Saturday, August 18, 2012

On Copenhagen

- If I had to give it a shorthand description, it would be ‘halfway between Helsinki and Amsterdam’. This holds on a number of dimensions besides geography. In terms of visuals, the canals and bicycles are reminiscent of Amsterdam, but the architecture looks somewhat more Nordic in a way that I can’t quite describe. The people seem to have a reserved aspect to their character, although not quite with the same seriousness that seems to mark the Finns (I gather that having a historically hostile Russia on your doorstep might tend to concentrate the mind somewhat in this aspect, reminding one that one’s freedoms are hard-won and precarious). The Danes don’t quite rise to the level of the Dutch that I’ve met in terms of geniality, but they’re definitely friendly. The look of people is probably closer to the Finns, in the Nordic way of blonde hair and (it took me a while to figure out this as a defining trait) slightly narrow eyes that look as if they might squinting somewhat. That's not meant to sound condescending, but it's the only thing I can think of as to why blonde Danish people don't look like blonde Americans. Which they don't.

-If socialism looks like Copenhagen, I can understand why liberals come to Northern Europe and think that it’s a model of how society should be organised. This, of course, raises two immediate concerns.

Firstly, the tourist gets the visually appealing aspects of socialism without most of the costs. Bicycle lanes everywhere and few cars make things convenient when you want to tonk around the city centre, but probably less so when you’re trying to buy a large house 30km from your job. And it’s easy to admire the pretty visuals and afford the high prices when you’re arriving with an income that’s been determined by a tax rate that doesn't have to pay for any of these things. You’ve arrived at the restaurant to eat a delicious meal, and half the cost has been subsidized by someone else – what’s not to love?

Secondly, socialism seems to empirically produce better outcomes in areas that are fairly culturally and ethnically homogenous. This wouldn’t surprise Robert Putnam, who wrote a whole book (with a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ flavour) about how diversity reduces trust. Without which, subsidising a bunch of strangers and relying on them to not shirk becomes a lot more problematic. In other words, if socialism were tried in earnest in the US, do you think the effects would be closer to the cheerful equality of Nordic countries or the disastrous effects of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs? Would we, in other words, end up with something that looked like Copenhagen, or something that looked Detroit or the London Riots? I know which way I’m betting.

-All this is to say that the place itself is visually stunning, and presents a very pleasant aspect that causes an open-minded conservative to perhaps question the certainty of his assumptions about the world. If Scandinavia is the consequence of increasing progressive policies, this may be less desirable than what America has (arguable, of course), but it’s certainly not the nightmare one lies awake at night fretting about.

Then again, I'd probably also like the place even more if it weren't socialist - it's just a lovely part of the world.

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