Annoyance can be a powerful prod to action. And so after being annoyed for years by the praise much of the world lavishes on the supposedly enlightened Scandinavians, British writer Michael Booth has bestirred himself to take a closer, more jaundiced look at the people, customs, institutions and landscapes of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and his adopted homeland of Denmark. Are these five nations the political incarnation of human happiness? Well, maybe.
In The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Booth brings a deliciously droll sense of humor to his mission. But he is no dilettante, no mere passer through. In striking a balance between Chamber of Commerce and chamber of horrors, he undergirds his personal observations by citing copious studies and statistics and interviewing a wide swath of sociologists, historians, politicians, journalists and common folk. Apart from a history of being tugged and battered by larger countries, the commonalties Booth finds among Scandinavians are hardiness and resourcefulness (no doubt enhanced by the unforgiving climate), social cohesiveness, devotion to economic and gender equality, respect for education (in Finland, he discovers, teachers are “national heroes”) and a secular approach to problem-solving.
And there are problems aplenty, both current and impending, Booth says. Social safety nets are expensive to maintain, particularly for aging populations, which portend even higher taxes and greater productivity. Security can and does lead to a certain level of individual indolence. Immigration, besides being socially disruptive, is giving rise to racist political parties in Denmark and Sweden, although the latter country strives mightily to welcome and integrate its newcomers. Norway’s vast oil wealth enables its citizens to maintain their smug, provincial ways. Iceland, while recovering from its recent financial disaster, still has remnants of the American-style capitalism that got it into trouble in the first place.
Even so, Booth emerges as a cautious cheerleader for the region. As societal and economic role models for the rest of the world, he declares, “The Nordic countries have the answer.”