Bryan Caplan  

Denmark and Sweden: Expectations versus Experience

Status, Greed, and Power... Overqualified: What's Wrong Wi...
I'm amazed by how many Swedes knew about my list of Scandinavian expectations.  Now that I'm back, I'm ready to compare expectations to experience:
1. Denmark and Sweden will be more aesthetically pleasing than most of the U.S., but markedly less so than Alpine Switzerland.
Overall, the parts of Denmark I saw weren't that beautiful.  It compares favorably to Northridge, California, but not to Jersey City, New Jersey or Reston, Virignia.  In contrast, the parts of Sweden that I saw lived up to my expectations.

2. Middle-class Danes and Swedes will be noticeably poorer than middle-class Americans, especially on the vital dimensions of living space, car ownership, and meat consumption.
I'm not sure about the meat consumption.  But otherwise, matters were worse than I expected - especially in Denmark, where I got to see the "happiest people on earth" miserably bike to work in the rain.
3. There will be 75% fewer beggars per block than in major U.S. cities, but somehow even in "the People's Home," they'll be there.
Right again.
4. I will perceive the Danish and Swedish systems to be extremely oppressive of high-ability and materialistic people.  In fact, all things considered, I will deem Singapore a freer country.
I do so deem.
5. However, aside from a few indigenous libertarians, these oppressed classes will suffer from false consciousness - just like the Singaporeans who laughed in unison when I denounced conscription as state slavery.
My observation: Their false consciousness is so strong that several Scandinavians asked me if this was a joke!  But you hardly have to be a libertarian to find 50% tax/GDP ratios oppressive.

Overall reaction: Scandinavia (especially Stockholm) is a nice place to visit - especially if you earn your money elsewhere - but you wouldn't want to live there.  The HDI notwithstanding, it's not the peak of civilization.  In fact, if there were a reality t.v. show called "Swapping Countries" where middle-class Americans and Swedes lived in each other's countries for a year, I predict that only 5% of Americans wouldn't want to go home - versus about 50% of Swedes.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (25 to date)
Josh writes:

So, overall you rated both places shabbily on all the listed dimensions, except for meat consumption. What countries would you rate above Denmark and Sweden that may surprise some/most people in terms of quality of life?

Dan Weber writes:

Did they mind biking to work in the rain? If I got to work after biking through the rain and my employer had a locker room where I could shower and change, and I didn't need to bring things like a laptop, I wouldn't mind so much.

(I have biked and roller-bladed to/from work in the rain and even in the snow in the past. Sometimes it was more acceptable than others.)

wesley writes:

That swapping countries idea is genius, for entertainment and academia. Pitch it.

David N. Welton writes:

I'd rather have a short bike ride in the rain, which is just fine with modern waterproof/breathable gear, than a long car commute in stop and go traffic, on, say, 101 in the bay area.

Finja writes:

"miserably bike to work in the rain" - do you really think they are doing it because they can't afford to drive? Or because they can't afford to use the public transport system?
Most people I know that bike to work do so deliberately - they either leave their car at home or choose to not buy one in the first place. I can give you a number of reasons for that without even thinking hard: health, environment, flexibility, speed...
And here's another one: because of the lack of public parking space in the inner cities, due to deliberate policy choices. Guess what - they want to encourage people to use the public transportation system and bikes to reduce emissions.
And I think less living space can rather be attributed to geographic constraints than to policy.
But I guess, considering "car ownership" to be a "vital dimension" is quite telling.

Isegoria writes:

When we visited Denmark, our cabbie on the ride back to the airport -- a nice middle-aged woman who spoke flawless English -- explained that the direct tax on cars was comparable to the cost of the car itself.

That makes bicycling in the rain look downright pleasant.

Bob Montgomery writes:

You guys are all fooling yourselves. Biking in the rain isn't fun, no matter how high the taxes on cars, how luxurious the shower at work, or how short the ride.

Don't be luddites - the car is progress over the bike in the same way that houses are progress over tents. Sure, it's fun to camp a couple of times a year, but virtually nobody lives year round in a tent for a reason.

Turk writes:

I bike to work all year round. Depending on where I'm working, the ride is either 9 miles or 12 miles one way. Biking in the rain, especially when it's chilly, is one of the most miserable experiences a person can have in peacetime. I tolerated it for a while when I was a messenger, but after a couple years the rain finally won and my spirit was broken. I have all the right waterproof/breathable gear, but the rain finds a way in. Trying to cinch up tight to keep out the rain just makes you wet from the inside out, from sweat. It's really hard to achieve the perfect balance of breathability and waterproofness when your getting pummeled by rain while hurtling along on a bike. It takes a special kind of personality to tolerate this for very long. Maybe the Danes have it. I take the subway when it rains.

Daniel writes:

"...I predict that only 5% of Americans wouldn't want to go home - versus about 50% of Swedes."

Right. And why wouldn't the explanation for the other 95% be false consciousness?

BT writes:

The Danes and Swedes are happier than Americans and enjoy a longer life expectancy. Maybe they like it that way and Bryan is just a jealous snob.

PT Carson writes:

The idea for a reality show is a good one. As an American living in Europe (Switzerland) I generally agree with Bryan's predictions and conclusions.

I think it would be really fun to watch the show as Americans adjust to equal service at three times the cost, and lesser service at twice the cost. Eventually, after living here awhile, you close off those parts of your mind that remember having two cars, and being able to afford meat - and then you justify the experience as you learn a bit more French or German.

Patrick C writes:

Shocking that Bryan validated all of his preconceived notions.

lawrence franko writes:

Swedish women are beautiful. The Swedish climate is horrid. So is Swedish food. And so are tiny Swedish apartments, showers, and loos. Also, the Swedes can beat Americans sideways for sanctimonious moralism. (Actually, they helped give Americans their sanctimonious moralism. Visit Bishop's Hill in Illinois sometime, the settlement of my wife's ancestors...) But the old buildings are spectacular. And the woods are nice. Trade offs. Trade offs.... But few who are able to choose would want to live there. Most of the (many) Swedes I have known have headed to Switzerland as soon as at all feasible.

Sonic Charmer writes:

It's amazing to how many people the idea of Danes and Swedes being Happy (in whatever they do, regardless of details) is so emotionally important that they defend it like a cherished loved one.

David N. Welton writes:

Bot writes:

> Don't be luddites - the car is progress over the bike in the same way that houses are progress over tents.

Airplanes and helicopters are progress too, yet we don't see everyone flying around to do their day-to-day business.

All transportation has a place, from walking, to 747's, and bicycling is a very fine form of transportation indeed. On any sort of reasonably level/well surfaced terrain, the bicycle is *the* most efficient form of human transportation in terms of energy consumed per kilometer. They're relatively quick to use over shorter distances, don't take up much space, don't require all that much maintenance, and are simply fun, too.

Cars certainly have their place, and are useful for many things where bicycles won't do, but bicycles are a wonderful form of transportation and are far underutilized in the united states.

One way of measuring how advanced a society is is how productive it is compared to energy usage. I.e. primitive, low-tech societies use up a lot of energy to accomplish what a higher-tech society can accomplish with less. By that measure, some place like Denmark does better than the US (and way better than China).

OTOH, maybe the takeaway from all this is that no matter how nice everything else may be, shitty weather is shitty weather, which means that Virginia isn't as good a place as California is, and that for all its defects, Italy is nicer than Denmark (I can't help but agree).

A Dane writes:

Re. cars:

The tax on cars (registreringsafgiften) in Denmark is 105% of the price of the car (yes, the car tax is bigger than the price of the car). If the pre-tax price of the car is higher than ~15.000$, the tax is 180% of the rest of the amount. On top of that comes a 25% sales tax.

Yeah, some people like to ride a bike to work. But...

frankania writes:

Is there a comparative list of countries from the MOST LIBERTARIAN to the MOST GOVT. CONTROLLED?
Does anyone know of such a rating?

Katja Grace writes:

What sort of evidence did you see for the oppression of materialistic and high ability people?

M writes:

frankania - check out the Heritage Economic Freedom Rankings. They at least get the economic dimension of what you're asking about.

Henrik writes:

As a Swede who's lived in the US.. what counts as quality of life isn't quite the same for all cultures and places. Despite having a car, and no issues paying for gas, I generally bike to work - even on rainy days. Yes, I'll grimace when it rains. I could just as easily have taken the car, yet chose not to.

In fact, I specifially chose to live so that I could easily do my daily activities by walking or biking. Not having to drive everywhere is something I value as quality of life.

Finnish libertarian writes:

I love the reality tv idea.

Old habits die hard. Sometimes I just want to scream at all the various stupidities of scandinavian system (and the political field), but as an optimist I still thank my luck for being born here, not in country in absolute poverty or where government does even more harm. Let's face it, thinks could be worse.

But yeah, what to do when there's no libertarian alternative to vote? We voted the supposedly "free market" party to power but they only increased spending, just like Bush over there. (Funny sidenote our leftwing party cut taxes on last term)

The highly relevant political "debate" consists of immigrant policy and the state of national sports. Our government heads are celebrities who can just get voted in without even taking sides with folk rhetorics.

In a nutshell well, you wrote it all in myth of the rational voter so no need to repeat.

Skovgaard writes:

It is funny to see all these scandinavians try to persuade you that bike rides in the rain is by choice heh heh.

Fact is that many can't afford cars. They are damn expensive because all our money is stolen by the government and given to losers who do not want to work. Please spread the word that Denmark is one of the worst socialist Hell holes on Earth.

I hate that most danes think that this place is Heaven on earth. I'm a software engineer and I can't even afford to save for a new car. And the one I have is 10 years old and has 200.000+ km on the meter/clock(??).

I pay marginal taxes (63% + VAT) because I'm SO RICH!!???

Once it's gone I only have the option of buying a very used replacement. We (girlfriend and I) have to incomes and no children. We do live in an ok house though, but still. We can't save any money at all, unless we don't buy anything for our selves. I know people in Africa are worse off, but I you think like that then situations would never change for the better because someone else is always worse off.

Anonymous writes:

1) "the vital dimensions of living space, car ownership, and meat consumption."

No preconceived cultural preferences here? How about the vital dimensions of density of arthouse cinemas, galleries & concert halls, and length of annual vacation & daily working hours?
As for cars - many families might not feel the need for a second car. My parents never have: they could have easily bought a second one (proof: they bought a second house), but couldn't be bothered, even after briefly experiencing the benefits of a second car (we inherited one. briefly because finally died about a year later).

And regarding meat: Unless evidence is supplied, I find it hard to believe that S&D middle classes could not eat meat every day if they wanted to. Which suggests that maybe they are making a conscious choice not to (health, environment). Also, meat does not equal meat, as anyone who has looked at the prices of different cuts & beasts knows. It also makes a difference whether you buy it from a trained, certified butcher (who can advise you in detail, and probably offer you pieces (ox cheeks anyone? blood??) not readily available at a supermarket. Has its price of course. If these societies have made a choice to maintain a system that gives people readier access to quality at the cost of higher prices (rather than readier access to lower-price meats at cost of lower quality) then maybe, just maybe, they have considered reasons for doing so? Might not be persuasive to you, that's fine, but failing to even consider this (beyond dismissing it as false consciousness) seems a little weak.

Living space. American middle classes in the suburbs might well have more thereof than European ones in a city, and I'd grant that it's a fairly sure bet that Other Things Equal (which they rarely are) people everywhere generally want more rather than less living space. But how about trade offs? I'd rather live in a cramped apartment in Stockholm or a smallish house in Gothenburg or Falun than in a huge house in a suburb of Houston. Also, to what extent is the ready access to quality building comparable? I have no idea about the average quality of the buildings mc Americans live in, but from my observations of the UK (living there for some years and talking with people) it seemed very hard to get anywhere near the quality of construction work I was used to in Germany, at least at a roughly comparable price. Friends of mine who moved back from Brussels and had to make some substantial alterations to their house in London found themselves going through 4 (four) construction firms.

Which brings us to the question: How do you distinguish false consciousness from having a different utility function, for considered and coherent reasons?

The Reality TV idea tho is great. But having spent a few years in Skandinavia, I suspect the results may be a little different from those expected by Mr Caplan. But then I guess that would just prove how deeply brainwashed the Swedes really are.

Abel writes:

You forget the lousy Danish Staterun hospitals, where 5.000 patients get killed each year from the doctors's neglect and dirty nurses not washing their hands, year after year, 50.000 killed over the last 10 years. 10% of the total hospital capacity is spent on curing 100.000 patients, who get diseases at the hospital, that they did not have before.
The staterun monopoly-busses run at about 6-12 mph, taking ages to get from a train station to work. That is why people ride bikes in the rain.
The state's traincompany, DSB, never runs on time, and they threw out US$ 1.000 millions on trains, that should have been delivered 8 years ago, but still cannot run.
To get people to use the malfunctioning transport systems, the politicians harras and tax people, who ride their cars to get to work.
The State runs two state-monopoly TV-and radiostations churning lots of state-propaganda out. The state supports newspapers, who write politely about the abnormally big state.
40% of all taxes are wasted, according to the ECBank. Schools cost twice as much as EU's average, but the kids learn nothing, they rank only no. 19 in OECD.
The elderly and handicapped in state run nursing homes are routinely getting beaten up and are given a lot of pills instead of walks and activities. The personnel instead have 7-hour coffeebreaks, leaving only 30 minutes, that count as a whole working day. Criminals in prisons have rights and (state paid) lawyers, so they get better treatment than the unfortunate ones in the nursing homes.
Everything the Danish state does is bad, expensive and hurting a lot of people.
The economic development is the lowest in EU, and it is not getting better. The economy rests on dwindling oilreserves in the North Sea, and old-age industrĂ­es like agriculture and tourism.
62% of the population live off the taxpayer's money, so we are guaranteed a direct way to the socialist hell.
Our only consolation is the EU, that grants us the right to settle in the 26 other countries.

Geckonomist writes:

Could you please define where the peak of civilization is for you?

A gated community with big houses, each with a big garage and a butcher on speed dial?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top