Northern Europe Can Lead the Way for World's Progressives

By Erdem Ovacik

Northern Europe is the most progressive corner of the world — the admiration of economists, socialists and the like.

Even before you’re born, the state takes care of you. Not only are universities tuition-free, but you get paid to study! If you become unemployed, you can live off of a year or two of unemployment insurance subsidized by the government while you rethink your career. Cars are taxed 150% in Denmark: 52% of trips by Copenhagen residents happen by bicycle, and the city commits to be carbon-free by 2025.

Sweden ensures women don’t incur a disadvantage in the labor market due to taking maternity leave by requiring men to take as long a leave as their partners. The country is traditionally open to refugees and its foreign ministry was the first western country both to recognize Palestine and to stand against Saudi Arabia for human rights violations, calling them a dictatorship.

There are many more  reasons why the progressives of the world look at northern Europe with awe. However, all the progress of the past half-century seems to have slowed down in the past couple of decades. From a policy standpoint, tax rates have been reduced continuously and the countries are less open to taking in migrants or expats.

Living in Copenhagen for almost a decade, I see a deeper change. Politics are becoming further removed from people, and political parties have shifted to the right with the rise of nationalism. Security and job protection are the buzz words that get parties votes. There is a lack of an exciting vision for the future by the progressive parties. Instead, they are on the defensive.

This is a call for the progressives in Scandinavia and Holland to realize that they carry a special responsibility to inspire the rest of the world. Today, the soft power of these countries amount to much more than what hard power and large funds can achieve. One concrete example of this is the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, who calls for the United States to be more like Denmark and has mobilized millions of young and idealistic individuals for social change.
So, what can Scandinavian progressives do to turn the page and keep inspiring?

Values over Tradition
In 2007, when the European constitution was debated, a group of countries with strong Christian traditions asked to include a line in the main text saying that Europe has Christian roots. The debate sparked well-deserved debate, and divided the member states sharply. Similar debates continue in Europe to this day and we need to do better.

Why would we want to build a society based on values and not traditions? Because a society built on traditions will find itself closed off and introverted. Innovation and new ways of thinking will be rejected merely on the basis that “this is not the way things are done.” Being driven by values means that everything is up for debate, and that we need to be able to find reasons for every policy we have in place, contrasting them with the ideals we can agree on, such as equal opportunity, justice, and meritocracy.

How do we build a society based on values, and not traditions? Imagine humanity was to send a colony to Mars. Further, imagine this community is made up of randomly-picked groups of different ethnicities, nations, traditions, and backgrounds. This community would need to establish a basic group of values and build their communal practices around these values. They would need to find reasons for any practice referring to these ideals, and the past or tradition cannot justify a practice by itself.

They would not have Christmas, or any religious holiday, since religious holidays are traditions which not all share. They would not pick one family to be the royal family. They would not establish a tax that provided for certain social services for a specific religion, or a special track in school for students with certain beliefs.

All of the above are existing practices in Scandinavia. While Denmark or Holland fancy themselves as open-minded, they are not willing to move out of their comfort zone and recognize that much of their social practices are built on traditions and not reason. The fact that a royal family exists today in Denmark, Sweden or Holland should be an embarrassment: it is no different than the caste system of India. Utilitarian arguments that the royalty benefits the economy or that they bring in tourist revenue is ridiculous. It is no better than defending the war in Iraq as a legitimate strategy to raise oil revenue.

The progressives of Scandinavia have much to do to signal that these societies are forward-looking. Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and the Dutch need not fear an identity crisis in the face of abolishing Christmas holidays, the royal family, or school systems that formally divide “believers” from “not-believers” by having them in special religion classes. The Nordic identity is rooted in the renaissance: a deep commitment for reason.

Probably most touchy subject currently is discrimination based on national identity. Nordics have a special role to play in defining the future of nationality. We do not tolerate discrimination within national borders when it comes to gender, age, ethnicity – as these are not choice of a person – but we do reward / penalize masses based on where they are born. Swedes have shown leadership in demonstrating what a brave and constructive immigration policy could look like. Others should take note rather than implement measures that provided the content to picture the Danish prime minister Las Løkke as a Nazi, where his government passed a bill allowing the state to seize valuable items from refugees.

Innovation in Provision of Public Services
Many criticize Denmark and Sweden for employing too many people in the public sector: around 35% of the workers in these countries are directly or indirectly employed by the public sector.
When progressives defend a public sector that employs many people, they tend to lose votes with those who feel that the public sector is inefficient. Indeed, the market’s competitive nature does something good: it pushes organizations to innovate with the encouragement of competition and profit.

While markets are great, there are many public goods that should be delivered by organizations funded by the public — private funding of such goods go against the basic value of equal opportunity. Education, healthcare, transport / mobility, and social care are among these fundamental services.

There are many other goods that should be publicly funded yet currently remain untouched due to stretched public budgets and a general feeling that the public sector is already too large.
That feeling is simply wrong. The public sector can cover many new areas of service — as long as its value for society is documented and justified in a robust manner.

It is well known that many expats leave Denmark before they plan to, mainly due to lack of social networks and engagement. The contribution of a highly skilled expat family to the public is estimated at 250k DKK (about $34k). However, too few public programs exist to keep these individuals and families around.

Similarly, keeping elderly people in the labor market (by their choice) is both healthy and good for the economy, but currently Denmark does not have public programs that invest in finding ways for them to stay employed. There are also no effective public programs to keep people physically active, above the 4 hours per week minimum activity line, which is seen as a contributor to chronic diseases reducing Danes’ productivity and expected lifetime.

All of these problems can be addressed by new, innovative programs that the public can finance — with a positive return on investment to state coffers and the economy.

However, a new way of thinking about innovation is necessary. Government should work closely with the private sector, defining goals and its willingness to pay for certain outcomes, and allowing different players to compete to generate results. Such public procurement is already being tried under the name of ‘social impact bond’ in the UK and the US with considerable success.

This method is different from current public grants to private projects, where private organizations are paid for undertaking activities instead of achieving social results. As innovators know, innovation is not about delivering a plan, but revising a plan continuously in order to find out what works and achieve results. The existing public innovation funds are tailored to work with long-established companies in order to drive down the risk of failure, and cannot fuel innovation because they reward companies for showing they’ve tried — not that they’ve achieved results.

Scandinavia could become the region that innovates most in the public sphere, engaging young startups as well as NGOs. Even if public budgets grew, they would be contributing to an even better economy and labor force. The progressive agenda should be one that doesn’t fear more public services, but that utilizes methods and incentives that have seen success in the startup world.

Direct Democracy
Representative democracy fails to deliver the kind of transparency, trust and alignment of incentives among citizens and decision-makers that we all desire. Being a politician has become a career track rather than an idealistic engagement for a period in one’s life. Corporations with large budgets have built close ties with politicians, and the lobbying industry is thriving. In this environment, democracy is not thriving — it’s suffering.  While voter turnout remains high in the Nordics, lobbyism has grown in Denmark and Norway, and continues to be unregulated, calling decision-makers’ integrity increasingly into question.

While more of the world’s problems need regional and global compromise, people are feeling less and less connected to their politicians. As a result, people are becoming cynical of institutions that are supposed to take care of them. The EU is a great example of this, as well as many multinational organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and the World Bank. The United States, the country that prides itself as the world’s oldest democracy, is seeing some of the lowest voter turnout in the western hemisphere, and democracy has been legally highjacked by anonymous private funding of candidates by individuals and corporations.

In the past decade, there have been significant signals that the internet will not just be used for social networking and buying stuff, but also to make policy. The German “Pirate Party” obtained voter support of around 10% of seats  in the regional elections in Germany during 2011 and 2012. The party’s only promise was to make all decisions online, on a platform they called “delegative democracy”.

Similar movements in Iceland and Sweden have received considerable attention. In the aftermath of the European financial crisis, similar promises were made by Spanish Podemos, where people’s ideas were collected in paper forms for consideration in large bags on Madrid squares. The Italian Five Star movement established an online democracy platform. In Denmark, the young Alternativet has declared citizen engagement as one of the party’s main values, and party members organize grassroots events called “political labs”, which produce policy agendas for leadership’s consideration. In Finland, the “Open Ministry” drove thousands of people to discuss policy proposals online, which then have to be discussed by the Finnish parliament. Dozens of municipalities in Europe have adopted participatory budgeting to various degrees.

What is missing is a political party that has demonstrated that it can manage all decisions via an appropriate direct democracy platform. The unfulfilled promise of direct democracy  is to ensure that there is no panel, expert, or wise-men who act as decision-makers once they have ‘listened’ to everyone’s input. Decisions must be made collectively, where everyone has equal ability to take part under the rules and processes established by the platform. The role of platform leadership is to encourage participation and improve platform processes, and nothing more.
The Nordic countries have a great asset : their citizens are educated and motivated enough to engage themselves in public debate. They also have some of the best public information networks, sophisticated public data collection, research practices that keeps people informed, and a deep respect for freedom of speech. This environment is perfect for emergence of a direct democracy party that sets the new norm for citizen participation.

Scandinavians don’t need to take long journeys to Africa to find something worthwhile to deal with. Here at home, these small countries have written history and inspired the world with the brand of social contract they have achieved. They have replaced the American dream with the Nordic one.

Yet these societies are already backtracking, and the progressives need to get back on the saddle. They need to set goals high enough to shift a public debate that has grown so fearful over the past few years.

Erdem Ovacik is a 2007 graduate of the Goldman School of Public Policy. He is a native of Turkey and a current resident of Denmark.