Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What Is It About Those Finns?

Here's a lively, detailed article by Robert G. Kaiser in the Washington Post about Finland's network of publicly-financed social services--day care, medical care, education through graduate school--and the social, cultural, and psychological differences between the US and Finland that may help to explain the absence of such services in our country.

Like many commentators on this topic, Kaiser suggests that American diversity is one reason we've never developed a European-style social welfare state. Finland, he writes,

. . . is ethnically and religiously homogeneous. A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to consensus: Every significant Finnish political party supports the welfare state and, broadly speaking, the high taxation that makes it possible.

As I say, this is a common enough observation. But less common is any discussion of why having a diverse society makes it harder to win support for universal social services. The embarrassing answer is racial and ethnic prejudice.

I say this because I remember seeing the "liberal consensus" that elected Democrats throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s collapsing in the 1970s and 80s largely due to resentment among working-class and middle-class whites (like my parents, my in-laws, and our neighbors in the white ethnic Brooklyn community where we lived) over the welfare, affirmative action, and other benefits that were supposedly being lavished on "other" people who didn't deserve them. Those "others" were, of course, people of color with whom these resentful whites felt they had little in common. Over the previous generation, they'd moved into one New York neighborhood after another, changing the character of those communities and, in the eyes of the older whites, "ruining" them.

I remember my father-in-law--a kind, thoughtful, and generous family man--becoming a staunch Reaganite, eagerly backing the Republicans' plans to cut taxes and social spending. Later he complained about how the services he received from his local VA hospital (as a proud veteran of World War Two) were curtailed, but I don't think he ever saw the connection--and why should he? The Republicans he voted for were at pains to insist that they were on the side of "decent, hard-working Americans" and were reducing benefits only to "them."

By contrast, Finland's social and ethnic homogeneity protects universal social programs by making it much harder to persuade Finns to see their country as made up of warring groups of "us" and "them" engaged in a zero-sum competition for shares of the national wealth.

As long as we allow the politicians to keep dividing us (by race, ethnicity, geography, religion, and other "identity" markers), we'll have little chance to outgrow the petty quarreling over crumbs that passes for domestic policy debate in this country.
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