Like the United States, Finland has a capitalist economy. Why are Finns so much happier than us?
- Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures, a cofounder of the Seattle Review of Books, and a frequent cohost of the "Pitchfork Economics" podcast with Nick Hanauer.
- He writes that it's possible to choose a "better flavor" of capitalism than the one practiced in America.
- Finland is a prime example of what this kind of capitalism looks like, according to author Anu Partanen.
- For more on this topic, listen to the latest episode of "Pitchfork Economics."
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Every four years, we hear a lot from presidential candidates about America's freedom. They love to use the word "freedom" as a shorthand explaining all the possibilities we enjoy as Americans: the freedom to do what you want in your private life, the freedom to raise your kids how you please, the freedom to start over fresh. America, they argue, is the freest place on earth, a land of liberty where nobody is encumbered or constrained by forces beyond their control.
It's a lyrical ideal - a story that has been passed down from the Founding Fathers.
But when you investigate our actual freedoms as Americans, that story begins to break down. How free can you truly be if, like four out of every 10 Americans, you don't have $400 in the bank to cover an emergency expense? Can you truly enjoy your freedom when you're not saving for retirement and your faith in the economy is eroding at a rapid clip?
The truth is that in the modern world, economic security is key to freedom. If you don't have sufficient savings or a growing earning potential or the ability to help lay a foundation for your children, you're not free. If you can't leave your job for an exciting new possibility or get out from under a mountain of debt, you're not free - you're stuck in a cycle of increasing poverty that forces you to be reliant on your employer for (a shrinking) salary and (if you're lucky) health insurance.
Many young progressives online interpret this breakdown of American freedom as a failure of capitalism, and it's easy to understand why. When you've been fed the idea of "free market" capitalism, in which a shrinking menagerie of trickle-down "winners" keep growing their wallets at the expense of the bottom 90% of the economy for your entire life, it's easy to blame the whole system for failing you.
But what most people don't realize is that the rules of economies aren't inviolable. They're not constant everywhere in the known universe like physics. An economy is a choice, and it's possible to choose a better "flavor" of capitalism - one which provides more freedom and opportunity and choice to everyone.
In this week's episode of "Pitchfork Economics," Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein interview two experts about the most stable, safest, and best-governed nation in the world - a country that always ranks near the top of international surveys of individual wealth, lack of corruption, progressiveness, and social justice. That nation is Finland.
And before critics roll out the "S" word, let's make it clear that while Finns enjoy an expansive social safety net, good pensions, and robust sick and family leave protections, their economy cannot be characterized in good faith as a socialist. Finland is a thoroughly capitalist nation: Some people make lots of money, and others make very little. But Finland has chosen a more inclusive form of capitalism that ensures that the wealthiest Finns pay their fair share in taxes while the poorest Finns don't suffer for lack of access to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. In so doing, they've redefined what freedom means in the modern world.
In her brilliant and accessible book "The Nordic Theory of Everything," author Anu Partanen argues that Finland offers a blueprint to any nation interested in embracing a more compassionate capitalism, which she describes as the "Nordic theory of love." In a New York Times editorial titled "Finland Is a Capitalist Paradise," Partanen and her coauthor Trevor Corson take the argument even further, arguing that after one year living in Finland together, they have experienced "an increase in personal freedom" over the United States.
In Partanen's book, she claims that the economies in Nordic nations like Finland are "intentionally designed to take into account the specific challenges of modern life and give citizens as much logistical and financial independence as possible." Through universal healthcare, affordable childcare that's capped at $300 per month, free college, and copious paid vacations, the authors have enjoyed the freedom to live their lives unencumbered by worries about a sudden large expense destroying their lives.
The only question that matters is this: Which kind of freedom is most important to you? The freedom for corporations to avoid taxes by lobbying to change the tax code, or the freedom for you to start a new career in your 40s? The freedom to deregulate pollution or the freedom to take a paid vacation? When you decide that the goal of your economy is to create more happiness for everyone rather than to optimize shareholder value, it's amazing to see how your definition of freedom can change for the better.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).