Authored by Eben Macdonald via The Mises Institute,
The Nordic countries draw attention from democratic socialists in America thanks to their high tax rates, strong welfare states, and supposedly tight regulation of enterprise.
The final indicator, however, is not exactly true: every single Nordic country except Finland ranks in the top ten on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, and they maintain high positions on the Tax Competitiveness Index. But if Progressives argue that Scandinavia is indeed a socialist region, then they must admit that the following countries are just as, and if not, more socialistic: Italy, France, and Greece. None of these three countries are ones which they refer to in order to demonstrate the benefits of their economic agenda. In fact, thanks to their low living standards, high rates of unemployment, and stagnant incomes, extreme illiberal, ultranationalist right-wing movements have thrived in every single one of these countries.
Let’s examine each one.
Tax take is 42 percent of Italy’s GDP, higher than both Finland and Norway, and substantially greater than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. Social expenditure is 28 percent, practically identical to Nordic levels. The country ranks a hopeless fifty-eighth on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, far lower than every single nation in Scandinavia. Furthermore, Italy has the least competitive tax system in the OECD, according to the Tax Foundation. Italy’s taxes and welfare spending are of Nordic style, and businesses are far more regulated. If the Nordic countries are socialist, so is Italy.
Yet is Italy considered to be more prosperous than the United States, or a poster child for a successful socialist system? Far from it. Pew Research Center gives us the following statistics: were Italy to become a part of the US, and thus adhere to US income metrics, 53 percent of Italians would inhabit the “low-income category,” as opposed to the American rate of 26 percent; and since 1990, Italy’s median household disposable income has declined by one-fifth.
Pew Research Center aside, OECD data show that Italy’s standard of living is substantially below America’s. The US ranks tenth on their Better Life Index—Italy ranks twenty-fourth. And data from The Economist magazine which attempt to apply the Better Life Index within countries by socioeconomic category find that someone in the top 10 percent of the Italian income spectrum has a standard of living no higher than someone in the bottom 10 percent of the US income spectrum. Moreover, in 2019, before the pandemic, their unemployment rate stood at 10 percent. Clearly, economic recovery from the 2008 crisis has not been easy.
Tax take is 45 percent of the French economy, the second highest in the OECD, just below Denmark. Social expenditure is 31 percent, higher than every single Nordic country, and the highest in the OECD. The country ranks thirty-second place both on the Ease of Doing Business Index and on the Tax Competitiveness Index. If the Nordic countries are socialist, France is even more so.
But does one often hear progressives lauding the welfarism and bureaucracy of the French system? Not at all. By US standards, a third of French people live in the low-income category, not as high as Italy, but still higher than the US average. Unemployment in France has fluctuated wildly over the years—perhaps a sign of fiscal instability. It reached a rate of 12 percent in the 1990s, but had declined to 7 percent by 2008, just as the global economy was collapsing. Having risen to 10 percent in 2015, it declined to 8 percent in 2019 — lower than in Italy, but still shockingly high.
How does France fare on the Better Life Index? Not well. Ranking eighteenth place, it performs better than Italy, but nevertheless substantially below the United States. The Economist’s statistics reinforce this, pointing out that a Frenchman in the top 10 percent of their country’s socioeconomic pyramid is not particularly better off than someone in the bottom 10 percent of America’s.
Greece draws special attention for a particular reason. It demonstrates the danger which excessive debt and spending can pose to the overall economy. As other countries in Europe and North America clambered out of recession, the Greek economy continued to deteriorate. Between 2008 and 2013, the unemployment rate rose from 7 percent to 27 percent. Since then, it has declined to 15 percent, but the point is that Greek workers have suffered far too much thanks to fiscal recklessness: in 2008, Greek’s deficit was 10 percent of its GDP, so bondholders were not willing to lend any more money to the government for them to fund large stimulus packages. Thus, the Greek economy was drained of capital and had a prolonged depression. Its fiscal infrastructure collapsed even further: debt was 100 percent of GDP in 2008; in 2011, it was 172 percent. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, another country burdened by a high deficit, chose to cut spending, which, while unpopular, has enabled the economy to recover and avoid a debt-ridden catastrophe.
That aside, the Greek economy is undoubtedly overregulated and overtaxed, while welfare spending is indeed very high: social expenditure is 24 percent of GDP, similar to most Nordic countries; tax take is 38.7 percent of GDP, which, while the lowest rate among the countries examined here and lower than the other Nordic countries, is still significantly higher than the OECD average. On the Ease of Doing Business Index, however, Greece ranks by far the lowest of these three countries, in seventy-ninth place; it seems there is more red tape in Greece than in Vietnam, a formerly Communist country. But at least they rank twenty-ninth on the Tax Competitiveness Index, higher than the two other countries examined.
Unfortunately, the Pew Research Center has not focused on Greece much — nor has The Economist. However, other institutions have. As always, on the Better Life Index, Greece ranks thirty-sixth, out of forty countries. Greece’s median household disposable income is a paltry $17,700 a year, far below America’s $45,000.
Essentially, progressive politicians and economists are guilty of cherry-picking countries:while wanting to emulate the Nordic countries, which they claim to be socialist — the same countries which are just as easy to conduct business in as the United States — they ignore these three countries, Italy, France and Greece, which are, by most metrics, more socialist than the Nordics.
Because their living standards are incomparable with the United States’s and, in some cases, akin to the Third World, they are rarely used as examples of socialist triumph.