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Ayn Rand or Anu Partanen: Who Should We Follow?

Opinion – Longboat Observer, January 21, 2021


At the close of each year, Observer Media Group’s Editor and CEO, Matt Walsh, shares with his readers the single word or phrase he finds most important for the year ahead. Walsh has chosen ANTHEM which is the title of Ayn Rand’s 1937 novel as our North Star for 2021.

He writes: “That word symbolizes what has been and what is occurring in the U.S., and it stands as a word of warning, especially to those who truly cherish the idea of liberty and who reject the idea of being subservient to the state and those who wield its power.” He highlights this particular Ayn Rand quote:

“America’s abundance was not created by public sacrifices to ‘the common good’ but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes.”

As a retired entrepreneur I have tremendous admiration for Walsh’s hard- earned business success. However, I could not disagree more with his choice of the word Anthem to guide us in 2021. As the data points below suggest, our country post Covid will continue to face complex problems that must be thoughtfully addressed. Living in the past will not make the quality of life of all American citizens better. Here is the reality as we, a deeply divided country, begin 2021:

  • The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs report says 43% of businesses surveyed plan to reduce their work force due to technology integration by 2025.
  • In 2017 78% of full time U.S. workers reported living pay-check to pay-check.
  • In 2020 44 million Americans had student loan debt with the country’s total student loan debt exceeding $1.7 trillion and an average per student of $38,000.
  • Today the average net worth of Black households at $17,800 is ten times less than the average White household.

As a country we need to dig deeper and open our minds to new approaches. Contrary to Mr. Walsh’s view I suggest we need far more focus on the common good not less.

Rather than Anthem, a better North Star to guide America in 2021 and beyond is the phrase ADOPT AND ADAPT. I came to this through reading Anu Partanen’s book “The Nordic Theory of Everything, In Search of a Better Life”- and it should be required reading for influential thought leaders like Mr. Walsh.

Partanen, raised in Finland, fell in love with an American, came to the her mid-thirties, and became a citizen in 2013. Her biggest surprise was discovering the high anxiety levels of so many of her American female friends. Their concerns centered around paying off student loans or losing their health insurance coverage or caring for aging parents. This was foreign to Partanen because the government in Scandinavian countries assumes primary responsibility for funding health care, education through college, and elder care.

When Democrats like me dare to suggest the U.S. would do well to consider adapting some policies of the Scandinavian countries the reflex response from Republicans is that these are all socialist countries. The fact is they are not socialist countries but are social democracies and are among the most entrepreneurial and business friendly countries in the world.

Partanen argues, rather than being “Nanny Socialist countries” where the government limits one’s freedom precisely the opposite is true. The social contract is clear. Everyone knows what they have a right to expect from their government and what they and their fellow citizens owe the government and each other. Because of this, Scandinavian citizens are far freer than Americans and are more productive, more knowledgeable, and healthier citizens.

“For the citizens of Nordic countries” Partanen says, “the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community… this might strike you as downright all-American thinking. A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens, like it or not, puts you in a position of being subservient and unequal.”

It is not an accident that the Scandinavian countries are among the top five countries in the world on the UN’s global happiness study and the annual Social Progress Index (SPI) assessment. When comparing 2013 and 2020 studies of 163 countries, the only ones where its citizens reported feeling worse off were Brazil, Hungary, and the United States.

For me the most memorable, relevant, and timely quote from Partanen’s book is this:

“Seen from a Nordic perspective, the U.S. is stuck in a conflict, but it’s not the conflict between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s not the old debate about bigger government versus smaller government. It’s the conflict between the past and the future.”