Debunking Utopia

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Debunking Utopia

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on August 03, 2016 FREE Insights

I recently received an announcement of a forthcoming book, Debunking Utopia.  Its author, Nima Sanandaji, Ph. D., is Kurdish-Swedish and has written Scandinavian Unexceptionalism and The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox. He is the president of the European Centre for Entrepreneurship and Policy Reform (  He began with this:

The Nordic countries are used by Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and many others as the shining examples of the benefits of democratic socialism. As I consistently show in the new book however, it is Nordic culture rather than Nordic politics that undermines the success in this part of the world:

Coming to economics from anthropology I place great weight on the importance of culture.  This was an aberrant position often distained by conventional, i. e., “gear drive”, mathematical economists.  One MSU colleague dismissed my cultural perspective with this comment:  “Cultural explanations are for those who can’t do econometrics”.  I observed the more mathematical an economist the less weight he placed on culture.  And the lower his score on an empathy scale.

Culture includes the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that people accept without thinking about them.  Learning, communicating and imitating from one generation to the next passes them along.  It is exceedingly difficult to directly and deliberately alter a culture by rules, regulations, and authority.  Authoritarian regimes usually attempt to do so but none succeed.  

Cultural norms of behavior change for better or worse in an evolutionary manner.    For example, roadside littering has become abhorrent to middle class Americans.  Doing so is shameful.  Smoking likewise.  Regulations and fines reinforce an emerging norm.   The same largely applies to racial and religious discrimination.   (Muslims who advocate sharia law disqualify themselves from religious toleration when they explicitly reject the liberal values of a host culture.)   

I don’t know anyone who rejects helping the “needy poor”.  These are people who require help due to no fault of their own, for example becoming a widow with several young children or becoming too sick or injured for productive work.  In contrast, electing to take incapacitating drugs or simply choosing not to work are disqualifications from the “needy poor” category.  Alas, an increasing proportion of people are deprived of a work ethic.  Is there a greater cultural handicap to a wholesome life?   

Many progressives favor eliminating the stigma of accepting welfare.  Food stamps become debit cards. ( F.n.,  A system that allows state governments to provide benefits to recipients through a debit card.)   Then the wage earner behind you in the grocery check out line doesn’t know she is paying some tiny fraction of your bill.  Slowly the cost of being on welfare goes down and demand for public largess rises.  How can this be good?  There are costs to reducing the stigma of being on welfare.  (For a first hand description of the consequences see J. D. Vasnce, Hillybilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family in Crisis, Harper Collins, 2016.)

This is especially true in a large, complex, heterogeneous nation.  In these nations politicians have incentive to create dependent groups and mobilize them as voters   Welfare is far more manageable and easier to reform in small, homogenous nations.  This has been the theme of Nima Sanandaji’s earlier work and I look forward to his next one, Debunking Utopia. 


Nima Sanandaji  wrote this essay to promote his latest book:

The Nordic countries are used by Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and many others as the shining examples of the benefits of democratic socialism. As I consistently show in the new book however, his key point is clear:  Nordic culture not Nordic politics explains successful social policy. You may order Debunking Utopia from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the publisher, WND Books.

As an example, Nordic Americans already have much higher prosperity, and even lower poverty, than their cousins in the Nordics.

- An often forgotten fact is that the Nordic countries had conservative small government policies until around 1960. Already at this time, the Nordic countries were leading the world in terms of prosperity, low poverty, low child mortality and long life spans.

- If anything, since introducing large welfare states, the Nordic countries have lost some of their social success. The reason is that a significant portion of the population have become dependent on welfare handouts, and thus trapped in social poverty.

- The combination of open borders, high taxes and generous welfare have been anything but a success in Sweden. The result is massive social tension and increasing poverty. 

- I systematically show that the American Dream of social mobility is in fact more alive for immigrants to the US than for any Nordic country.

- Lastly, while the idea of Nordic-style democratic socialism is all the rage among the left in the US and other countries, in the Nordic countries themselves social democracy has never been weaker than today. In Denmark the social democrats themselves have introduced massive market reforms and called for a much slimmer welfare state. 

If this sounds interesting, please take a look at the book. 

Debunking Utopia is a continuation of a previous book, Scandinavian Unexceptionalism, that I published last year, for the Institute of Economic Affairs. Scandinavian Unexceptionalism has resulted in hundreds of media appearances around the world, and among others been translated to Spanish, Polish and Japanese. 


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