Social Systems in Scandinavia

EDITORIAL, 9 May 2022

#744 | John Scales Avery, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist

Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent, Vermont) describes himself as a democratic socialist. When asked to explain in more detail what he means by this, he says that he believes that the United States would benefit from having a social system more like those found in the Scandinavian countries.

The Danish Political and Social System

I have lived and worked in Denmark for the last half century, teaching at the University of Copenhagen until my retirement, and I am married to a Danish wife. This gives me some knowledge of the way that the social system works in Denmark, and I will try to describe it for you.

Denmark has a market economy, with private corporations, but it also has cooperatives, owned by the users. The main thing that distinguishes Denmark from a country like the United States is the very high and steeply progressive rate of taxation. Because rich people are taxed so extremely heavily, it is difficult for anyone to become very rich. Everyone in Denmark is moderately well off. Poverty has been virtually eliminated by social programs, and the contrast between people with high incomes and those less well paid is very small.

In return for the high taxes that they pay, the Danish people receive many benefits. Visits to doctors are free and hospitalization is also free.  Those young people who qualify for higher education are not only given free tuition, but also an allowance on which to live while studying.

If anyone in Denmark cannot afford housing, the government provides housing for them.

There is almost complete equality between men and women in Denmark. Almost all Danish women expect to work at jobs outside the home. To make this possible, the state provides free day care centers for infants, and free after-school-activities centers for older children, where they learn handcrafts or go on tours.

Ecology in Denmark

Denmark is the world leader in the design and manufacture and export of modern windmills.  Denmark also has ambitious climate goals. The country aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. Danes realize that their country is a small one, but they want to lead by example.

Other Scandinavian Countries

The other Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, have social systems very similar to that of Denmark. Finland is especially distinguished by having the best school system in the world. In Iceland, complete freedom of expression is written into the constitution, together with freedom from any kind of censorship.

Benefits of Equality

All of the Scandinavian countries are characterized by a large degree of economic equality, and this benefits them in several ways.

The English economist and Fabian, John Atkinson Hobson (1858-1940), offered a famous explanation of the colonial era in his book “Imperialism: A Study” (1902). According to Hobson, the basic problem that led to colonial expansion was an excessively unequal distribution of incomes in the industrialized countries. The result of this unequal distribution was that neither the rich nor the poor could buy back the total output of their society. The incomes of the poor were insufficient, and the rich were too few in number. The rich had finite needs, and tended to reinvest their money. As Hobson pointed out, reinvestment in new factories only made the situation worse by increasing output.

Hobson had been sent as a reporter by the Manchester Guardian to cover the Second Boer War. His experiences had convinced him that colonial wars have an economic motive. Such wars are fought, he believed, to facilitate investment of the excess money of the rich in African or Asian plantations and mines, and to make possible the overseas sale of excess manufactured goods. Hobson believed imperialism to be immoral, since it entails suffering both among colonial peoples and among the poor of the industrial nations. The cure that he recommended was a more equal distribution of incomes in the manufacturing countries.

In a splendid lecture entitled “How economic inequality harms societies”, the social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson demonstrated that there is almost no correlation between gross national product and a number of indicators of the quality of life, such as physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust, violence, teenage pregnancies and child well-being. On the other hand he offered comprehensive statistical evidence that these indicators are strongly correlated with the degree of inequality within countries, the outcomes being uniformly much better in nations where income is more equally distributed.

Happiness in Scandinavia

Studies based on interviews consistently rank Scandinavian countries as the happiest in the world. In 2020 the top three positions were held by Finland, Iceland and Denmark.

Bernie Is Right

All this shows that Bernie Sanders is right when he says that the United States would benefit from having a social system more like those found in Scandinavia,


John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website:

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 May 2022.

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