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Bernie Sanders’ Cargo Cult Approach to Scandinavia

People do run the extra mile to leave something to their children, even if said children happen to be spoiled brats. Bernie fails to understand this.”

Is there anything cooler than the Vikings? The lure of the blond dreadlocks goes beyond NFL mascots and television miniseries. Of course, the recent phenomenon of “wokeness” castigates whiteness as some sort of original sin, but, strangely, Sweden (and Scandinavia as a whole), that quintessentially white country, somehow is the nicest place on Earth for many on the Left. 

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Bernie Sanders wants to turn the United States into a Scandinavian paradise. Sanders uses Sweden (and Denmark) as a counterpoint to the frequent accusation that he is the Communist, who loves to praise Castro and went to the Soviet Union for his honeymoon. No, says Bernie, he has no love for dictatorships; he is only a democratic socialist, just as Swedes are. 

Reality check: Sanders is not proposing the Swedish approach. In his persuasive style, Bernie frequently rants about billionaires—and how the world would be better without them. Well, Scandinavia has plenty of billionaires; in fact, there are more billionaires per capita in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland than in the United States.

No wonder Bernie is proposing estate taxes that target inheritances, even though rates are already relatively high in the United States (close to 40%). Yet, there are no inheritance taxes in Sweden.

Inheritance is a very unfair institution. What did Paris Hilton, that monument to mediocrity, ever do to deserve the millions she has? Nada. No wonder Bernie is proposing estate taxes that target inheritances, even though rates are already relatively high in the United States (close to 40%). Yet, there are no inheritance taxes in Sweden. It seems the Swedes have grasped an uncomfortable truth about inheritance: for all its unfairness, it has tremendous power to stimulate economies. People do run the extra mile to leave something to their children, even if said children happen to be spoiled brats. Bernie fails to understand this.

Yes, Sweden was fond of large public spending for many years—until the 1990’s. Presumably, those are the golden years Bernie wants to turn to. But, if Swedish economist Johan Norberg is to be believed, these policies actually sent Sweden into recession. More liberalizing policies then had to be put in place, in order to set Sweden back on its course to national success. Bernie wants the safety net that Sweden provides its citizens, but he is not keen to be flexible when it comes to market regulation. He misses a crucial point: Sweden is not about democratic socialism but, rather, is about the so-called Flexicurity model. Under this model, the welfare State is robust. However, in order to build capital for the State to assure welfare to all citizens, market conditions are not excessively regulated.

But, even if Bernie copycats every aspect of Sweden’s policies, would that guarantee that the United States turns into the paradise he is looking for? I have my doubts. Copycats all over the world frequently face a problem: The thing they intend to imitate is too complex, and their efforts usually fall short.

Consider cargo cults. During World War II, in the Pacific Islands, natives were amazed by American airplanes arriving with a plentitude of goods. They came to worship cargo itself, as some sort of gift from heaven. But then, they wondered why they should not try to bring cargo themselves. So, they imitated the Americans and their cargo operations in everything they could. They built huts as sorts of operation towers; the man sitting inside the hut would wear wooden pieces as if they were headphones, and bars of bamboo would stick out as if they were antennas. They built airplanes with bamboo canes. They even marched as American soldiers with wooden rifles.

Did these efforts bring cargo to those islands? Of course not. The natives were imitating the Americans, but—to their puzzlement—they fell short. Cargo never came. We would be tempted to laugh at those poor natives, in all their naiveté. But, in fact, we do this sort of thing all the time. Scientists, of all people, can fall prey to this kind of mentality. Richard Feynman called it: “cargo cult mentality.” In his words, there are, “seemingly scientific enterprises that follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

Politicians are not spared of this mentality, and Bernie may just be one of them. Just as Pacific islanders hoped to do with American cargo, Bernie wants the Swedish cargo. So, what does he do? He tries to ape them, just as the natives did. But, his aping is purely in terms of economic policies, failing to control for many other variables that may be at play.

Racists might be quick to argue that there is a big elephant in the room that nobody wants to discuss. In their view, the Swedes’ success is largely accounted for by their genes. In their view, any American efforts to imitate Sweden’s economic policies will not achieve anything. If you want to be like Sweden, so their argument goes, not only do you have to what Swedes do, you actually have to look like them.

I, for one, reject this view. But, I do think that we must look at other factors beyond genes or economic policy. Milton Friedman, often confronted with the likes of Bernie Sanders appealing to Sweden, pointed out that people of Scandinavian descent also do well within the United States. Clearly, their success cannot be attributable to Scandinavian economic policies (as they are not living under that system). Perhaps, cultural factors are at play. The idea that cultural factors play a role in economic success of particular groups is not very popular today, but the time is ripe to go back to it.

Now, that does not imply that Bernie Sanders should seek to infuse the United States with Scandinavian culture. Quite the opposite. This should be an occasion to understand that socio-economic welfare is a very complex phenomenon, and you cannot simply imitate your way to it. While it is true that there are universal values and standards that all people on Earth should adhere to, it is also true that each culture has its own particularities. And, the successful application of a package in one country does not automatically guarantee that it will work in another.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80

2 thoughts on “Bernie Sanders’ Cargo Cult Approach to Scandinavia

  1. The key aspect of the present Nordic Model ( The post Thatcher Nordic model if you are willing to be honest and politically incorrect) is described not merely by the larger number of billionaires per capita and by the absence of an inheritance tax but by the marginal income tax rate becoming applicable for incomes as low as two or three times the median income. It is also represented by the extremely large contribution of indirect taxes, largely paid by the middle class. This what you have is an admirable welfare state but largely financed by the middle class. The disadvantaged are not being supported by “taxing the 1%” but by the empathy of the middle class to share. Bernie Sanders has clearly pointed out this reality. He has agreed that the middle class has to be taxed and the “private medical insurance” removed. It is for the middle class in the US of A to decide if they want to share. Targeting billionaires may help enthuse the supporters but will not provide the funds for the welfare state he admires.

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