Recently a few friends of mine were asking me a bit about the welfare state, so I thought I’d put down some of my thoughts here. As with most things, Norway’s comprehensive social welfare system comes with its pros and cons. Here are the ones that struck me the most.
People worry a lot less. Norwegians live in a society where they really don’t have to worry too much since the welfare system is there to help those who are struggling. No one in Norway really worries over things like current or future medical bills because if the unimaginable were to happen, it would either be taken care of or it would be affordable.
There aren’t very many visible signs of poverty in Norway. While there are beggars, they aren’t many of them (granted living up in Trondheim means that few beggars stick around for the 7 months or so of winter).* In the entire time that I’ve lived in Norway, I have rarely seen places that look run down, and, if I have, in Norway a run down house is one that hasn’t been given a new coat of paint in the last year (a ridiculously high standard). In other words, people are generally taken care of and there is a substantial middle class in Norway.
The possibility of earning a living wage combined with the welfare system contributes to Norwegians having a good work-life balance. Because people don’t need to worry about working three jobs just to survive, they can take time to relax and go on nice Sunday hikes. This system also means that people are able to do what they are genuinely passionate about. Talking to students in Norway has been fascinating since none of them worry about their future or their jobs. They know that regardless of what job they end up in, they’ll be fine. To quote one of my students, “It doesn’t matter if I end up being a garbage collector. If that’s what I really love to do, then it’ll be fine. My parents don’t really care where I end up in so long as I’m really passionate about it.” The freedom to do whatever it is you’re most passionate about is a luxury few people can afford, and it’s incredible to see how common it is in Norway.
The social welfare system is going to cost you. Having such great peace of mind does come with a price, and it’s a bit sobering to look at how it affects your paycheck.
People don’t appear to be quite as driven as we are in the States. In the US we talk about how the welfare system can stifle innovation, and I would say that it’s true up to a point. People feel comfortable with things in Norway, so they don’t necessarily feel the need to hustle like we do in the States, but a more relaxed environment doesn’t mean that great things don’t come out of Norway. Case in point, this year’s Nobel Prize winners in medicine were a Norwegian couple.
Overall, I think Norway does a great job with social welfare and has a model that really works well for its society. It’s a nation with a small population, great resources, and has a strong belief in equality. I think that whether or not you think the welfare system is good ultimately drives at a different question: who do you cater your society towards? Do you cater towards those who are less well off, those who are average, or those who are star individuals? And once you decide that, how do you try to balance that with the sacrifices each group has to make. In Norway, the answer is clear: you try to make things equal for everyone. While that may affect your star individuals the most, at the end of the day it seems as though Norwegians think it’s worth the cost.
*Interesting side note about beggars. If you ask most Norwegians about the welfare system they will say that everyone is taken care of. If you then ask them about beggars, many of whom are Gypsies, their response tends to be “Oh, well they aren’t taken care of because they aren’t Norwegian.” An interesting response, and one that is actually false. Gypsies technically have the right to Norwegian citizenship and are considered a special minority group.