For thirteen years in a row, Business Insider – citing its standard of living, health-care system, and high life expectancy – has put Norway at the top of its annual list of “best countries to live in.” The high life expectancy is an objective fact; the other items are a matter of debate. Norwegian health care? It works admirably, unless you require an operation or treatment that the government considers too expensive or for which there's a waiting list. Standard of living? Incomes are high, but so are taxes.
But I'm not here to argue with Business Insider's rankings. I'm here to point out an aspect of Norwegian life that never figures on any of these “best country” lists, whether put out by Business Insider or the United Nations or whomever. I'm talking about statism – the degree to which the state is a palpable part of everyday life.
Briefly put, Norway is pretty much statism central. I'm more accustomed to it now, but when I was first living here I was acutely aware every single day of the presence of the government in my life. I'm not talking about some abstract, theoretical phenomenon. It's a real, palpable feeling. A feeling of being a bit less of an individual and a bit more part of a collective. An awareness that your eleven-digit “person number” (which includes your birth date) comes up a lot more often than your social-security number ever did back in the U.S. A sense of being covered by an umbrella, but also surrounded by a wall.
For the last four years, to be sure, Norway has had a supposedly non-socialist coalition government, led by the Conservative Party, with Labor heading up the socialist opposition. In the September 11 elections, the governing coalition was returned to power. But the non-socialist label is deceptive: whichever party or parties happen to be running the country at any given time, the public sector is overwhelmingly dominated by Labor and other leftist parties. While in power, the so-called conservatives may pass legislation signaling a bit more support for business interests or the military, but they never do anything that significantly reverses Norwegian statism.
Now, to live under a statist system is, as it were, to live in someone else's house, and thus to live by their rules. Nanny Norway doesn't think it's good for you to drink. So she doesn't allow anyone other than herself to sell liquor, and makes buying it as costly and troublesome as possible. In my town of 12,000 people, there's one state-owned liquor outlet. Hours are limited. The tax on (for example) a bottle of vodka is 300%. Beer is more than twice as expensive as anywhere else on earth.
Nanny Norway thinks it's best for you to eat at home, so going out to dinner is also a pricey proposition. Lunch? Almost nobody goes out to lunch. Years ago, in a New York Times article about Norway's high prices, I made casual reference to the matpakke, the modest packed lunch – usually a sandwich or two wrapped in wax paper or aluminum foil – that Norwegians of all socioeconomic levels take to work. After VG, Norway's largest daily, ran an article about my article, I received hundreds of emails and text messages – including death threats – savaging me for insulting a beloved national tradition.
When I moved to Norway, I was introduced to another tradition: dugnad. If you rent a flat in somebody else's building, he's not responsible for taking care of the property – you are. You're expected to get together with the other tenants every so often and rake the leaves, mow the lawn, wash the stairs, and generally act as if you work for the guy you're paying rent to.
It's interesting how the people of Norway have been taught to regard various forms of deprivation as cherished traditions.
For a European country, Norway is very large yet also very thinly populated – which means that people have to drive long distances. But although she is a leading oil producer, Nanny Norway thinks it's bad for you to use gasoline. Hence, while her petroleum fund – which contains the profits from the sale of North Sea oil – is worth just under a trillion dollars, Norwegian citizens pay the planet's highest gas prices.
Nanny Norway has made laws about things you never imagined somebody might think of making a law about. We once considered having our cats declawed. It's illegal. (The vet looked at us as if we were savages for even contemplating it – yet the same vet will put a cat to sleep on request, no questions asked.) It's OK to keep the ashes of a beloved pet in your home – but illegal to possess the ashes of a human loved one. (They have to be buried in a cemetery – but if no relative is still around twenty-five years later to pay a renewal fee, the remains will be dug up and thrown out.)
One thing has improved. When I moved here, the Web was in its infancy, and the media's ideological lockstep was numbing. The rise of independent online news and opinion sites has made a vast difference. Still, it irks to know that your tax money is helping to subsidize privately owned newspapers – all of which faithfully echo the political establishment's views, even as they pretend to be providing a wide spectrum of perspectives. Even more irksome is the compulsory semi-annual license fee (now $184) that supports the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, a shameless propaganda outfit that critics call the Labor Party Broadcasting Corporation.
Unsurprisingly, running a small business is even tougher in Norway than in the U.S. To start any small business is, in a sense, to issue a declaration of independence, and that makes statists uncomfortable. So they make it as difficult as possible, piling on the rules, paperwork, and taxes. To work as a freelancer, I had to register as a business. But doing what I do is easy in Norway compared to trying to squeeze a profit out of a shop or restaurant.
As a writer, I'm particularly aware of laws and practices that affect my profession. Publishing? If your book is being put out by a Norwegian house, there's no use hiring an agent to get you a good deal: everybody gets the same contract and advance. It's the law. Booksellers? If you own a bookstore, you can't lower prices on new books – the government sets the prices, and changing them is forbudt. (That's Norwegian for verboten.) Libraries? Every year, members of Arts Council Norway, a division of the Ministry of Culture, peruse the lists of new books and pick out those that the nation's libraries will be required to order. In a country as small as Norway, making the cut can spell the difference between a flop and a hit.
Naturally, the fix is in – meaning that writers with friends in high places, or backgrounds in left-wing politics, do well under this system. Favored scribblers get handsome stipends every year or two from the state-supported writers' unions. A few especially favored writers even receive a taxpayer-funded annual income, comparable to a respectable professional salary. Again, the fix is in.
Are there positive things about Norway? Plenty. Overwhelmingly, Norwegians are civilized, decent, honest, patriotic, down-to-earth, responsible-minded, and family-oriented. The landscape is spectacular, the air salubrious, the tap water excellent, and the products of Norwegian farms reliably tasty and wholesome. The country has a proud armed forces, manufactures cutting-edge defense systems, and pays more per capita on military expenses than any other NATO member.
We've seen that Business Insider hails Norway's high life expectancy; my sense is that that genuinely impressive statistic has less to do with any welfare-state benefit than with good genes, healthful dietary habits that go back generations, and a tradition of participation in winter sports and other vigorous physical activity well into one's golden years. I could go on. But the bottom line is clear. All these stellar attributes exist in spite of statism – not because of it.