finns are envious, he says. In America, if you get a new car, your neighbor will congratulate you and maybe work a bit harder to get something as nice. In Finland, he says, your neighbor is just as apt to slash your tires. There is a lot of petty envy and malice in Finland. It’s nice if you don’t stand out. If you do? Watch out.

Further, taxes are a real killer. And groupthink is everywhere.

Talking to loyal Finlanders about this is tricky, though. In my experience, your average Finlander sounds an awful lot like your average liberal arts grad in America. They have the propaganda down pat. Their expectations are all pro-government. They know “my station and its duties.” And, when they complain, they complain about the behavior of others. Finlanders sound an awful lot like those American city dwellers who hate how others drive, how others talk on cell phones, how others keep (or don’t keep) their yards mown. Their first instinct is to demand “a law.”

And there are laws aplenty in Finland.

Just as there are, increasingly, in most places in America.

Every now and then I wonder why I live in the country. And then I remember this fact: There’s just not much law where I live. Funny, there’s not much crime, either.

Finland has low crime, also. The welfare state may be partially responsible for that. If you subsidize the lives of those who would most likely go into crime, they may tend to settle for docility. (In a sense, then, one might see the welfare state as a calculated effort to substitute illegal expropriation patterns for legalized expropriation-and-redistribution.) Finland has a lot of guns, but also strict gun licensing. Few crimes occur with guns. Criminologists like to note that most violent crimes are linked to alcohol.

Until the last decade or so, suicide was regarded as a major problem. The government flung into a huge educational and “medical” effort, to solve the problem, and suicide rates have gone down dramatically. I would be curious to see the comparison between this and the alcohol problem. During the same period, alcoholism has risen. And it was always bad. (Stories of Finns in Estonia, on benders, rolling around in the gutters, are commonplace in the cousin-country beyond the Gulf of Finland.) I understand that Finns have relaxed taxation and regulation of alcohol in recent years. This might explain why alcohol is now the number one killer in the country. Could it also explain why suicides have gone down? If alcohol is easier to get, depressed folk may be able to budget larger amounts of alcohol, thus drowning out their problems, rather than snuffing them out.

Stretched? Probably. But it should be considered. (I mention this not sure in my facts, encouraging others to do more research.)

For my part, I’ve always been amazed at frequent drinkers. Alcohol in large doses is poisonous, and everybody knows it, including everybody who drinks. You know it by the experience itself. The last time I drank to excess, I did so while trying to come to grips with a particularly bizarre Paul Krugman column. Every action, equal reaction.

The bizarre political economy of the maximum Redistributive/Regulatory State, as advocated by Krugman and instantiated in Finland, is not something I’m especially expert on. It’s certainly something worth extended study. The nature of its political and financial support is discussed, if briefly, in a recent Ludwig von Mises Institute Daily article, “The Bankrupt Finnish Welfare State.” According to its author, Kaj Grussner, Finland’s much-vaunted educational and medical delivery systems are ill-constructed, hopelessly inefficient and expensive-to-maintain, and provide low quality services. Educational standards are very low, and produce a predictably unemployable level of college grads. Less surprising, to Americans (who, after all, yearn for better education and medical systems than our own chaotically organized ones), is that the government revenuers are grasping, bloody-minded, goon-squad jackboots who neither know nor care much about the rule of law.

The dark side of Utopia?

Well, the darkest side might be less surprising. According to Grussner, Finland also experiences rising government costs and hard-pressed revenues. Its debt is accumulating at an alarming rate.

From what I’ve read elsewhere, Finns avoided some of the excesses of the ’90s, the governmental excesses. But, if what Grussner says is true, they are making up for lost time. It’s almost as if they want in on the insolvency bandwagon.

Well, the whole western world is reeling towards that sorry end state — the moment when they simply cannot tax more without destroying market growth, and cannot bear to cut back on government spending, for fear of pissing off the loudest groups, usually the government employee unions.

Finland, like Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, is most blessed with a strong honesty streak: There’s little government corruption there. This is probably one of the reasons they’ve been able to tolerate such high levels of redistribution. But, as we’ve learned from intergenerational studies in Denmark and Sweden, the pristine moral character of the national character tends to change over time. Where at the start of the welfare state the moral capital was high, thus (by widespread moral restraint) limiting access to common-pool wealth, this moral capital decays over time. With each generation we see an increasing willingness to dip into the pot for extended periods of time.

How long will the Finnish experiment in social democracy last? When must it undergo the severe rethinking and restructuring that its neighbors even now contemplate? For now, enough servile folk in the land of the lakes and fens and midnight sun seem content, even proud of keeping it going as long as they have.

It’s not something I’d be proud of — but then, what I understand as Finnish character urges me to resist control by neighbors and strangers alike, and shrug off the embrace of any form of maximum government, no matter how “nice” some may judge its promise and intent.

No, I don’t want you to tax half of my wealth away, and, no, I don’t want to follow your elaborate plan for my life.

1 comment… add one

  • I am not impressed and rather disappointed in this article. Mr. Grussman also talked to the LvM Institute and in my this is a sadly American-centric view. Sure, the Scandinavians are more “socialist” than Americans and certainly it is correct to say that it will bite them sooner or later… just like socialism is starting to creep into the USA with bail-outs and nationalised healthcare with obviously negative outcomes to be expected… but compared to the rest of the world, the USA and Scandinavia are still examples of what great living standards you get when you apply CAPITALIST principles. See my article on this topic earlier this year at http://www.freemarketfoundation.com. When only 15 countries top Finland in both Economic Freedom Indeces, you don’t get much more capitalist than that… and it is because of this high level of economic freedom that the Finns get to live to the age of 70. Sure, they have higher taxes than the rest of Europe and North America, but that is only one measure of economic freedom. Now please compare the Finnish watered-down quasi-socialism to the REST OF THE WORLD who are LOWER than position 16 or 17 on the economic freedom index. If you want to see REAL socialism, come to Africa where people don’t get to live to the age of 45 and where governments engage in corruption, taxation and central planning not seen in Europe or Scandinavia since 1945. Want to see deficit spending and fiat money gone wrong ? Look at Zimbabwe. Want to see how public healthcare fails ? Look at Mali or Ivory Coast. Think your education system is screwed up by government meddling ? Have a look at South Africa. The Finns certainly have reason to complain… but only in a very limited sense and only relative to 15 other countries (including the USA). It is like a rich man complaining about the effect of the economic downturn on the quality of his caviar and champaign. Compared to the other 240-odd countries on this planet, it is simply incorrect. To the rest of the world, Finland is like Newsweek said – a great place to live. There is also no denying that this greatness was brought about primarily by their relatively capitalist / free market policies. That might not be the case when compared to the USA or Hong Kong, but to the other 95% of this planet, they are a great example of what freedom can do for a place in terms of living standards.

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