There’s Something To The State Of Denmark

Date: 8 Aug 2003 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

There’s Something To The State Of Denmark

by David Morris

Originally published on, August 8, 2003

“We’re from the government and we’re here to help.” In the United States, such a statement elicits gales of laughter. Even in my home state of Minnesota, a state with a well-deserved liberal reputation, the belief that government is a problem, not a source of solutions, has become a common one.

So it was a shock to visit Denmark this summer. With a population about the same as Minnesota and an economy that is bigger and richer, Denmark has fashioned a society with a higher overall standard of living. And it has done so largely because of the way it makes collective decisions. Government works in Denmark.

Back in 1921, American reporter F. C. Howe observed, “Denmark is one of the few countries in the world that is using its political agencies in an intelligent, conscious way for the promotion of the economic well-being, the comfort and the cultural life of its people.”

That was then, but even now Denmark nurtures personal responsibility, not by making moral pronouncements, but by providing individuals the tools needed to make appropriate decisions.

For example, Danish schools incorporate comprehensive sex education. Teenagers have easy access to free or low-cost contraceptives. This respectful approach works. Danish teenagers engage in sex at a later age and with fewer partners. Teen pregnancies in Denmark are about half what they are in Minnesota, and there are far fewer abortions.

The Danish approach to crime and punishment is also based on respect. With a population about the same as Minnesota, Denmark imprisons half as many people, and the gap is widening as Minnesota’s prison population soars.

Unlike Minnesotans (and all incarcerated Americans), Danes do not give up their rights as citizens when they enter prisons. As prison warden Hans Jorgen Engbo says, “deprivation of liberty” is the punishment. “We don’t want to make it harsher here than it already is.” Two-thirds of Danish prisons are “open” facilities — there are few guards, no guns, no heavy fences and no bars. Prisoners receive about $50 per week for food, toiletries or anything else they choose to buy from the prison store.

In Minnesota, as in other states, there are proposals to limit prison meals to two a day and double the occupancy of already cramped cells.

Only 2 percent of Danes attend church, but they may have a better grasp on the essence of the biblical admonition to be our “brother’s keeper” than church-going America. Danish society understands that most of us will encounter severe hardships at some point in our lives and that we owe it to ourselves and each other to share the burden. Perhaps the counsel of 19th century Danish theologian and educator N.F.S. Grundtvig explains this: “Thus have we gone far in wealth when few have too much and fewer too little.”

Public benefits are sometimes means-tested but more often are universally available. This serves two purposes. Personal humiliation is not required to obtain assistance, and strong public support exists for maintaining programs even during difficult budgetary times.

Danes have virtually free health care. A Dane without a job receives twice as many benefits for twice as long as an unemployed Minnesotan. Danish mothers get 52 weeks of paid maternity leave, which can be transferred to husbands (possibly explaining the large number of men pushing baby carriages in Copenhagen). Every Danish household receives a monthly check for each child. Child care is widely available and inexpensive. Danes have six weeks of paid vacation a year.

High taxes make this all possible, and like many Americans, Danes grumble about taxes too. The Tax Foundation estimates that Americans work until April 9 to pay our taxes while Danes work until August 14 to pay theirs. But by diverting a considerable amount of money from private consumption to social consumption, Danes achieve the high level of personal security and comfort they enjoy — an excellent return on their public investments.

Minnesotans work more hours for ourselves, but Danes work far fewer hours overall — 45 days per year less than Minnesotans. The typical American works 44 days just to pay for private medical care, and still over 40 million of us lack health coverage.

Why have Danes made such starkly different choices about how to spend their personal and collective income? Some point to Denmark’s ethnic homogeneity. But it is actually less racially homogeneous than Minnesota.

Some might argue that Denmark is a nation while Minnesota is a state. But Minnesota actually boasts the larger economy and significantly higher income levels. And in any event, the emergence of the European Union has severely limited Denmark’s ability to act autonomously.

To me, the key difference is cultural. Denmark was once an imperial power like us. But between 1800 and 1850, as a result of a series of ruinous wars, it lost 85 percent of its land area. Meanwhile, American transportation improvements like the Erie Canal and the railroads devastated Denmark’s agricultural economy with a flood of cheap Midwestern grain.

Denmark realized it would have to learn to do more with less, and it put away its imperial dreams. In 1849, it took the first step by establishing a parliamentary democracy that brought citizens into the decision-making process. In 1866, the Danish Heath Society was born. Its slogan, “Outward loss, inward gain,” became a rallying cry and a guiding principle for public policy. The creation of a nationwide network of “folke schools” instilled a spirit of cooperation and taught Danes the skills needed to successfully compete in the new global economy.

Now more than a century later, Danish industry and agriculture have become models of efficiency and productivity. Their society has become a model of cooperation and mutual respect. And a key instrument used to achieve this welcome state has been thoughtful and purposeful government.

Are Minnesota and the United States listening?

David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance ( and author of Seeing the Light: Regaining Control of Our Electricity System.

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.