Norway’s many lessons

“Equal pay now! Equal pay now!” The chant echoed up to my hotel window in Oslo, as strikers and their supporters marched past the Norwegian parliament. How could this be? Are there strikes even in paradise?

By most comparative measures, Norway is something close to a paradise on Earth. It is one of the world’s richest countries.

It is also one of the most equal. It has a welfare state that is the envy of social democrats everywhere. Mothers get 10 months’ maternity leave with full pay. Last year, the country led the world in the United Nations’ well-respected “human development index,” which combines measures of life expectancy, literacy and standard of living. Norway is free, rich, peaceful, safe, healthy and, so far as anyone can measure these things, happy. Oh yes, and in these times of fiscal hardship, it has a budget surplus of more than 9%. And it gives more than 1% of its gross national income in overseas aid; so it’s virtuous too.

No wonder all sorts of people cite it as proof of all sorts of things.

British Conservative Eurosceptics like Daniel Hannan and the newly elected, aptly named, member of Parliament Mark Reckless hold it up as an example of how well Britain could do if it left the European Union. How wise the Norwegians were to vote no to EU membership, in 1972 and again in 1994. If only we had voted no, we too might be as rich, safe, healthy and happy as they.

For Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, by contrast, Norway is an example of the benign effects of equality. In their influential book, “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better,” they cite Norway several times, along with other Scandinavian countries, to illustrate the many good things that come with greater equality: welfare provision, fewer teenage pregnancies, high levels of literacy and social trust.

“Humbug!” cry others. The key to all this is simply oil. The whole egalitarian social democratic model is actually sustained by Norway’s vast exports of oil and gas, the revenues from which it has been stashing away into what is now the world’s second-largest sovereign wealth fund, with a value of about $440 billion. If the fund goes on growing as it has been, it will even — uniquely in Europe — almost cover the future pension obligations for an aging population. So, according to these hard-nosed hydrocarbonists, the only way you can continue to enjoy such an old-fashioned statist model of social democracy is to “drill, baby, drill.”

Norwegian happiness is, to so speak, paid for by global warming.

Or then again, perhaps the key to Norway’s success is just being, well, Norwegian. Maybe it is their unique traditions of sturdy self-reliance, hard work and community pulling together, celebrated in history and legend, with imaginative reference back to the Vikings. After all, the country was doing quite well with its exports of fish, timber and manufactured goods, and its shipping industry, even before it struck oil in the 1960s.

I know far too little about Norway to judge what is true or false in any of these versions — and what is missing from all of them. But Norway is a good illustration of the danger of drawing too-simple lessons from the experience of other countries, or of projecting onto them lessons you want to draw for your own. Often you end up falling into the fallacy of confusing correlation with cause.

Some years ago, people argued for a big expansion of the number of students in higher education in Britain. They pointed to Germany: It had more students in higher education; it was doing well economically. But the number of students in higher education had little to do with Germany’s economic success. The spread of the Massenuni, the mass university, did, however, have quite a lot to do with its universities’ slide down the international scales, and actually impelled some of its brightest students to study in Britain. What Britain should have emulated was Germany’s historic focus on high standards of technical education, at all levels. The point is not that you can’t learn from other countries’ experience. The point is to learn the right lessons and how they fit into your own national mix.

While I was thinking about these traps of translation or imitation, another demonstration pulled up under my Oslo hotel window. It was much smaller and messier, without the union stewards. Its chant was “Boycott Israel, Free Palestina!” The night before, Israel had attacked the aid flotilla to Gaza.

So even distant, fortunate Norway is not entirely immune from the shockwaves of world politics. It has struggled, like most European countries, to integrate its growing population of Muslims. It depends on European markets to take its exports. Its massive national pension fund depends on the performance of global stock markets.

If things go really pear-shaped in the rest of Europe, Norway may yet face a reverse wave of modern Vikings coming to look for work and welfare on its happier northern shores. I’m told EU citizens can come and live here for up to three months while job-hunting.

Tempted, anyone?

Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University.