Norway: The two faces of extremism

Hugh Eakin writes: By almost any conventional measure, Norway is a blissful anomaly. According to the International Monetary Fund, the country’s GDP per capita is now more than $100,000—more than Qatar’s and second only to tiny Luxembourg’s; remarkably for an oil country, it also has low income inequality, thanks to a highly redistributive tax system. Norway is the most democratic country in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s measure of sixty different political criteria, and it outperforms any other nation on measures of gender equality. Along with Solberg, the current prime minister, many of the most important cabinet members are women, including the ministers of finance, defense, trade, environment, and social inclusion.

Nor does the country suffer from the urban malaise that plagues many of its neighbors. Its small population occupies one of the largest countries in Europe, and its uncrowded cities are known for their clean water and air. Despite vast oil resources, Norway gets 99 percent of its electricity from hydropower and produces so little waste that, along with Sweden, it has begun importing garbage from other countries to fuel its incinerators. Almost every child is educated through the public education system. Norwegian prisons are considered models of enlightened rehabilitation. And on measures of “social trust”—the degree to which people say they trust others and their governments—Norway routinely ranks first or second in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Since 2008, the tax returns of every citizen have been published in a searchable online database.

These remarkable achievements, however, belie a more complicated relationship to the outside world. With more than 100,000 kilometers of rugged coastline, Norwegians have a tradition of seafaring and exploration going back to the Viking age. Yet until oil was discovered in the second half of the twentieth century, the country was very poor, with the result that there was a long tradition of emigration, while few foreigners came in. Even now, while Norway relies on tens of thousands of migrant laborers from other European countries, including Poland and the Baltic states, it has long been careful about accepting non-Europeans, who are admitted largely on humanitarian grounds and whose numbers the current administration has strictly limited. Thus while the Norwegian government sends more humanitarian aid abroad per capita than any country, it takes in far fewer asylum seekers than neighboring Sweden; last summer, the government rejected 123 Syrian refugees because they were deemed too burdensome for the Norwegian health system. [Continue reading…]

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