The collectivism of collectivism

Posted by – February 12, 2018

In a low tax society, the wealthy always have the option of casually bearing the modest burden of taxation and then mostly ignoring politics. If they don’t like the school system, they can build private schools. The same goes for health care, public transportation, libraries – most services that aren’t a natural monopoly. And even water and electric systems can be to some extent privately substituted. I’m thinking of some South American countries (though I’m not really well informed). Supposedly in South Africa whites rely on private security more than they do on the police.

In a high tax society, that becomes impossible (except for the very rich). The tax burden is just so high that very few people can afford private alternatives. In the Nordic countries total tax receipts are over 50% of GDP. We squeeze everyone who earns any money quite hard, and then everyone has to fight over the pot. We certainly don’t redistribute it all to lower income earners, we distribute it in a thousand little ways to various stages of life, industries, occupations, life situations, hobbies, societies. Everyone gets a piece. Sometimes it seems that not much goes on in Finland unless it can be somehow supported by public funds.

This has a unifying, society-building effect in two ways. First, people are more motivated to engage in politics, because that’s where the money is. Farmers, public sector employees, parents and pensioners are a few groups who might in another sort of society be not so engaged in politics, but in a high-tax society are both motivated and powerful political influences. Everyone is clamouring for a piece of the pie, but in some sense everyone is also “in it together”. Even people who are relatively wealthy. The stakes are so high that people really don’t want to see the money wasted. Some of it does get wasted, of course, but not before vigorous politicking and dealmaking on all sides.

(Though it is quite possible that a lot of people are only “in it together” for ethnocultural reasons, ie. nationalism, and the solidarity will eventually dissolve if the nation dissolves.)

Second, it leads to more shared experiences. Having fewer private systems means that the rich and poor have fairly similar lives. There is also a strong motivation to frame the results of politics as shared, treasured values. Finnish people commonly believe the heavily subsidised food grown in Finland to be especially “clean”, and public money is spent on advertising this. The default assumption in everything is that our systems are good, precious and embody us in some way. If something is wrong in Finnish schools, healthcare, or anything else, it is seen as an anomalous corruption, probably due to cuts to funding or some moral failure on someone’s part.

(We are not even the worst in this. Swedes can be unbelievably pompous in their belief that everything is done in the best possible way by their public systems and that their general consensus is correct. They’re probably often right, but this must lead to a tremendous societal myopia and some sort of karmic comeuppance in the future. We Nordics have a “nice” reputation, but in some ways we are the real “ugly Americans” in terms of intellectual arrogance.)

On an ideological level, I don’t really personally like this sort of collective setup, but I can’t deny that it is culturally deeply embedded here (and therefore shouldn’t be meddled with too much), and that it has something to do with social cohesion, which I do think is important.

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