What is the northern recipe?
On the highest-rated democracies, the classical liberal tradition, and what to do so that aspiring countries can emulate what works
The Nordic countries -- Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland -- are widely viewed as some of the best-governed countries in the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit issues a "Democracy Index" every year, and those five countries not only make a clean sweep of Europe's top 5, they are also five of the top six in the world (New Zealand manages to squeeze in at #2).
■ What seems strange about their performance isn't that they are unlikely candidates, but that there isn't an obvious compelling reason for them to be so uniquely good at what they do. Finland was occupied by Russia until a mere century ago. Sweden and Norway were ruled by a common kingdom from 1814 until 1905. Denmark was occupied by the Nazi regime of Germany from 1940 until 1945.
■ All of this is to say that there are other countries with longer-standing fully-independent democratic institutions. And other countries have much more recognizable pedigrees of influential political theory: The United Kingdom, for instance, gave the world John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, to name only a few. When we consider vast intellectual movements like the Enlightenment, lots of other European countries left behind much more prominent footprints.
■ Nor is there a widely-known canon of literature explaining the Nordic philosophy of liberal democracy -- at least not in the same way that Americans know where to look for Paine's "Common Sense", the Federalist Papers, and de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" to explain the American idea.
■ Yet clearly something is being done well in the Nordic countries, and consistently so -- despite the differences among them. Norway, Denmark, and Iceland are members of NATO; Sweden and Finland are not (at least, not for now). Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are members of the European Union; Norway and Iceland are not. These are not trivial differences.
■ Nor are their economies the same; Iceland depends on tourism, aluminum smelting, and fishing, while Norway is one of the world's biggest oil producers, and Finland relies heavily on timber exports.
■ It may be that the countries' shared cultural identity and commitment to intergovernmental cooperation through structures like the Nordic Council cause them to behave alike without having a particularly unique historic pedigree establishing an globally-recognized way. And maybe that itself is the reason it works -- their policies emerge more as organic manifestations of habits that have been shaped by trial and error rather than as ideals that must be adhered-to in order to keep the faith with the past.
■ Whatever the causes, the effects show them to be indisputably worth a closer look -- especially as the world grows wealthier and more technologically sophisticated. It's going to grow harder and harder for tyrants and authoritarians to keep their people from at least becoming aware that there are better ways than oppression and submission. The easier we can make the process of emulating the most successful and durable democracies, the better.