The Nordic Model – resilient and relevant

If little poverty, social equality, high trust, reform capability, and political stability are major societal goals, the world may benefit from looking to the Nordic countries.

By Stein Kuhnle*

The so-called Nordic Model has been declared dead a number of times. The British weekly magazine, The Economist, has been among the more persistent messengers to this effect and stated in December 2006:

“It is widely thought that the Nordic countries have found some magic way of combining high taxes and lavish welfare systems with fast growth and low unemployment…Yet, the belief in a special Nordic model, or “third way”, will crumble further in 2007”.

But already in February 2013, the same magazine sang a new tune, with a picture of a Viking on the cover and the title: “The next supermodel. Why the world should look at the Nordic countries”.

Why this new enthusiasm? The reason was that the Nordic countries had successfully steered their way through the global financial crisis, which started in 2007-08, and came socially and economically relatively unscathed through the ordeal. And why was that? My view is that characteristics of the Nordic model, dimensions of welfare state institutions (state responsibility; universalism; egalitarianism) and democratic political systems (specific combination of formal and informal patterns of political participation, inclusion and decision-making) of the five Nordic countries, have made the Nordic countries better prepared for exposure to sudden, unexpected international events.

The Nordic model has developed gradually over a long period of time. Although the label came later, I would argue that the “model” was born in the 1930s when social democratic parties gained governmental power in alliances with agrarian and/or liberal parties in the three “genuine” Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Crucial compromises between agricultural- and industrial interests and between labour and capital, i.e. trade unions and employers’ associations were made. The pre-WWII decade became important for social policy reforms and for the embryonic model of governance, which matured after the war.

In 2011, “the Nordic way” was one of the major topics of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, and an aggregate meta-index of 16 different global indices (competitiveness, productivity, growth, quality of life, prosperity, equality, etc.) showed the four main Nordic countries at the top of the list. Serious challenges continuously have to be met, and no one can know the future, but “the Nordic model” has proved to be viable, resilient and robust. If little poverty, social equality, high trust, reform capability, and political stability are major societal goals, the Nordic experience is relevant to the world. The world may, in accordance with the newfound insight of The Economist referred to, benefit from looking at the Nordic countries.

* Stein Kuhnle is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen, Norway, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Social Policy, Hertie School of Governance, Berlin, Germany


This piece was first published in the June 2018 newsletter of CROP (Comparative Research Programme on Poverty, University of Bergen). It is a summary of a lecture on “The Nordic Welfare State, the Nordic Development model” in honour of Emeritus Professor Chris Tapscott, at the University of Western Cape, 27 February 2018. Over the last two years Kuhnle has also given lectures on aspects of the Nordic welfare model and comparative welfare state development in China, Japan, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, Germany, -… and Norway.

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