There are already utopian countries
Let’s study what they are doing right.
If you look at the top 10 countries in the world by any metric—the happiest places to live, the most desirable places to live, the countries that report the highest levels of life satisfaction, the countries with the lowest levels of poverty, the countries that top the human development index and the human freedom index—you’ll notice a trend: they always include some combination of the Nordic Countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, & Iceland), Luxembourg, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Singapore.
What makes these countries so utopian? Well, they all follow a blueprint that has come to be known as a social democracy: where capitalism makes them the richest countries in the world, but the government taxes that income for the benefit of all, distributing it to all of its citizens in the form of free childcare, free education, and free healthcare. (With the exception of Singapore, which provides these services as a sort of benevolent dictatorship which I’ve written about before.)
Their formula is a simple one: the countries have a strong economy with high incomes, high taxation, and thus high benefits for the average citizen. The reason the United States is one of the richest countries in the world, but doesn’t consistently make it into the top 10 (it’s usually in the top 20 alongside Canada and Western European countries like Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands) is because we have high income but very low taxation, and thus much lower benefits for the average citizen.
It’s easy to understand why people don’t want to be taxed, especially in the United States where we see so little of our tax dollars at work. Our taxes go mostly to the poorest people and the oldest people. In the utopian countries, however, those tax dollars go to everyone. Would you be ok with being taxed slightly more, but in exchange you received free healthcare for life, free education and even graduate school, and nearly free childcare for your kids?
What if you could also a year of paid parental leave per child no matter what your job is? For both the mom and dad? What if you only had to pay $300/month for childcare (the maximum amount parents have to pay in Finland)? What if your children’s education wasn’t reliant on underpaid minimum wage workers, but trained educators with master’s degrees in education? No matter what school district you lived in? What if you were free to work as a freelancer, gig economy worker, or entrepreneur because you never had to worry about healthcare, childcare, or college for your kids? What if you could take long breaks between jobs to travel, without losing your healthcare?
Most would happily make that deal. That’s why the countries that do so are highly coveted around the world, and why, if the borders were opened, many people would flock to them. Having so many basic needs met means citizens are freer to choose their careers (because they won’t have to worry about health insurance), their spouses (because there is no economic benefit to marriage), and whether they want to have children (because they won’t have to worry about financially affording them).
Companies are freer to focus on business too.
Because of the many benefits these countries provide their citizens, many Americans deride them as “socialist,” but the reality is that they are so capitalist that they aren’t willing to sacrifice the people who will one day work in their capitalist society. It’s quite simply a bad deal to allow children to be poorly educated. Because when they grow up, they won’t be able to contribute to the workforce, in fact they’ll dragging resources from it because they are too poor, and not smart enough to hold down a job.
And it’s a bad deal to let parents bear the burden of childcare because when childcare is too expensive, one parent stays home and the stay-at-home parent is no longer working and contributing to the system. In fact, they are dragging resources from it because now half the workforce isn’t working, which results in a much smaller economy, with fewer children (future workers), and the government isn’t making enough money to provide those services for everyone.
And it’s a bad deal to allow people to become unhealthy because if people become obese and diabetic, they aren’t able to work and contribute to the system. In fact, they are dragging resources from it by collecting unemployment, taking workers comp, and racking up expensive medical bills.
In the United States, we take that bad deal all day. We allow our people to be poor, uneducated, unhealthy, and financially burdened, which makes them less than contributing members of society. The people who are able to rise above, who can afford to become rich entrepreneurs and wealthy business leaders, don’t want their income taxed because it will only go to the poor burdensome people who could have become contributing members of society like themselves. (If only they had been supported enough to do so!)
For all our talk of being a capitalist country, the United States doesn’t behave in a very capitalist manner. Because if a country makes all of its money from capitalism, it’s in that country’s best interest to ensure that every single person in that society can become a working contributing member of society. Someone who is smart and well educated, and thus could start businesses and invent things and be really freaking innovative should be our top priority to create. Because that would make the people richer, and thus the country richer, which makes the government more able to provide benefits for all of their citizens, not just a few of them.
As Anu Partanen points out in her New York Times essay “Finland is a Capitalist Paradise,” “Paying taxes is a convenient way for capitalists to outsource to the government the work of keeping workers healthy and educated.”
In this world, the business doesn’t have to foot the bill for an employee’s health or parental leave, the state does. “The success of Nordic capitalism is not due to businesses doing more to help communities,” she says, “In a way, it’s the opposite: Nordic capitalists do less. What Nordic businesses do is focus on business… while letting citizens vote for politicians who use government to deliver a set of robust universal public services.”
Nordic citizens still work hard, make a lot of money, and even become rich—many do. But everyone has the opportunity to become rich, not just a few, and the floor won’t fall out from beneath those who don’t. Which only makes the country richer too!
“The Nordic nations as a whole, including a majority of their business elites, have arrived at a simple formula,” Partanen says. “Capitalism works better if employees get paid decent wages and are supported by high-quality, democratically accountable public services that enable everyone to live healthy, dignified lives and to enjoy real equality of opportunity for themselves and their children. For us, that has meant an increase in our personal freedoms and our political rights—not the other way around.”
When we prioritize capitalism, we are actually prioritizing the wellbeing of the human person. And in fact, people are much happier to work when they have everything they need to succeed, and they can work on the things that matter to them, rather than the things they have to do to get by. This gives our lives meaning, something to spend our days working on, while knowing that we’re never going to slip through the cracks if we change jobs, have children, or get sick.
And with a proven track record that shows citizens are happier and healthier, and report higher levels of life satisfaction, a social democracy seems like a utopian model worth celebrating—and copying!
But I would love your thoughts. What other utopian countries are worth studying? 👇🏻
Next week I’ll be looking at ways US state could become a “utopian country,” before we deep dive into other forms of utopian governance. This is part of my government series.
Thanks for reading,
Here are further notes from the margins of my research on social democracies: