Thursday, July 06, 2006

What we could learn from socialism (July 06 News Advocate)

On my recent trip to Norway, I was introduced to what is referred to as “social democracy.” From what I can gather, this means paying higher taxes in exchange for a larger range of benefits from the government. Upon hearing this idea, many Americans get scared. No politician in our country attempts to win an election by touting the need for higher taxes. I admit, I don’t like going out of pocket any more than I have to as far as Uncle Sam is concerned, but I wonder if we might pause for a moment and examine the benefits of a political system designed solely for the welfare of its citizens.The first thing that people think of when socialism is mentioned is the concept of “socialized medicine.” U.S. politicians describe a system like this as one in which access to doctors is strictly controlled and there are long lines to receive treatment or medications. In my queries of several Norwegian citizens, this doesn’t seem to be the case. None of the folks I spoke to voiced these concerns, and one of the people I interviewed was a cancer survivor who says that she received excellent care -- with no delays -- and was very happy with the way in which her disease was treated. Persons who fall ill in Norway are guaranteed medical treatment. The health service is a cornerstone of the Norwegian welfare state. Universal access to quality public health care is the Norwegian authorities’ goal. As a basic principle, health services are distributed according to need – not according to ability to pay.All of the programs under control of the Norwegian government appear to a tourist such as myself to be well administered and orderly. The public transportation was excellent, the buildings and streets were clean and well maintained, and there were walking/running/biking paths everywhere. Norway’s citizens must use these paths too, as we didn’t see a single obese person while we were there. The inhabitants I met all seemed to be happy, healthy, and content. They should be; they are far less stressed than Americans. They generally end their work day between 3 and 4 o’clock, they don’t have to pay for a college education, and they are guaranteed health and welfare benefits.Residents of Norway have a right to economic assistance and other forms of community support during illness, old age or unemployment. About 35 percent of the state’s budget is spent on the Norwegian health and social welfare system. The retirement age in Norway is 67. For the rest of their lives, retired Norwegians receive an old age pension from the National Insurance Fund. All Norwegian residents are guaranteed a minimum pension, and they receive about half their previous salaries. When pregnant, women who have been employed for at least six of the last ten months are entitled to a maternity leave with full pay. The mother can choose between 42 weeks of leave with full pay or 52 weeks with 78 percent pay. Four weeks of the leave must be taken by the father (the paternity quota). Once the children arrive and the parents return to work, the government compensates them for a portion of the funds they use for daycare, and even rewards those who don’t choose to use daycare.I tried very hard to find a drawback to socialized democracy, and I could only find one area which was a bit trickier than in our own system. There apparently was a problem with alcoholism in Norway a while back, and as a result they have a zero tolerance policy in regards to drinking and driving. As a result, you cannot purchase beer after 8 p.m. on weekdays, 6 p.m. on Saturday, and no alcohol is sold on Sundays. We have states and counties like this in the U.S., so this isn’t an entirely alien idea, and quite honestly, is limiting drinking and/or driving ever a bad idea?So why does the idea of modern socialism really scare us so much? In Norway they have free elections, a political system with several parties, (to our two), and a free press. There are state television stations, but also several commercial stations. I heard American music on the radio, and they didn’t even edit out the bad words. There are newspapers which support the mainstream as well as radical views, and the state appears to let them go about their business without intervention.I’ll tell you why I think we get so scared of this “radically different” idea of government. First off, we don’t want to increase our taxes; but if we are receiving so much more in return, why not? That leads to our second fear -- bigger government. I don’t want to live in a world where big brother controls my every move, but didn’t we elect our politicians under the guise that they would create a government that would take care of the needs of its citizenry? While no system is perfect, and I’m sure Norway’s isn’t, it’s certainly possible to extract a few of their ideas for use under our own democratic system without substantially changing the level of freedom we as Americans demand. As we stand on the brink of a social security and health-care crisis in this country, I think it would behoove our governing bodies to think outside the box a little and examine systems in use around the world that seem to be working a little better than our own.Cean Burgeson can be reached at

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