Thursday, May 30, 2013

Final Thoughts on the Danish Experience

After finally settling in back at St. Lawrence for summer research in economics, I've had time to reflect on my experience in Copenhagen in relation to human flourishing. Overall, the trip abroad challenged my previous intellectual dispositions and really showed me how people live in a culture with a different mindset and attitude toward everything they do.

One of my main interests in this trip was what the ramifications of the Danish welfare state and health care system on human flourishing there. A cursory analysis at the system shows that there are clear benefits to such a system - one's health care is largely paid for, there are no hanging burdens of debt after a college education, and the expenses for child care are heavily subsidized. However, the economist in me also emphasizes that while these are seen benefits, there are unseen costs to these state activities. As the economist Milton Friedman famously said, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The 25% Value Added Tax, 40%-50% income tax, and 180% tax on motor vehicles are just some of the examples of how the Danish government funds the welfare state.

The interesting difference between the United States and Denmark is not as much the welfare policies but more how people react to it. People living in Denmark are generally fine with paying higher taxes in exchange for state services in a way that people in the US are generally avoidant of. We therefore run into an interesting problem of correlation and causation - are the welfare policies of Denmark creating a sense of community that makes them okay with the taxes, or does the homogenous nature of the small European country explain why they are more tolerant of state interference? The answer is probably a bit of both. Either way, my general conclusion after experiencing the country first-hand is that the happiness exuded in Denmark is more a cause of the welfare policies than an effect of them.

The flourishing we saw in Denmark was a more stoic form of happiness that we generally don't think of when we think of the American 'pursuit of happiness'. Instead of attempting to find joy in material success or achievement, Danes find happiness in family, as represented in their period of hygge, or coziness. We saw this very well when the city closed down around us by 4:00pm, when everyone goes to their homes to spend time with family. As a result of this way of looking at happiness, Danes aren't as upset when things don't go their way, and can bounce back much easier than the American conception of happiness would afford us. Personally, this type of happiness really resonated with me and is something I'd like to strive for as a move forward in my life. To be fair, there can be drawbacks to this way of looking at happiness - it can be stifling and possibly unfulfilling to never have high expectations and experience the high highs and low lows brought about by them. If anything, the trip told me that trade-offs abound in different visions of happiness, and it takes a plurality of views to have a robust idea of what happiness actually entails.

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