(This happened to me twice on Friday alone.) (Although that was my fault, because I had, in a Twitter exchange, pointed to Spain as a cautionary tale about what happens when the state gets too big.)
I wanted to follow up on those exchanges because although I don't have a problem with social services and safety nets per se (file under, 'things one would hope should go without saying') I do think that a big state is better under certain conditions than others.
Let's take Denmark as an example of the Nordic model, because Denmark has been in the news a bit lately. A few weeks ago, Suzanne Daley reported, in the New York Times, that although Denmark's high-tax, high-services model is "close to a religion here," and that even the conservative politicians there are reluctant to suggest changing it, the expert--such killjoys, those experts--say that they're going to have to be less generous in the future. Nancy Folbre, at the New York Times's Economix blog, offers a different perspective on how Denmark is doing:
Despite high marginal tax rates (or perhaps because of them) they are about as rich, on average, as Americans are. The World Bank estimates that gross domestic product per capita in Denmark for the 2008-12 period at $59,889, compared with $48,112 for the United States. Adjusted for differences in the cost of living, Danes’ G.D.P. per capita is slightly lower than ours.
The Danes spend far less on health care per capita than we do in the United States, yet achieve better health outcomes in many areas, including life expectancy. Their child poverty rates are far lower: About 6.5 percent of Danish children live in families with disposable incomes under 50 percent of the median, compared with 23.1 percent in the United States.
While the Danes debate--and for more on this, see the New York Times's Room for Debate section--let's just posit, for the sake of the discussion, that the Denmark model works pretty well.
That doesn't mean it would work well for the United States, because the United States is different from Denmark. And while some states may be more like Denmark than the country as a whole, others, including Texas, are reeeealllly different.
I was putting together a table summarizing some of the differences, but it was getting pretty messy with asterisks and side notes because a lot of the figures I wanted to include were gathered by different agencies, over different time frames, etc. So instead I made this diagram, which I will explain below:
Secondly, Denmark is more static than the United States. (I was going to say "consistent" instead of "static", because I thought static sounded pejorative; then I thought, do I only think that because I'm an American and we resist all tranquility?) Its fertility rate, as of 2013, was 1.73, meaning that the average Danish woman has 1.73 children; in the United States, the figure was 2.06. Its population growth, which is a function of the birth rate plus the immigration rate (minus the deaths and emigration numbers), is also lower than that of the United States.
So now let's look at immigration, because that's where the difference between the Danish model and the American model becomes apparent. In the United States, according to the Census bureau, 12.8% of the population is foreign-born. In Denmark, as you would guess, the figure is much lower: 10.1% of the people are immigrants or the recent descendants of immigrants.
"Immigrants or descendants"--that's the category given in Statistics Denmark.
In America, of course, that category isn't frequently used (although the Census does collect data on it, and most recently found that 33 million Americans--another 11% of the population--have at least one foreign-born parent). The occasional outbreak of birtherism notwithstanding, having a foreign-born parent is an interesting biographical aside, not a legal complication. That's not necessarily the case in Denmark, which has famously strict immigration laws (even compared to other states in Western Europe). This, then, points to the difference between the Danish model and the United States. It's not that America has more immigration than Denmark; it's that the American system is a more open one.
The Denmark model is, by contrast, a high-touch approach. If you're a single parent, as in the case Daley described, you get a lot of benefits; if you manage to migrate there, the state will provide a lot of supports. And it's not surprising that the people of Denmark would support the implicit social contract. The country is doing well; they are, for the most part, doing well, and if they weren't, 96% of them told the OECD pollsters that they know someone they could turn to in a time of need. In other words--and with apologies for being reductive about it--it's like they're living in Richard Scarry's Busytown: the country is half the size of Maine, with fewer than six million people, the vast majority of whom share a common ethnicity (Viking) and that character-building official language (Danish).
There's nothing wrong with that in itself, but it's radically different from the United States, which is big, sprawling, heterogeneous, pluralistic and, shall we say, debate-oriented. Under those conditions, a smaller state may be better for both political and pragmatic reasons. First, the smallish state seems to work as a pressure valve for the discontents of diversity--diversity of opinion and culture, to say nothing of race or religion, those old American fault lines. For the most part these debates are civil, but when they fall into us-vs-them narratives--as occasionally happens, even in Denmark--one thing that mitigates some tension is the fact that the stakes are logically smaller when the people being "othered" are perceived to be receiving less. I’ve said before (as have others) that this is one of the reasons Texas has been relatively temperate about unauthorized immigration; we don’t hardly have a safety net, so it’s not like anyone can be accused of taking ruthless advantage of it.
And then, setting aside the political psychology stuff, a country as big as the United States is bound to be more varied and more variable than a small, compact, centralized one is going to be. This is why, to me, it makes sense for us to have a (relatively) limited federal government, leaving the individual states to overlay the federal apparatus with systems and services according to the needs, abilities, and preferences of voters there. In other words, a state like Massachusetts (which is small, affluent, and educated, and has been that way, more or less stably and predictably, for a long time) might prefer a more "Scandinavian" model; a state like Texas, which is young, growing, mutable, and evolving, might reasonably prefer a lighter hand.
For more along these lines, see my op-ed from the Dallas Morning News last week. I would also recommend Jonathan Cohn's article from last year, "Blue States are from Scandinavia, Red States are from Guatemala", which I don't fully agree with but nonetheless found thought-provoking and enjoyable.