Scandinavia is particularly revered (or reviled, depending on your political beliefs) in the states for its political-economic system: Democratic Socialism. Everything is taxed out the wazoo, which serves the purpose of funding public programs like nationalized medical care, a robust public transportation system, and free college education for everyone. In this manner, everyone has the assurance of having their basic needs met, which enables them to become economically productive, civically engaged citizens. While providing for everyone is a chief benefit of such a system, the flip side of this equation is subtly critical to its success as a social-political-economic system- it prevents the mass accumulation of wealth.
Yesterday I went to a talk called “Going out in Denmark,” which was given by a beautiful American woman born to Danish parents. Having lived for several years in each country, she was able to speak personally to the differences in dating and mating customs between the United States and Denmark. She was particularly interested in the role of gender in these rituals, which is quite pronounced in the States and much less so in Denmark. The pattern of giving chase and running away, painfully familiar to Americans of either gender and often with diastrous consequences for women, has no presence in Denmark. In fact, offering to buy a woman a drink is considered offensive- it creates a feeling of obligation and also suggests that she is incapable of paying for her own drink.
Political economies are necessarily social systems as well as economic and political ones. By preventing the accumulation of wealth, Denmark’s political-economic system expresses the egalitarian ideals of their nation. Not merely expression, though, it actively enforces these ideals by restraining anyone who would try to use economic means to gain a social advantage. The values of the Danish society are quite explicitly denoted by the Jante Laws. Originally published by Aksel Sandemose in 1933, the laws were a set of commandments for an imaginary municipality in Denmark. Intended as a satirical commentary on the oppressive nature of a conformist culture, the Jante Law is interpreted by many in Nordic countries today as an explanation for Nordic prosperity and happiness.
In America, distinguishing yourself is not only socially acceptable but is also revered– just witness the prevalence celebrity culture in all aspects of our life. It follows us onto the streets, into the kitchen, theaters and shopping centers and even into the bedroom. Standing out is considered a desirable and attractive trait. Of course, the accumulation of popularity and the money that accompanies it also enables a vastly inequitable distribution of social and political power. It was thus with the Romans, and it is thus with us. The social and political-economic structure of a nation are reciprocally reinforcing.