The Nordic countries and fairness

Two perspectives on the Nordic countries and the concept of fairness.


When I moved to Norway six months ago, my knowledge of the country was a hotchpotch of vaguely understood ideas about the so-called “Nordic model” of social democracy, and the apparently unique ability of the Scandinavian countries in particular not to have pissed the post-Second World War consensus against the wall.

Of course, I also knew about Anders Breivik and the Utøya massacre of 2011, when Breivik, who saw himself as a soldier fighting the war against “cultural Marxism” and multiculturalism, attacked a Labour Youth summer camp and bombed the city of Oslo. He was convinced that radical Islam was a threat to Norway and the Norwegian way of life, as understood from his twisted white-nationalist perspective. The best book, better than I will ever be, at exploring Breivik is Åsne Seierstad’s En Av Oss (One of Us). I cannot recommend you read it enough.

I mention Breivik only because his actions seem so at odds with everything we tend to know about Norway. After all, in late summer 2016, King Harald V went viral with a speech in which he said that:

“Norwegians are girls who love girls, boys who love boys, and boys and girls who love each other…Norwegians are also immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Poland, Sweden, Somalia and Syria…It is not always easy to say where we come from, to which nationality we belong. Home is where the heart is. That cannot always be placed within national borders… Norwegians believe in God, Allah, everything and nothing… In other words: you are Norway. We are Norway… My biggest hope for Norway is that we will manage to take care of each other, that we can build this country further on trust, solidarity and generosity.”

What was not at odds with what we know with Norway, like this speech from Harald V, is how Breivik was treated subsequently by the criminal justice system of Norway. While the splenetic responses of many were to see him executed and worse, Norway treated him as they would any criminal and he received (and continues to receive) the full benefit of their progressive prison system. There was an unflinching – if to some it was unfathomable – degree of fairness in the way Breivik was tried and imprisoned.

Among the many reasons I moved to Norway – not least for love – was because I was aware that it was a country that while extraordinarily wealthy from oil money, was still a largely fair-minded and progressive country in a host of ways – from a progressive tax system to strong trade unionism, to well-funded public services like health and education. All of them hallmarks of a certain social democratic outlook that sees the state’s role as protector of the citizen.

Of course, Norway is not, nor should it be mistaken for, a utopia. To understand Norwegian approaches to authority and to the rules, then there are a set of rules which are more important than any other: the Jante Loven, or Laws of Jante. They come from Dano-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose’s 1933 novel A fugitive crosses his tracks. The novel is set in a small village where everyone knows everyone else. As a result the village is governed by these rules, which guard against individualistic attitudes. They are:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

While Irish people reading this might recognise a certain amount of familiarity with the ideas expressed here from small town life, the application of Janteloven as a sociological phenomenon is rooted less in doing people down, or begrudgery, but rather about reining in an inflated sense of self for the greater whole.

This is especially useful to understand when faced with the apparently endless bureaucracy faced by the new immigrant in Norway, even one lucky enough to becoming from within the EU. In a country where the state is so powerful, bureaucracy has the potential to do its fair share of damage to your ability to access the protections of the state. In its blind pursuit of fairness and equality for all, it tends towards the unbendable. This is particularly difficult for an Irish person to understand at first. In Ireland, typically and unfortunately, the state and its bureaucracy is seen as something of an obstacle that one must find cheats and work-arounds to overcome rather than a system designed to ensure fairness, even a form of fairness that can be unremitting in its immovability. Norwegian bureaucracy is highly rationalized, and all linked together. So, once you have your personal number (social security ID), you are assigned your GP in your locality, and you have the ability to open a bank account, and generally enjoy all the benefits that come with your robust income tax.

The difficulty lies in getting there. For my own part, when I first arrived I was pre-registered with the police, and when I got my first work contract, by the time I was given an appointment to register fully with the police, the time remaining on the contract was too short for it to be worthwhile processing. Getting a bank account thus an impossibility. When you are first in Norway you get given a D-number instead of a Personal Number. A D-number is a temporary social security number. Going to a bank with a D-number, even with a work contract, is hard work. You must provide proof of registration with the police as a foreign worker, you must have a letter from your bank at home that you are a reputable customer, as well as Passport ID etc. Without a longer-term contract you can’t secure a Personal Number as a foreigner in Norway, without a Personal Number getting a bank is much more difficult and so on. It even makes it harder to buy a mobile phone on contract, as you are not fully in the system. Thus in my first six months in Norway, I have existed in that strange in-between of being able to live and work here, pay taxes here, and notionally have access to all the benefits of the country without actually having access to them, all for the want of a Personal Number. Now that I have it, the much vaunted fairness of Norway is more open to me but it was not straightforward getting there. Is Norway a fairer place than Ireland? Only if the state and its systems recognise your existence. In that much, Norway and Ireland are perhaps equals.



Statistics and rankings abound on how equal, well-off, happy and free from corruption the Nordic countries are. Finland has the best primary education, Denmark and Iceland take turns at best country for women to live in, Norway ranks highest in human development, Sweden is the best at promoting its interests while not causing damage (“the goodest”). The yearly round of accolades has almost become an annual ritual, as international organisations publish the results of their surveys and the world media spend a little while in awe of these little paradises at the northern end of Europe.

Much of the content of these rankings is related to fairness, be it in education, administration or inter-gender relations. From an Irish perspective, too, the idea that the Nordic countries are intrinsically fairer than Ireland, and many other countries, is widespread. Is it true, however? To answer that means to answer what fairness is, firstly, and then to examine whether it is really a more socially common quality in the Nordic countries than in Ireland. Here, I am concerned more with Finland, where I live, as my experience of the other Nordic countries is limited.

A fair society can be considered one in which each person is able to have a reasonably good life and make the most of his or her talents, regardless of background, such as parents and geography. As a person goes through life, he or she should be treated equally regardless of personal traits, income, origin, or any other such factors.

The above is an ideal that does not exist anywhere. In the Nordic countries, as elsewhere, people are the victims of unfair treatment from birth to death, often in systematic ways.

It would be possible to provide many comparisons between Finland and Ireland, relying on statistics and rankings. The result would surely show that Finland has a more well-funded social welfare system, stronger protections for gender equality and that at many stages in life, especially at the beginning, Finland does provide more equal chances for people. But is all of this the same as fairness? Is life fair only because it gives you and another, randomly selected person the same opportunities, or is it fair because you are treated essentially the same way?

I am tempted to give the short answer that in Finland, life is fairer on the surface of things from the outset, that is, equality of opportunity is on a stronger footing, whereas in Ireland, there is a greater social division and a more divided class society, but a more equitable social structure, leading to a greater opportunity of treatment than in Finland.

The image of the Nordic countries as a nearly perfect, equal society is strong, and therefore many people in Ireland would probably be surprised by how common discussion of a polarised society, the binary division into the haves and have-nots, corruption and political elitism are in Finland. Especially at a time when a millionaire prime minister is overseeing large-scale privatisation schemes and wide-ranging reforms to the health service and when police and municipal corruption scandals are coming to the fore, Finns complain that their social welfare system is being done away with at speed, with nothing left for future generations. Clearly, this is something of an exaggeration, as the bureaucracy of the social welfare system is too large to be done away with overnight, and it is politically expedient to keep parts of it. And yet there is real concern nowadays that the trend is towards dismantling the social welfare society, and the equality of opportunity that goes with it.

At the same time, there is also much concern in Finland with inequality that has grown up despite the several decades of a well-funded welfare state. Debates rage now and again about sexism (against both men and women), racism, extremism and the persistency of a distant elite. From a non-Nordic perspective, the thinking goes that many of these problems should have been solved by now thanks to the nature and size of the welfare state itself. I think that they persist because the social structures of Finland, and possibly other Nordic countries, make some problems harder to solve than elsewhere.

Finland is probably not in some respects, then, a fairer society than Ireland. Despite ironing away excessive material differences through income transfers, Finland, and the other Nordic countries, are home to nasty extremist, often racist, movements. Often, it is citizens of the Nordic countries themselves that can be the victims of this extremism. I think it says a lot about a society that such a danger to equality of treatment flourishes even given long-term work to narrow inequality of opportunity. It speaks to social structures that for a long time have been unchanged by mass population influxes, supported as they have been by welfare states that have built some version of a “national home” (folkhem in Swedish).

Ireland has arguably been more successful in providing equality of opportunity for minorities, but not necessarily for its own minorities; rather, the rapid economic changes and mass immigration Ireland underwent in the past two decades meant that society adapted rapidly to newcomers from many countries. Some have undoubtedly found a fairer reception from the Irish than others. It helps that Ireland is an English-speaking country. But even without a welfare state at the level of the Nordic countries’ ones, Ireland has still managed to take in large numbers of immigrants and not have Neo-Nazis marching on its streets, unlike Finland and Sweden.

The areas of gender and sexuality, though, are ones in which the Nordic countries have worked legislatively and in other ways to ensure greater fairness of treatment. The results are clear: 43% of Finland’s MPs are women, compared to 22% of the deputies in Ireland’s lower house.

The Nordic countries do not have a magic recipe for the broad equality, both of opportunity and treatment, that its citizens enjoy. In many ways, the well-functioning, generally equal societies in this part of the world are the results of historical circumstances such as the Lutheran faith, small, homogenous populations as they are from conscious decisions such as high taxes and shrewd investment of earnings from industry and natural resources. I tend towards concluding that life is fairer here, but with some caveats: the new arrival here needs to put in a lot of work to feel a part of society and treated “fairly”. Whether that in itself is fair is an open question.