Review: The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Apr 2 19:47:00 PDT 2023

The Nordic Theory of Everything
by Anu Partanen

Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2016
Printing:  June 2017
ISBN:      0-06-231656-7
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     338

Anu Partanen is a Finnish journalist who immigrated to the United
States. The Nordic Theory of Everything, subtitled In Search of a
Better Life, is an attempt to explain the merits of Finnish approaches
to government and society to a US audience. It was her first book.

If you follow US policy discussion at all, you have probably been
exposed to many of the ideas in this book. There was a time when the US
left was obsessed with comparisons between the US and Nordic countries,
and while that obsession has faded somewhat, Nordic social systems are
still discussed with envy and treated as a potential model. Many of the
topics of this book are therefore predictable: parental leave,
vacation, health care, education, happiness, life expectancy, all the
things that are far superior in Nordic countries than in the United
States by essentially every statistical measure available, and which
have been much-discussed.

Partanen brings two twists to this standard analysis. The first is that
this book is part memoir: she fell in love with a US writer and made
the decision to move to the US rather than asking him to move to
Finland. She therefore experienced the transition between social and
government systems first-hand and writes memorably on the resulting
surprise, trade-offs, anxiety, and bafflement. The second, which I've
not seen previously in this policy debate, is a fascinating argument
that Finland is a far more individualistic country than the United
States precisely because of its policy differences.

  Most people, including myself, assumed that part of what made the
  United States a great country, and such an exceptional one, was that
  you could live your life relatively unencumbered by the downside of
  a traditional, old-fashioned society: dependency on the people you
  happened to be stuck with. In America you had the liberty to express
  your individuality and choose your own community. This would allow
  you to interact with family, neighbors, and fellow citizens on the
  basis of who you were, rather than on what you were obligated to do
  or expected to be according to old-fashioned thinking.

  The longer I lived in America, therefore, and the more places I
  visited and the more people I met — and the more American I myself
  became — the more puzzled I grew. For it was exactly those key
  benefits of modernity — freedom, personal independence, and
  opportunity — that seemed, from my outsider’s perspective, in a
  thousand small ways to be surprisingly missing from American life
  today. Amid the anxiety and stress of people’s daily lives, those
  grand ideals were looking more theoretical than actual.

The core of this argument is that the structure of life in the United
States essentially coerces dependency on other people: employers,
spouses, parents, children, and extended family. Because there is no
universally available social support system, those relationships become
essential for any hope of a good life, and often for survival. If
parents do not heavily manage their children's education, there is a
substantial risk of long-lasting damage to the stability and happiness
of their life. If children do not care for their elderly parents, they
may receive no care at all. Choosing not to get married often means
choosing precarity and exhaustion because navigating society without
pooling resources with someone else is incredibly difficult.

  It was as if America, land of the Hollywood romance, was in practice
  mired in a premodern time when marriage was, first and foremost, not
  an expression of love, but rather a logistical and financial pact to
  help families survive by joining resources.

Partanen contrasts this with what she calls the Nordic theory of love:

  What Lars Trägårdh came to understand during his years in the United
  States was that the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during
  the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has
  not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly
  assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all
  forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor
  from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and
  elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this
  freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered
  by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free,
  completely authentic, and driven purely by love.

She sees this as the common theme through most of the policy
differences discussed in this book. The Finnish approach is to provide
neutral and universal logistical support for most of life's expected
challenges: birth, child-rearing, education, health, unemployment, and
aging. This relieves other social relations — family, employer, church
— of the corrosive strain of dependency and obligation. It also ensures
people's basic well-being isn't reliant on accidents of association.

  If the United States is so worried about crushing entrepreneurship
  and innovation, a good place to start would be freeing start-ups and
  companies from the burdens of babysitting the nation’s citizens.

I found this fascinating as a persuasive technique. Partanen embraces
the US ideal of individualism and points out that, rather than being
collectivist as the US right tends to assume, Finland is better at
fostering individualism and independence because the government works
to removes unnecessary premodern constraints on individual lives. The
reason why so many Americans are anxious and frantic is not a personal
failing or bad luck. It's because the US social system is deeply
hostile to healthy relationships and individual independence. It
demands a constant level of daily problem-solving and crisis management
that is profoundly exhausting, nearly impossible to navigate alone, and
damaging to the ideal of equal relationships.

Whether this line of argument will work is another question, and I'm
dubious for reasons that Partanen (probably wisely) avoids. She
presents the Finnish approach as a discovery that the US would benefit
from, and the US approach as a well-intentioned mistake. I think this
is superficially appealing; almost all corners of US political belief
at least give lip service to individualism and independence. However,
advocates of political change will eventually need to address the fact
that many US conservatives see this type of social coercion as an
intended feature of society rather than a flaw.

This is most obvious when one looks at family relationships. Partanen
treats the idea that marriage should be a free choice between equals
rather than an economic necessity as self-evident, but there is a
significant strain of US political thought that embraces punishing
people for not staying within the bounds of a conservative ideal of
family. One will often find, primarily but not exclusively among the
more religious, a contention that the basic unit of society is the
(heterosexual, patriarchal) family, not the individual, and that the
suffering of anyone outside that structure is their own fault. Not
wanting to get married, be the primary caregiver for one's parents, or
abandon a career in order to raise children is treated as malignant
selfishness and immorality rather than a personal choice that can be
enabled by a modern social system.

Here, I think Partanen is accurate to identify the Finnish social
system as more modern. It embraces the philosophical concept of
modernity, namely that social systems can be improved and social
structures are not timeless. This is going to be a hard argument to
swallow for those who see the pressure towards forming dependency ties
within families as natural, and societal efforts to relieve those
pressures as government meddling. In that intellectual framework,
rather than an attempt to improve the quality of life, government
logistical support is perceived as hostility to traditional family
obligations and an attempt to replace "natural" human ties with
"artificial" dependence on government services. Partanen doesn't
attempt to have that debate.

Two other things struck me in this book. The first is that, in
Partanen's presentation, Finns expect high-quality services from their
government and work to improve it when it falls short. This sounds like
an obvious statement, but I don't think it is in the context of US
politics, and neither does Partanen. She devotes a chapter to the
topic, subtitled "Go ahead: ask what your country can do for you."

This is, to me, one of the most frustrating aspects of US political
debate. Our attitude towards government is almost entirely hostile and
negative even among the political corners that would like to see
government do more. Failures of government programs are treated as
malice, malfeasance, or inherent incompetence: in short, signs the
program should never have been attempted, rather than opportunities to
learn and improve. Finland had mediocre public schools, decided to make
them better, and succeeded. The moment US public schools start
deteriorating, we throw much of our effort into encouraging private
competition and dismantling the public school system.

Partanen doesn't draw this connection, but I see a link between the US
desire for market solutions to societal problems and the level of
exhaustion and anxiety that is so common in US life. Solving problems
by throwing them open to competition is a way of giving up, of saying
we have no idea how to improve something and are hoping someone else
will figure it out for a profit. Analyzing the failures of an existing
system and designing incremental improvements is hard and slow work.
Throwing out the system and hoping some corporation will come up with
something better is disruptive but easy.

When everyone is already overwhelmed by life and devoid of energy to
work on complex social problems, it's tempting to given up on
compromise and coalition-building and let everyone go their separate
ways on their own dime, We cede the essential work of designing a good
society to start-ups. This creates a vicious cycle: the resulting
market solutions are inevitably gated by wealth and thus precarious and
artificially scarce, which in turn creates more anxiety and stress. The
short-term energy savings from not having to wrestle with a hard
problem is overwhelmed by the long-term cost of having to navigate a
complex and adversarial economic relationship.

That leads into the last point: schools. There's a lot of discussion
here about school quality and design, which I won't review in detail
but which is worth reading. What struck me about Partanen's discussion,
though, is how easy the Finnish system is to use. Finnish parents just
send their kids to the most convenient school and rarely give that a
second thought. The critical property is that all the schools are
basically fine, and therefore there is no need to place one's child in
an exceptional school to ensure they have a good life.

It's axiomatic in the US that more choice is better. This is a constant
refrain in our political discussion around schools: parental choice,
parental control, options, decisions, permission, matching children to
schools tailored for their needs. Those choices are almost entirely
absent in Finland, at least in Partanen's description, and the amount
of mental and emotional energy this saves is astonishing. Parents
simply don't think about this, and everything is fine.

I think we dramatically underestimate the negative effects of
constantly having to make difficult decisions with significant
consequences, and drastically overstate the benefits of having every
aspect of life be full of major decision points. To let go of that
attempt at control, however illusory, people have to believe in a
baseline of quality that makes the choice less fraught. That's
precisely what Finland provides by expecting high-quality social
services and working to fix them when they fall short, an effort that
the United States has by and large abandoned.

A lot of non-fiction books could be turned into long articles without
losing much substance, and I think The Nordic Theory of Everything
falls partly into that trap. Partanen repeats the same ideas from
several different angles, and the book felt a bit padded towards the
end. If you're already familiar with the policy comparisons between the
US and Nordic countries, you will have seen a lot of this before, and
the book bogs down when Partanen strays too far from memoir and
personal reactions. But the focus on individualism and eliminating
dependency is new, at least to me, and is such an illuminating way to
look at the contrast that I think the book is worth reading just for

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-04-02


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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