Scandinavian Economic Model Provides Blueprint for a More Egalitarian Society

Posted Jan. 11, 2017

MP3 Interview with George Lakey, author of “Viking Economics, How the Scandinavians Got it Right and How We Can Too,”, conducted by Scott Harris and co-produced with Anna Manzo


During the 2016 Democratic presidential primary campaign, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders defied predictions to become a wildly popular candidate, with passionate grassroots support and who almost beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the end, Sanders supported Clinton in her unsuccessful bid for the White House, but along the way, the independent “democratic socialist” pressured the former senator and first lady to adopt key policy positions including: support for free public college tuition, advocating for a public healthcare option and opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade agreement.

While he was on the campaign trail, Sanders often talked about his admiration for and the accomplishments of the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The Vermont senator contrasted the rising inequality in the U.S. with a different system and values in a nation like Denmark, where he said, “Instead of promoting a system which allows a few to have enormous wealth, they have developed a system which guarantees a strong minimal standard of living to all – including the children, the elderly and the disabled." The view among a growing number of Americans that the U.S. economic system is broken, is one major reason why Sanders’ progressive populism and advocacy of democratic socialist policies gained such passionate support.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with George Lakey, a Quaker activist and mentor in the practice of nonviolent social change, whose new book titled, “Viking Economics, How the Scandinavians Got it Right, and How We Can Too.” Here, Lakey discusses the Nordic country’s successful economic policies, that if adopted in the U.S. could help Americans build a more egalitarian society. He begins by describing his fascination with Scandinavian economics while studying in Norway in 1959. [Rush transcript.]

GEORGE LAKEY: In 1959, when I got there, they were still experiencing rationing from the second World War times. That's how hard the war was when they were occupied by Nazi Germans. And they were still rationing in order to make things work for everybody. But what I noticed was, it was making things work for everybody, and they'd already pretty much got rid of poverty during that period, since the second World War.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, George maybe you can talk about the key economic policies that are really guiding the success of these Scandinavian countries in their effort and accomplishments at building an egalitarian society. And the other part of that, of course, is that this system didn’t happen overnight, that there was a hard-fought battle over many years that there were protests and nonviolent civil disobedience actions and a challenge to power that won the day.

GEORGE LAKEY: A hundred years ago, they were a mess. That's why so many Norwegians came to this country, Swedes and Danes. Those countries were hemorrhaging their own population. There was so much poverty and so much misery and real hunger and lack of opportunity. And they had to turn themselves around.

And they also had a pretend democracy, which is what I frankly think we have in our country right now. They had a Parliament that looked like a democratic thing, and they had elections – free elections – but it turned out the economic elite always got its way. So what they had to do was to tangle with the economic elite. And one of the things they had going for them was a way superior understanding of economics.

The economists who worked with the workers and farmers over in Scandinavia came up with a very different approach. They said, what really produces a strong economy for a country is the workers, is the farmers, is the middle-class people who manage the units of production and supervise and designs jobs and so on, and do job training and education. It's those sorts of people who actually, when they are working at their maximum, we will find an economy that's working at its maximum.

And so, the way to do that is to value work and really get behind people so that they can work at their most effective. Therefore, free university, free education, free job training, free guidance counseling for people because what we don't want in our economy is square pegs in round holes. We want people who are really fitted to find job satisfaction and that's what makes people innovative, that's what makes people creative and productive.

BETWEEN THE LINES: George, I wanted to ask about some of the major obstacles that a lot of people discuss in the whys and wherefores of how America could adopt some of the important elements of Scandinavian economic model. And you often hear obstacles such as, "Well Scandinavian nations have a homogeneous society and here we have a heterogeneous society with a lot of diversity and a lot of racism, unfortunately, a lot of scapegoating we saw examples of that most recently in the 2016 election campaign. There's a lot of class conflict in this country that doesn't seem to play as well in the Scandinavian countries.

GEORGE LAKEY: Demagogic appeals to scapegoating people thrive when there is actual economic injustice. That is, when people are feeling resentful, when people are experiencing the economy as a "scarce" place. So, for example, the decision in Nordic economics to have full employment – rather than unemployment – makes a huge difference. We have a lot of working class people whose jobs haven't just flattened out in terms of ability to generate more income, but even reduced income over the years. Then you're going to have a lot of frustrated people who are going to want to take it out on somebody and so that just asks for demagogues to say, "It must be the immigrants who are underselling your labor." Or it must be something else "that is getting in your way," instead of really pointing to the leadership of the economy and saying, "Hey, maybe the leadership of the economy isn't really doing a good job. Maybe we could do a better job if we created democracy here and made the economy work for the common good."

Learn more about Scandinavian economic policies and social model in "Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right-And How We Can, Too" at

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