Thinking Christianly About the Denmark Model of Economics

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Well, it happened again in my Facebook feed. Yet another set of posts and counter-posts about Denmark. Some of my Facebook friends had linked a positive article about the economic system in Denmark. And then other Facebook friends had linked a negative article about the Danish system, which was an attempted rebuttal of the first article. And then the debate ensued. (With phrases like “socialism isn’t the answer,” “higher taxes aren’t what we need,” and “it wouldn’t work in America” getting thrown around a lot—as I’m sure you could guess.)

It was the first Bernie Sanders – Hillary Clinton debate that started all this furor. That was the one in which Bernie mentioned that we might look to economic and governmental models in Denmark for certain insights. And then Hillary helpfully advanced the discussion with the penetrating insight that “We are not Denmark.” And that’s as far as the discussion went.

The discussion about Denmark is of particular interest to me because I’ve had extended visits there on four occasions. In fact, I’m currently there right now—my daughter is attending a Danish ballet school for 5 weeks. Over the years, I’ve had the chance to observe quite a bit about Danish life. And I’ve talked with quite a few Americans and Brits who have made Denmark their home.

I don’t want to get into debates about the Danish (and wider Scandinavian) models of governmental services and safety nets. I would just want to say that there are some strikingly positive aspects to this model, as far as I can see. I don’t know how anyone could deny this, other than for purely ideological reasons which are insensitive to facts. There’s no doubt in my mind that the United States could take cues from certain tried and tested Danish programs that have clearly worked well. (Just as Denmark could still take certain cues from the Great American Experiment.)

But I don’t want to get bogged down with any detailed debate about economics or politics. If you disagree with the previous paragraph, then so be it. What I do want to insist on is that we should all agree to ask the question: How should we think Christianly about the Danish model (or about any economic or governmental model)?

Let me offer two considerations that I think should surely be front and center in any distinctly Christian evaluation about the work which an economic system is doing.

First, a fundamental Christian theme is that our relationships with one another are to mirror the relationships that exist among Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These are relationships of loving interdependence. I hear Christians talk quite often about the need for our relationships to be loving—and rightly so. However, let’s not forget that the model of the Trinity is also one of interdependence, or mutual dependence.

I think the Danish model tends toward people seeing themselves as mutually dependent on one another. At least, that’s the sense I’ve gotten from my times staying there. Yes, there’s sometimes the exasperated laughter that accompanies a Dane telling me about the 150% tax on car purchases (which makes leasing often the preferred option). But it’s quickly followed by an explanation of where this tax money goes. And I find that a Dane who talks about the taxes he or she is having to pay will also be quick to acknowledge the times when he or she has needed to lean on some government service, which was of course paid for by someone else’s taxes.

In short, I get the sense when I’m in Denmark that there is more of a sentiment that, economically, “we’re all in this together.” Certainly I don’t want to push this point too far. Self-interest, and sometime selfishness is alive and well in Denmark, as in every other country on earth. Still, at least from my own encounters with people, I do think that the Danish model has contributed to people feeling more connected to, and mutually dependent upon, one another.

I have a colleague who is educated in statistical analysis and who fond of saying, “Multiple anecdotes still ain’t data!” He’s absolutely right. And admittedly I’m just relaying my own anecdotal experiences. Nevertheless, I think a critical piece of a Christian evaluation of economic models must be this theme of whether people are led to a sense of interdependence in their relationships with one another.

A second evaluative theme for Christians must surely be the extent to which an economic model allows people on the margins to participate within the society in healthy ways. A strong theme throughout the biblical narrative is that those who are marginalized by the world are to have places of value within the community God is establishing. Everyone is divinely called to contribute to this community with a sense of enduring dignity.

Admittedly, statistics seem to show that the Danish middle class has been shrinking a bit in the past 5-10 years and that poverty has grown a bit. Nevertheless, by most any standard the Danish middle class is still far stronger than it is in the U.S.; and the safety nets for the poor are far more substantial.

Returning to my own anecdotal experiences, one of the things I immediately noticed in Denmark is the dignity with which people seem to work who are in ‘middle-to-lower end’ jobs. I’m thinking of young people working as convenient store clerks, middle aged people constructing downtown walking paths, older aged people working at department store counters. There seems to be more ‘job satisfaction’, or perhaps a confidence that “I’m doing worthwhile work.”

I don’t want to overstate this point, as if Danish people magically see and feel no differences arising from socio-economic status. Still, in comparison to my experiences in America, there seems to be not as much stigma about being in a perceived ‘lesser’ job, not as much awkwardness in social interactions among those in different financial situations. I know such things are hard to measure with any kind of hard data, but these differences do seem pretty obvious to me every time time I visit Denmark.

So I’ve offered two considerations, which I think are distinctly Christian, for evaluating the Danish (or any other) economic model. No doubt there are other important, and distinctly Christian, considerations. This blog post is not intended as an end to the discussion, but rather a beginning. But I do think it’s important for Christians—including pastors leading congregations!—when we’re weighing in on economic models to think about what a distinctly Christian evaluation of these models should consist in.

Kevin Kinghorn serves as editor of the Faith and Work Collective blog. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. His undergraduate work (Emory) was in economics and political science. His graduate work (Asbury; Yale; Oxford) and current teaching has focused on topics within philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He lives in Mt. Sterling, KY, where he and his wife Barbara work toward community transformation, providing music and art opportunities for children.