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Federally mandated parental leave? Look to Norway?
By J.K. Baltzersen
On Wednesday January 10, President Donald Trump welcomed Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway at the White House.
Norway has the oldest written constitution still in effect outside the United States. The federal U.S. and three state constitutions of New England are older.
In Norway, we celebrated our constitutional bicentennial in 2014, and the profits from sales of commemorative coins from this bicentennial year were recently announced allocated as initial funding for a project at Constitution Hall (about 40 miles from the capital of Oslo, where our Constitution was written and signed) for exhibitions, seminars, publications, some research, etc. on the constitutional differences between the United States and Norway.
When Norway and Scandinavia are brought up in an American context, the Scandinavian “welfare state” model is what often the fuss is about. This is one of the key features where America and Norway differ. Nima Sanandaji has written the book Scandinavian Unexceptionalism, with a follow-up book Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism. One of Sanandaji’s interesting findings is that Americans with Scandinavian ancestors are more prosperous than Scandinavians in Scandinavia today. Something to think about when claims are made that America should copy the government ways of Scandinavia. Perhaps, just perhaps, there may be something in Scandinavian culture that makes Scandinavians thrive, and they thrive more when government is less involved.
Sweden seems to be the country most often mentioned when American liberals want more welfare benefits. Sweden, however, has rolled back its “welfare state” to some extent, arguably due to economic necessity. Norway is a different story. Norway lives the high life as an oil and gas exporting country with a population of only about five million to support with an extremely lucrative North Sea production, taxed with especially high rates for this sector. Norway has a sovereign wealth fund, administrated through a special division of its central bank. A Swede once exclaimed to me in person “Norway is a welfare state high on oil.” The Norwegian government has a balance sheet in its favor, but that is if you ignore all the unfunded liabilities.
Norway has a relatively “generous” “welfare state”. One of the benefits is an extensive parental leave, with ten weeks reserved the father (to be extended according to a recent coalition platform). Now, you have no duty to report what you do on your leave, but stories of families going off to Thailand and other warm places on their government-paid leave are not uncommon. Travel expenses are not covered, but the salary is compensated fully (up to about USD$70,000, but often the employer fills the gap). One would think people who can afford to go off on exotic vacations could fund their own time off with newborns, but not so in Norway.
This brings us to the issue of introducing parental leave in the United States. The argument often goes that the United States is the only country in the “industrialized” part of the world that does not have any form of government-mandated parental leave. Since “everyone else” has something of the kind, so must the United States. Or so the argument seems to go.
Here, we’re back to the constitutional differences between the United States and other countries. In particular, every single country that has the Nordic “welfare state” model is a unitary state, as opposed to a confederation or union of states.
Of course, if one values individual responsibility over collective, forced arrangements, this certainly is an issue between the employee and the employer; keep the government out of it. If we leave that aside, when considering yet another federally mandated benefit scheme, note that the federal government is not supposed to do everything. That is a major feature of a federal system, distinguishing it from unitary states, such as the Nordic countries. What have Americans come to, wanting all sorts of stuff from the government, even from the federal government?
The United States may be struggling with big government, particularly on a federal level. This is a problem; just look at the federal debt. The solution is not to include more in that big government, rather the opposite.
This is not a question of expedience but a question of liberty versus government involvement. Remember the quote attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler:
FDR may have said, “Look to Norway!” On the matter of “welfare state” issues, please don’t!
J.K. Baltzersen writes from the capital of the Oil Kingdom of Norway. He is the editor of the book Grunnlov og frihet: turtelduer eller erkefiender? (in Norwegian and Swedish; translated title: Constitution and Liberty: Lovebirds or Archenemies?), with Cato Institute’s Johan Norberg amongst the contributors. Follow him on Twitter.