Scandinavia is a region of the world that is culturally Protestant, Capitalistic, and prosperous. They have avoided the economic turmoil that has been plaguing Europe, as well as the salary gap in America. Some economists call successful modernization “Getting to Denmark.” That is because Scandinavia ranks among the highest in the world in all aspects of social health, from education to healthcare to economic competition. Yet, somehow, the Atheist still argues that Scandinavia’s prosperity is a product of secularism and Socialism. As for the stubborn Atheist who makes the argument that Socialism is working quite well in the northern European countries, “[t]hey are out of date,” according to the Economist.[i] There, competition is king, and the economic model that has lead to regional success is a direct result of the Protestant Ethic.
Vikings & Monks
The Norse Pagans had developed a unique culture as seafaring merchants by the 8th century A.D. They travelled the Baltic Sea, sometimes trading furs as honest dealers, sometimes planning raids as dangerous warmongers. These were the Vikings of the northlands, the powerful Scandinavian sea-rovers who claimed coastal strongholds in a land of tribal warfare.
Denmark and Sweden were introduced to Christianity around 830 A.D., by a Frankish Monk named Ansgar. He founded a church in the city of Birka, which is generally considered Sweden’s oldest town, converted some pagans, and achieved moderate success as an evangelist in the short term. After a few of the kings and peasants of the time were evangelized, Ansgar would become known as the Patron Saint of Scandinavia, but remained largely an obscure figure during his own lifetime. Over the years, the succession of a few dedicated monks would make their way towards the northlands, following the example of the pious Ansgar. But no one succeeded at leaving a notable Catholic footprint anywhere north of the Baltic.
By the 11th Century, it was the English who were intent on spreading the Gospel, and steadily achieved success through missionary work. An important juncture occurred at the end of the century, when the pagan temple at Uppsala, a city north of modern Stockholm, was leveled in a spirit of conversion for Christ. This event marked the moment at which the Swedes were officially Christianizing their country. Afterwards, some of the most influential Swedish rulers were baptized. At the same time, many of these rulers were fighting over who owned what, but each only actually ruled their own local provinces, and the kings of Scandinavia had little to do with officially forming a united state. According to the deeds, this unification was assumed by the church, which had been established by the monks. The first document referring to Sweden as a united and independent kingdom is a papal decree from the year 1164 in which Sweden became a diocese with its own archbishop in Uppsala. Thenceforth, clear land distinctions were beginning to be made, and counties were divided between Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland.
Occurrences then seemed to repeat themselves for the following decades with each new king rising and falling with each new coup. Nevertheless, Medieval Catholicism proved to be more civilized and prosperous than Norse Paganism. The spirit of the law finally had meaning upon enactment, slowly binding the counties together in a spirit of royal adherence. Because of the new Christian legislation that was taking root by the influence of monks and Catholic kings, increased protection was given to the church, the courts, and women. In the mid-13th Century, Stockholm was founded, and merchants traded with increased privileges and protection. In short, under Catholic rule, the country excelled economically.[ii]
Sweden continued to grow until the Black Death struck in 1349. The harsh epidemic lasted for nearly an entire year, and economic recovery occurred very slowly over the course of nearly a century. In the meantime, some peasants revolted out of shear frustration, but agriculture eventually returned alongside Sweden’s lucrative butter exports. As Italy was making progress pulling itself out of the clenches of the Dark Ages and into modernity via the Renaissance, Sweden too was making strides down a similar path. In an attempt to stabilize the region’s economy, a wise king named Gustav Vasa passed legislation in 1527 at a venue known as the Diet of Vasteras. Vasa’s wily political maneuvers proved to be very profitable as he managed to confiscate all of the properties in possession of the Roman Catholic Church, which held a total of 21% of Sweden’s land, increasing the king’s property to 27% of Sweden’s land. A change occurred when Vasa converted from Catholicism to Lutheran Protestantism, and became determined to further free his people by establishing Protestant laws. Whether this convenient conversion was truly spiritual rather than merely political is questionable. Regardless, the Reformation spread throughout the northlands. The Lutheran Swedish Church was then adopted as the official state church, an adoption that still holds to this day.
Naturally, the appropriation of Catholic land proved to be an economic blessing for the state, and the doctrines of the reformed church caused an exceptional degree of prosperity. Gustav Vasa established Swedish independence, permitted a reformation of the church via Lutheran doctrine, and strengthened the Swedish Army even while founding the Swedish Navy. Sweden’s culture also flourished under Gustav’s reign as literacy went hand-in-hand with Protestantism. Notable literary achievements include a complete translation of the New Testament and the publication of the hymns and theological writings of Olaus Petri, an important figure in the development of the Swedish Reformation. The Protestant King, Gustav Vasa, is credited with founding Swedish sovereignty, and his reign marked the beginning of mass literacy across his jurisdiction.[iii]
“The Age of Freedom”
The period known as the Age of Freedom lasted from 1718-72. It saw an early form of parliamentary bureaucracy, and a waning of power for the Swedish king. The press promoted progress in the sciences and humanities. Anders Celsius invented his thermometer scale. Carolus Linnaeus made great strides in the science of botany. And Emanuel Swedenborg enhanced literary circles with his postulations on religion and philosophy. In 1731, the Swedish East India Company was founded, destined to become a lucrative trade company that strived for nearly a century. The East India Company promoted the success of manufacturing, shipbuilding, and textile manufacturing, and its biggest success had to do with transporting Swedish iron, Sweden’s most important export commodity. By 1750, Sweden was producing nearly one third of the world’s pig iron.
Capitalism in general proved itself admirably under the aegis of the Swedish worker. Farmers obtained land rights by purchasing titles to royal properties. The private sector strived as farmers worked hard to finally attain their own farms. Naturally, as profits increased, so did production. Agriculture, industry, and trade boomed, and the rural demographics were characterized by the proletariat. Furthermore, upon earning land, commoners increased in social status, eventually inhabiting the political jobs that were formerly held solely by the privileged class. In time, the umbrella of opportunity expanded, and social mobility increased.
Around that time, King Gustav III grew trepidatious over the events surrounding the French Revolution. He saw French politics to be immoral, unsustainable, and ultimately counterproductive to societal order. Despite the attained increase of monarchical power, Gustav proved himself admirably, using his powers to protect his country from the self-abusive French politics of the day. In fact, Gustav introduced many liberal social reforms, such as the abolishment of torture as a legal investigation, the promotion of free trade, religious toleration, and progress concerning the freedom of the press, though banning some French literature—a compromise arguably wise for its time and place considering the state of affairs in France. Ultimately, it’s due to these reasons and many more that the Gustavian reign is often referred to as the Swedish Enlightenment. During the Age of Freedom, Sweden reached a level of cultural identity that was equal to that of most of Western Europe.[iv]
Religion in the 21st Century
Most Danes and Swedes pay taxes to their national church, get married in their church, and baptize their children in their church. The reasoning for this is largely for the sake of tradition.[v] Even if only a mere nominal adherence is present, the heart of the doctrine, morals, and traditions remain intact. Lutheran Protestantism has proven itself to be the guiding light of Scandinavian prosperity and education as one of the priorities of the Lutheran church was teaching peasants to read.[vi]
Today, nearly 90 percent of the population of Sweden belongs to the national Church. There, every newborn with at least one adhering parent is registered. Since the late-19th century, numerous independent churches have emerged. But their members can also belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden.[vii]
From Stagnation to Prosperity
Norse Paganism led to war and economic stagnation for centuries. Catholic monks helped establish law and order by unifying the tribes through Catholic doctrine and influence. This Catholic influence proved to be helpful until the region was converted to Protestantism, which lead to further prosperity as the fundamentals of Protestantism led to prosperity. This conversion also led to a societal change that would come to be known as the “Age of Freedom,” creating the prosperous region of Scandinavia. Today, as in America, Protestantism is perhaps waning, but it is the Protestant doctrine, education, and morality that made the region as prosperous as it is.
The Origins of the Welfare State
By the middle of the 19th Century, governmental regulations had grown to a degree such that they were stifling business. While some Swedes then proceeded to emigrate to discover the prosperity of America, most stayed in their beloved native country, cultivating their farmlands. The trend of the industrial revolution was taking hold, but most of Sweden still remained poor, overpopulated, and discontent. Additionally, with a few restrictions on the freedom of the press, public demonstrations, and street riots, Sweden found itself on the brink of a small rebellion.
Both conservatives and liberals alike forced their ideologies until certain legislative reforms were created. Ultimately, bans on imports and exports were abolished, equal inheritance rights for men and women were implemented, and more progress was met concerning freedom of religion. Moreover, free enterprise prevailed while monopolies were abolished. But by the late 19th century, the prices of wheat took a drastic fall, exacerbating a serious agricultural crisis. The problem was dealt in a manner that lead to factious political unions within the Riksdag, (i.e., the Swedish Parliament), giving rise to some of the parties that still rule Sweden to this day, the Conservative and the Social Democratic parties.
The end of World War I coincided with a high demand for Swedish goods. Sweden then switched their focus from agriculture to industry, and industrialization led to a brand new battle for equal opportunists. The people’s demand for these leftward measures caused the liberals to dominate the Riksdag. Furthermore, along with liberalization, Sweden’s military expenditures were decreased, and so began Sweden’s trademark military strategy—neutrality.
The liberals continued to win their political battles in order to satisfy the demands of the proletariat. The mid-20th Century saw numerous social reforms, including pensions, child allowances, healthcare, rent allowances, and educational reforms. The Social Democrats also intended to nationalize industry, but they compromised through tax reorganization in order to redistribute the business wealth. In 1955, the Swedish Constitution was amended, reducing the king to a mere ceremonial figurehead. Following this liberal victory, new legislation was passed, guaranteeing a compulsory pension for all employees. The Nordic mantra of the 70s and 80s was indeed tax-and-spend. By 1993, Sweden’s public spending reached 67% of GDP.[viii] Astrid Lindgren, the creator of Pippi Longstocking, was taxed more than 100% of her income. However, tax-and-spend ultimately failed as Sweden fell from being the fourth richest country in the world in 1970 to the 14th in 1993.[ix] It was an obvious period of decline, and it was due to the ultra-leftist legislation of the day.
Through the 1980s, the Social Democrats ruled the Riksdag with only fleeting interruptions by the Conservatives. Political conflicts continued to encircle economic crises, including inflation, international trade, and unemployment. Globalization then began to add competition to an ever-changing marketplace, by this time encompassing the entire industrialized world.
The early 1980s and 1990s saw a particularly drastic rise in unemployment rates, and Scandinavia had to deal with a self-inflicted recession. By 1991, the Conservative Party had tactfully rebranded themselves as the “Moderate Party,” running on a platform that proposed free market fundamentals such as privatization, tax reductions, and less government spending. The October elections of that same year showcased a sweeping return of the Moderate Party, who in turn limited the power of the Social Democratic and the Communist Parties. By the end of the century, Sweden’s Conservative policies caused the country to return to its former position in the top brackets concerning living standards, beginning another new era of positive political leadership.[x]
The Swedish word “Lagom” summates the Scandinavian model nicely as it is a word with no English equivalent meaning “just the right amount.” The Scandinavian signature on Capitalism has to do with a political doctrine that the Swedes commandeered from the English called “cooperation.”[xi] Simply stated, cooperation is an attempt to balance the private and public sectors so that each may perform better. The Scandinavians worked diligently to create an economic system that revolves around one anti-Marxist idea: that man is greedy, and that it is necessary to create an economy that manages this idea to the benefit of society. In what began as a fat social state, the reduction of government interference has slowly been replaced with progressive Capitalist measures.
Milton Friedman would be more at home in Stockholm than in Washington, DC. – The Economist
Scandinavians have learned how to tactfully manage Capitalism, and the examples speak for themselves. In order to react against the brutal lifestyle of their 19th century forebears, the leftist governments overreached with a cradle-to-the-grave welfare model. Of course, although the welfare state worked well in most ways, time proved this model to be unsustainable. Today, the reversal has been reversed once again. The economies are being restructured back to a more business friendly model, but restrains itself from retreating too quickly too far.
“Rather than extending the state into the market, the Nordics are extending the market into the state.” [xii] For example, Denmark is experimenting with flexicurity, where companies can fire employees with almost American ease. But the government provides displaced workers with benefits while helping them get new jobs.[xiii] Sweden now permits private companies to compete with government cadres for public contracts. Private companies are building the majority of new health clinics and kindergartens. And consumers are permitted to shop and choose the best of these services.[xiv] Options then create competition in pricing and quality.
Scandinavia has all but forgone the economic policies of Karl Marx and adopted a new patron economist: Milton Friedman. Companies “flaunt pictures of Milton Friedman in the same way that student radicals once flaunted picture of Che Guevara.”[xv] The Economist argues that “Milton Friedman would be more at home in Stockholm than in Washington, DC.”[xvi] The Swedes in particular have enacted this economist’s idea concerning educational vouchers, “allowing parents to send their children to whatever school they choose and inviting private companies or voluntary groups to establish ‘free’ schools.”[xvii]
Just outside of Helsinki, 2010 saw a group of students at Aalto University take cues from the entrepreneurial programs of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Perception of the relationship between government and business was reconsidered, and the product of that reconsideration speaks loudly. The fall of Finland’s grand cellular monopoly with Nokia, which accounted for 4% of the country’s GDP in 2000, began the biggest rise of determined competition. The government then made provisions to ensure that Finland would never again become so dependent on a single company. The fall of Nokia is often touted as “the best thing that ever happened to this country.” [xviii] This is because monopolies destroy competition, much like Socialism.
“Norway is the odd man out in the Nordics.” Its model is known as “State Capitalism,” with Statoil boasting itself as the largest company in the region.[xix] Norway’s other hugely notable industry would be that of fish farming.[xx] “The formula of controlling business through shares rather than regulation seemed to work well, so the government used it wherever possible.” With businesses being managed by the public sector, many of Norway’s richer citizens flee to London in order to escape from the high taxes.[xxi] While Norway is perhaps the least conservative of the four major Scandinavian countries, it is still making incremental steps towards a Friedman-like economy.
The statistics are simply incontrovertible. Sweden has reduced public spending in proportion to its GDP from 67% in 1993 to 49% in 2013. As a result, “public debt fell from 79% of GDP in 1993 to 37% in 2012, and its budget moved from an 11% deficit to a surplus of 0.3% over the same period.”[xxii] According to the World Values Survey, which has been compiling data in over 100 countries since 1981, “the Nordics are the world’s biggest believers in individual autonomy.” They believe the main function of government is to propel the individual upwards on the ladder of social mobility—upwards in terms of wealth, health, and class. It is an economic model designated as “statist individualism.”[xxiii] While still taking pride in their welfare state, “a succession of crises put an end to the region’s magical thinking about welfare.”[xxiv]
Politicians, lawmakers, and businessmen around the world are taking notes on Nordic reform. The Nordics know how to reform the public sector so that it is efficient and responsive. The model is popular for one simple reason: it is the model that works best.[xxv]
From Marx to Mixed-Market
The 19th century business regulation and welfare model started in a time of desperation. The liberal democrats pushed for nationalized industry, but compromised for tax reorganization in order to redistribute the wealth. However, tax-and-spend led to mass unemployment and an economic downturn. These were the repercussions of the Atheist worldview. It was the Milton-like reforms that returned the region to prosperity. These reforms are a part of the Protestant Ethic. There’s no such thing as an Atheist Ethic.
[i] The Next Supermodel, 9, The Economist (Feb. 2-8, 2013).
[ii] Britannica Encyclopedia.
[v] Phil Zuckerman, Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment, 8-9 (New York University Press) (2010).
[vi] The Next Supermodel at 16.
[vii] Society Without God at 8.
[viii] Britannica Encyclopedia.
[ix] The Next Supermodel at 9.
[x] Britannica Encyclopedia.
[xi] Marquis W. Childs, Sweden: The Middle Way, 1 (Yale University Press) (1941).
[xii] The Next Supermodel at 4.
[xiii] Id. at 6.
[xiv] Id. at 5.
[xv] Id. at 15.
[xvi] Id. at 9.
[xvii] Id. at 5.
[xviii] Id. at 10.
[xix] Id. at 13.
[xx] Id. at 9.
[xxi] Id. at 14.
[xxii] Id. at 3.
[xxiii] Id. at 16.
[xxiv] Id. at 5.
[xxv] Id. at 9.