Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are world leaders in gender equality, democracy, education, health, human rights, and prosperity. WHY?
Exploring an Alien Culture attempts to answer that question by exploring evidence of specific Nordic attitudes and values (culture) that nurture progress. Culture is more visible when values from different cultures are compared and a side-by-side comparison of American and Nordic cultures reveals numerous well-defined differences including these four:
Equal opportunity vs Equality
Ideologies vs Practical thinking
Bottom-line capitalism vs Stakeholder capitalism
Competition vs Cooperation
Different cultures produce different outcomes. Nordic countries are world leaders in progress while the United States is slipping behind other advanced countries--that argument is examined and defended in Exploring an Alien Culture. But don't the Scandinavian countries have an advantage because they are small with homogeneous populations? There are numerous small countries with homogeneous populations that are both poor and lagging in progress. Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton writes, "the countries that have been going backwards are in many cases small." (The Great Escape, page 235) And Nordic populations are less homogeneous than Americans realize. Small countries is not a valid reason. But surely Norway's success is due to oil? If that was true, other oil exporting countries should rank high on progress indexes. Besides, Norway usually ranks close to other Nordic countries who import oil.
Some understanding of culture history in Scandinavia and in the United States may be helpful in understanding culture. Culture does change but most values and attitudes did not germinate yesterday. The roots of present-day Nordic culture are often visible in the emigration era or even in the Viking era. For example, during the Viking era Scandinavian women had significantly higher status than was true elsewhere in Europe and Scandinavian immigrants were, no doubt, the most literate of any immigrants to America. And today the Nordic countries are world leaders in gender equality and education.
American culture changed rapidly in the first half of the 20th century when Americans adopted values which were similar to Nordic values. At that time, according to Thomas Piketty in Capital (below), the American middle class was created out of the chaos of the Great Depression and World War II. Because of those events, many Americans felt as if they were members of a group and they had mutual responsibilities including cooperation and ethical behavior. If necessary, these responsibilities were enforced by social sanctions. By the mid-1930's high progressive income taxes together with high progressive estate taxes were paying for social programs that benefited ordinary people. Fifteen years later, the United States was a world leader in progress and we continued to advance, according to Robert Putnam in Bowling (below), until 1972 when we turned and started to decline. By 1972, the generation who came of age during the Depression and WW II were being replaced by a younger generation and the chaos which encouraged group identity was just a memory. Without group identity, the high taxes and regulations which created the American middle class simply disappeared. Today, we trail many advanced countries on progress indexes (see "Progress Chart 2015").
Culture is not a lifeless academic concept. It is a vital blueprint that guides people through their daily lives. Culture determines our concept of politics (Elazar below). Culture dictates what, if any, responsibilities we owe to others and culture includes a definition of "others" (nuclear or extended family, ethnicity, nation, humans). Responsibilities such as honesty, fairness, justice, respect, and equality generate cooperation and trust. Trust provides a hospitable climate for business but trust, cooperation, education and practical thinking enable effective democratic governance. Culture is the foundation of progress.
There is much more to this story. Exploring an Alien Culture may be purchased at Ingebretsen's in Minneapolis; it may be ordered from Juel Publishing, 28265 Strike Blvd NW, Isanti, MN 55040 for $10 with free shipping; an E book is available from Amazon. Exploring is generously documented and includes a bibliography of 150 sources, however, additional sources have been discovered since 2013. "Additional Documentation" can be found under that heading on this page. Some additional sources, including brief comments, are included below.
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone. New York, 2000. American civic activity (rising until 1972, then falling) correlates with progress, and Putnam assumes a cause - effect relationship. (Getting out with people is good but watching TV is bad.) But, Eric Uslaner (below) believes that "trust" (culture) causes civic activity; if Uslaner is correct, Putnam's extensive data on civic activity is evidence that culture is the foundation of progress in America which is consistent with his conclusion that states which had a large number of Scandinavian immigrants, today have higher levels of progress.
Uslaner, Eric M. The Moral Foundations of Trust. U.K., 2002. "Trust" is the key to progress, it cannot flourish with high inequality, it predisposes one to cooperate, and trust is a cause of good government. Uslaner's "trust" resembles Exploring's "group identity": "When we perceive a shared fate with others . . . [we] will seek to better the lives of those who have less . . . we are all in it together, trusters say." (page 2) Uslaner found that trust causes civic activity (see Putnam). Uslaner investigates the causes of trust including parenting. He finds that people are more trusting in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and in Scandinavia. Culture is difficult to change, so Uslaner would take a shortcut and redistribute wealth to increase equality and trust.
Svendsen, Gert Tinggaard. Trust. Denmark, 2014. This small volume was inspired by the Nordic progress question--why are they world leaders? Like Uslaner, Svendsen's answer is trust but he finds that trust must be earned, people are responding to their own experiences. Svendsen does not mention an optimistic attitude (less fear?) which Uslaner associates with his trust. Svendsen mentions, "cooperation," "social responsibility," and the "common good."
Pettitt, George A. Prisoners of Culture. New York, 1970. Exploring echoes Prisoners in the areas of cultural transmission; cultural persistence; culture-centricity; group identity (unity, "belongingness," groups); mutual responsibilities (personal responsibility, reciprocal); and ideals. Pettitt stresses that lack of group identity causes stress and anxiety and he is especially concerned with the negative impact our culture has on young Americans. Pettitt writes: "Americans do not regard lack of unity as deplorable, but welcome it as evidence of the individual's freedom to believe as he wishes . . . [Rejecting mutual, "reciprocal," responsibilities] is somehow related to freedom and to disinclination to be bound by tradition." (page 127)
Commager, Henry. The American Mind. Yale U. Press, 1950. Mind is consistent with Exploring in the areas of competition, short term outlook, business ethics (CSR), government regulations are inherently bad, ideals or ideologies, and free market ideology (laissez faire, natural law). Commager traces our dislike, or distrust, of government to colonial times and states that we did not inherit this value from the British. In the area of thinking, Commager adds a significant twist to ideals or ideologies; Americans (without pressure from argument or fact) simply drop or ignore ideas and facts--we feel no compulsion to think logically. Writing at a time when the Great Depression and WW II were only yesterday, Commager assumed that laissez faire and natural law (free market ideology) were dead and buried. Americans, then, knew that government regulation was good.
Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press, 2014. Piketty examines the long-term economics of inequality and finds that equality in Europe increased significantly because of WW I and WW II, while equality in the United States increased significantly because of the Great Depression and WW II. Piketty argues, based on data, that these events were responsible for the creation of the American middle class. But those gains have since been lost and we are now as unequal as we were a century ago. Since a reasonable degree of equality is essential for progress, we are heading in the wrong direction. Europe has retained most of the equality it had achieved after WW II. Piketty writes, "One should be wary of any economic determinism in regard to inequalities of wealth and income. The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms." (page 20)
Elazar, Daniel. American Federalism: A View from the States. New York, 1966. There are three American political cultures. First, individualistic: the political order is a marketplace where groups and individuals bargain to further their self interest. Second, moralistic: the political order is thought of as a commonwealth in which the whole people have an undivided self-interest and in which they cooperate to create the best government possible. Third, traditional: an old hierarchical political order where the people at the top of society are expected to govern. Within states settled primarily by Yankees (New England roots) and the "Scandinavian-northern European group . . . the moralistic political culture flourishes today." (page 100)
Rice, Tom W. & Feldman, Jan L. "Civic Culture and Democracy from Europe to America." Journal of Politics. Nov. 1997. Statistical evidence finds a strong correlation between the civic attitudes of descendants of immigrants and of contemporary citizens in the homelands (Scandinavian descendants and contemporary Nordic people both have positive civic cultures). Assuming it is unnecessary to teach civic culture is a mistake. American education should teach values essential to democracy and it should promote a "widespread capacity for empathetic understanding among citizens." (page 1165)
Linn, Susan. The Case for Make Believe. New York, 2008. Putnam (Bowling) found that TV reduced adult civic activity and Linn finds that TV and other screen exposure is injurious to children. Tens of billions of marketing dollars are now focused on young children--to their detriment. "[W]e are likely to raise an insatiable population of consumers blind to anything but fulfillment of their immediate needs." (page 199)
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899. Written in the 1890's when wealth inequality was similar to today, The Theory of the Leisure Class focuses on how the attitudes and values of wealthy Americans influence the economy and society. Veblen distinguishes between a spirit of workmanship which he attributes to engineers (industry) and most ordinary people on the one hand and predatory impulses of businessmen on the other hand. The Theory of the Leisure Class is a challenging read but Veblen's perception is razor sharp, including this: "[A community's] collective interest is best served by honesty, diligence, peacefulness, goodwill, an absence of self-seeking, and [practical thinking free of ideological or religious influence] . . . On the other hand, the immediate interest of the individual under the competitive regime is best served by shrewd trading and unscrupulous management. The characteristics named above as serving the interests of the community are disserviceable to the individual . . ." (pages 227-28) Veblen's observation refutes our free market ideology. Half a century later, author Henry Steele Commager described Veblen as, "The most realistic of American economists . . ." (The American Mind, page 239)
Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought, Boston, 1955 and The Age of Reform, New York, 1955. American attitudes and values (see Chapter 12, Exploring an Alien Culture) are plainly visible in Hofstadter's books which together cover almost a century (1850 to 1945). The foundation of mid-1800's American college economics (Darwinism, page 146) is the free market "ideal" on page 137 of Exploring. Our American culture of competition, individualism, the free market ideal, a distrust of national government, a lack of practical thinking, and a suspicion of authority are all prominent in Hofstadter's writing. And this culture led to the Gilded Age including monopolies, trusts, slums, child labor, and historically high levels of inequality. H.D. Lloyd wrote, "Our industry is a fight of every man for himself. The prize we give the winner is monopoly over the necessities of life, and we leave these winners of the powers of life and death to wield them over us with the same self-interest with which they took them from us." (Darwinism, page 120) Reform movements started in the 1890's and continued until the end of WW I. A few reformers emphasized cooperation (Darwinism pages 82-104), but the majority preached a personal responsibility for others alongside competitive individualism (Is that practical?). Hofstadter wrote, "In American the growth of the national state and its regulative power has never been accepted with complacency by any large part of the middle-class public, which has never relaxed its suspicion of authority . . . In our time this growth has been possible only under the stress of great national emergencies, domestic or military, and even then only in the face of continuous resistance from a substantial part of the public." (Reform, pages 233-34, 303) Hofstadter's writing supports Piketty in Capital--chaos from the Great Depression and WW II helped create our large American middle class. (Did "stress" submerge competition while it encouraged cooperation, thereby promoting progress?) For a present-day account of Hofstadter's "continuous resistance" read, Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God.