Norway has the world’s sixth highest GDP per capita. Or maybe the eighth. Its rank varies according to whether you’re listening to the IMF, the CIA, or the World Bank. Depending on whose list you go by, it’s bested by somewhere between three and five tax havens (Luxembourg, Switzerland, Monaco, Singapore, and Ireland) and two or three small oil-rich countries (Qatar, Brunei, the UAE). As with the latter nations, Norway’s rank on these list is artificially inflated by its massive petroleum income, which is pumped out of the North Sea and poured directly into the planet’s largest sovereign wealth fund. The cash in this fund theoretically belongs to the Norwegian people, but they have no access to it, and no well-traveled outside observer exposed to the everyday lives of average subjects in King Harald’s realm would ever imagine that this is, on paper, one of the very richest populations on earth.
No, they’re certainly not poor. But one day the oil will run out. And, soon enough, if they have to start drawing on it, the oil fund will disappear. Then what? Well, by then the country may well be an Islamic monarchy and solving that problem will be the job of the new emir. In the meantime, however, the Norwegian economy is increasingly burdened by welfare-state outlays to immigrants (overwhelmingly Muslim) and their children. You might think a government drowning in oil profits would take advantage of that boon to lighten the burden on entrepreneurs and thus encourage the development of new business sectors. Instead, Norway does pretty much everything it can to make life extremely tough for potential start-ups.
A recent opinion piece in what may be Norway’s only grown-up newspaper, Dagens Næringsliv (DN) – a business daily in the mold of the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times – puts its finger on the problem. “Oil-saturated Norway needs more world-class job creators,” argues Hermund Haaland, a director of the think tank Skaperkraft (“creator power”) who holds an MBA from the Norwegian School of Economics. One problem standing in the way of higher job-creation levels, Haaland maintains, is what he calls the resurgence of the “Jante Law” mentality – the mindset, instilled from the cradle in statist, collectivist, solidarity-obsessed Scandinavia, that it’s inappropriate for individuals to try to achieve personal success to a degree that it places them above the common herd. Another problem is that there’s still a residual sense of reliance on the welfare state, which Norwegians are brought up to revere. No surprise, then, that, as Haaland observes, “the percentage of Norwegians who want to start their own business was almost halved between 2005 and 2015.” Only 4.8% of the population has seriously entertained the idea.
Haaland’s suggestion for a cure to this ailment? It’s a striking one: Norway should learn from Israel.
The idea shouldn’t be striking, of course: Israel is, among many other things, a miracle of technological innovation and prosperity in the midst of what was once a barren desert. But these days it’s unusual for anyone in Norway (outside of the pro-U.S., pro-Israel Progress Party) to hold it up as an example to be emulated rather than as a villain to be condemned – a terrorist state, a child killer, a committer of unprovoked bombings and massacres, a denier of electricity and clean water to Gaza, and so on. Typical of the views of its cultural establishment is the blatantly anti-Semitism expressed in an infamous 2006 op-ed, “God’s Chosen People,” by Jostein Gaarder, author of the beloved international bestseller Sophie’s World. As for the political elite, much if not most of it agrees with former Prime Minister Kåre Willoch, a vile old fossil who regularly comes out with anti-Israeli comments (most recently condemning the IDF’s firm response to Hamas’s evil “Nabka Day” hijinks) and has frequently been called an outright Jew-hater.
Haaland is a different breed of Norwegian. Last year, with Nicolai Strøm-Olsen, he published a book called Start-up Israel. I haven’t read it, but his op-ed sums up a few of their main points: in Silicon Wadi, Israel’s answer to the Silicon Valley, investments in new firms rose from $58 million in 1991 to $3.3. billion in 2000. In interviews with Israeli entrepreneurs, writes Haaland, he was repeatedly told that one of the secrets of Israeli innovation is the country’s “argumentative culture.” From childhood, he writes, “Israelis learn to debate.” Haaland doesn’t bother to point out – he doesn’t need to – that Norway is virtually the exact opposite: a society where, if you want to get by, socially and professionally, among respectable types, you’re expected to be “A4.” A4, if you don’t know, is the official name for the size of letter paper used in most of the world. (America’s 8 ½ X 11 paper is an outlier.) Being “A4” means fitting in. It means being careful not to openly challenge consensus leftist views, as taught in schools and colleges and reinforced daily by the mainstream media.
This mentality, submits Haaland, needs to change. Norwegians must imbue their children with the kind of “creativity and independence” that’s routinely encouraged among Israeli kids. To do this, he proposes, “we have to change the schools.” (Tall order, in a time when the big problem in Norwegian schools is increasingly not pedagogical but, ahem, disciplinary.) But that’s not all: Norway also has to cultivate “a culture of hungry, society-building entrepreneurs.” (It’s startling to read this phrase: the very concept is as un-Norwegian as they come.) Norway can’t do any of this, however, without a change in mentality at the top – a recognition by political leaders that heavy taxes and overregulation (stores over a certain size, for example, are forbidden to be open on Sunday) are not exactly the best way to grow an economy.
Who is Hermund Haaland? I hadn’t heard of him before encountering his op-ed. Looking at Skaperkraft’s website, I discovered that he’s a member of Norway’s shrinking Christian People’s Party, known in Norway by its initials KrF. I must admit that it happens to be my least favorite party in the country, because it combines a far-left enthusiasm for big, intrusive government (in its case, on behalf of families and children, whom it regards as property of the state) with far-right social conservatism (including a tendency to kowtow to Islam, whose adherents party leaders hope will swell their aging, dwindling ranks). Still, Haaland is quite the impressive guy. In one witty piece, directed at fellow Christians and published this year on Easter Eve, he celebrates Jesus as an ideal entrepreneur – terrific at putting together a team, constructing an image, building a brand, and pursuing a scalable business model.
The recommendations Haaland offers to Norwegian leaders in his DN piece are excellent. But I’ll add a point of my own: if Norwegian leaders heed his prescriptions, they won’t just be doing their economy a favor; they’ll almost surely be increasing their country’s chance of surviving its current – shall we say – social and cultural difficulties. A Norway that encourages free thinking and independent initiative, that turns its schools from Labor Party training camps into laboratories of intellectual and creative experiment, is a Norway whose people will likely be more far inclined than they are now to stand up to the challenge of Islam. In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the leaders of several other Western European basket cases to take Haaland’s lessons to heart. Putting his ideas into practice in Norway, alas, is probably close to impossible, given the resistance such thinking would encounter from nearly every direction, and from the Nordic temperament itself; and in any event the process of Islamization may already have progressed too far for any such reforms to make a real difference. But it would be lovely to see it tried.
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