Scott Sumner has an interesting new post in which he argues that Utah is “America’s Denmark”. I like Scott’s theory a lot. Mostly because I think of Utah is how Denmark used to be. I really don’t like to write about Denmark, but this topic is too interesting to miss.
I left a long answer to Scott on his blog. This post is based on that answer.
Lets start out with Scott’s PS:
“I knew Miles and Lars had something in common”
Scott obvious thinks of Miles Kimball and yours truly. If I am not wrong Miles grew up in Utah as a Mormon (Miles in no longer a Mormon).
Miles and I indeed have a lot in common. So Scott is on to something – Utah in fact is “Danish” in the sense that a large share of the early Mormon pioneers in Utah in fact came from Denmark. In fact Miles is 1/4 Danish. Miles’ grandfather was named Elmer (Madsen). Elmer happens to be my son’s middle name (a very rare name in today’s Denmark).
Last year I spoke at Brigham Young University in Utah. At my presentation I was asked how the Danish welfare model could work. My answer was “because we are like you”. Ever since I visited Utah last year I have been thinking about the early Mormon society as an anarchic form of a welfare society. A society where collective goods problems are solved through common norms (religion). Denmark of the 1950s and Utah of the 1860s probably have that in common. That is not a surprise – a lot of the people in both places of course were/are Danes. As Miles’ grandfather and my grandfather. In fact I have for some time had the crazy idea that I want to try to write a book in the topic of how collective goods problems were solved in early Mormon society in Utah. As a Dane I might have a comparative advantage in that endeavor (The other thing is that I don’t have time to undertake this task… )
My argument was that the “original” Danish welfare state really just is a form of the Mormon style welfare system. Everybody in society are very similar and as a consequence there is little difference between a “one-size-fits-all” tax funded system and a private based system like the Mormon private based welfare system.
The interesting thing here is that the Mormon pioneers in Utah established a basically anarchic welfare system that basically covered everybody. That worked fine and I believe that is not really that different in the foundation form the Danish Welfare system. What is different is how the two systems developed over time. In fact I believe that had Utah not become part of the United States Utah might very well have developed into Danish style welfare state. This of course is somewhat os a paradox – anarchic welfare society that develops into a society with a very large public sector. Maybe some of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians have a view on this topic.
However, I am too optimistic on the future of the Danish welfare model. First of all I think it is extremely important to notice that the Danish model really was largely private sector based until the late 1960s. In fact until the mid-1960s the size of the public sector in Denmark (and all the other Nordic countries) was smaller than in public sector in the US (as share of GDP). Hence, when Milton Friedman wrote Capitalism and Freedom (in 1962) Denmark really was closer to his ideal than the US was.
In the end of the 1960s the public sector in Denmark started growing very dramatically until the early 1980s. In that period Denmark also started its relative income decline.
Finally I would note that in a society where everybody “normally” works and where most people are very similar people would tend to be “honest” and not misuse public benefit systems and because your neighbours come knocking on your door and tell you to get your act together if you want to be invited over for BBQ etc. That undoubtedly was the case in Denmark until the early 1970s. However, that changed in the 1970s.
Two things happened. First of all, unemployment rose dramatically in Denmark in the early 1970s as a result of the first oil crisis AND a sharp increase in benefits levels. That made it “socially acceptable” to be unemployment and live of taxpayer money. Second, Denmark saw a sharp increase in immigration from the late 1960s and until the early 1980s. That changed Denmark from an extremely homogeneous society to a more multicultural society. These two factors in my view removed the implicit ‘social threat’ that your neighbors would think of you as an idiot if you remained on the dole for years. That effectively sharply reduced the cost of misusing the public welfare system.
As consequence while Dane used to the work ethics as Utah Mormons Denmark today is a “leisure society” with low work ethics. This in my view probably is the biggest threat to the “Danish model”. A new working paper by Casper Hunnerup Dahl has an interesting discussion of this topic.
Finally, the strength of the “flexicurity system” in my view is mostly a myth. Yes, we have a very flexible labour market in Denmark with low levels of labour market regulation. There is for example no official state sponsored minimum wage and firing and hiring rules are liberal. However, high benefit levels is a massive burden to public finances and in the long-term the model will not survive in its present form.
Denmark, however, still benefits from have a fairly homogenous society in the sense that it probably has positive impact on the political system. Hence, while the welfare state is overblown Danish policy makers over the last three decades in general have agreed on the overall need for scaling back the public sector and continue economic reforms. Hence, since the early 1980s different (left and right) governments have tried to reform the welfare state. Hence, had it not been for the policy mistakes of the late 1960s and early 1970s Denmark would probably have had a public sector of a similar size to Switzerland. Incredibly enough the present centre-left government has – much against its voters wishes – pushed from reforms of welfare benefits, educational reform and pension reforms.
Concluding, I believe Scott in general is right. Utah might be America’s Denmark, but it is probably the Denmark of 1960 rather than of today.
PS I hope Scott will soon visit Denmark to take a look for himself. I know Miles will soon be here.