On December 6th 2017, Finland celebrates her centennial as an independent nation. Exactly one hundred years ago, the Finnish Parliament finally voted for the motion to sever all ties to the revolutionary Russian government and assume the highest legislative power in the country. (As an aside, the motion for independence had been introduced on November 30th, but the speaker of the parliament did not want to extend the last parliamentary session before parliamentary break for 30 minutes the vote would’ve taken, instead letting the MPs go to their homes on schedule.)
The century has been a turbulent one, to say the least. Many Internet users know Finland mostly for her wars, and it is true that those six years of conflict had a profound effect on Finland. However, there have also been 72 years of uninterrupted peace, and it is high time Finland becomes known for our more recent achievements.
In celebration of our centennial, various lists of Finnish achievements have already circulated, and more will surely follow. However, today I’d like to tell you about why I believe many of those achievements were possible – why such a small country can punch well above its weight – and explain why I, a cosmopolitan citizen of Finland, wouldn’t want to live in any other country, with the possible exception of other Nordic countries. I will tell you about the reason I believe Finland, and Finnish citizens, have been able to achieve all those things, and why I genuinely believe that despite its faults, our society is among the best on the planet.
To summarise, the key reason I love Finland is because in this barren corner of the world, our forebears created a land of personal freedom for all. Consider this, for example: my granddad was born into a family too poor to afford a chimney or enough shoes for the whole family (!). However, had the war not intervened, he would’ve gotten free secondary education, and several of his children received free university education. One of his grandchildren, namely me, is soon the first of our family to obtain a PhD on top of a master’s degree in engineering. Thanks to regular, universal government stipends (“study money”) and subsidies for housing and lunches, this would have been possible without going into any debt at all. I did nevertheless take about 10 000 euros of cheap student loans during my master’s degree just because loans were so cheap. I’ve been able to repay them during my PhD studies and the debt is now down to about 1000 euros. (I feel sorry for you guys in the United States in particular – having your stipends classified as taxable income must hurt.)
This is freedom to become what you want to be, instead of what you can afford.
When I was finishing my M.Sc. degree in 2007, my financial situation wasn’t exactly stellar – I was a research assistant in the Helsinki University of Technology, supposed to work on my Master’s thesis – yet I was still free to grasp an opportunity of lifetime to become a founding partner of a product design company, a field that deeply interests me still. I knew starting a business would be a serious financial risk, and I did eat a lot of porridge during our first year of operations. But I also knew that if our business failed, I would at least receive some unemployment benefits and wouldn’t be thrown out to the street. And when I made some money, the Tax Administration would simply send me an annual pre-filled tax form where most of the deductions were made automatically. Filling out the tax report takes me some 15 minutes each year; I review the pre-filled form for obvious errors and simply copy-paste my expenses from a spreadsheet to a web form. Just as about one third of Finns, I don’t even mind paying more taxes than strictly necessary, because we all know that we will receive the extra back just in time for Christmas – with decent interest, even. Similarly, other interactions with the government tend to work on a principle that it’s the government’s responsibility to make sure you get what you are entitled to, not your responsibility to game the system. (Although I’m the first to admit that we still have a lot to improve in this regard – but I suspect many critics of the Finnish system don’t have much experience from bureaucracy in some other countries.)
This is freedom to do what you like to do, not what your background affords to you.
I don’t have to worry too much about where me and my wife should live, because there isn’t much difference in terms of e.g. schooling, crime, or public benefits: we can pretty much choose where we live based on what kind of environment we’d like to live in. I know the public health care system will take care of me if something happens, and I know that I don’t need to splurge on a car because public transport and bike lanes make commuting on a budget even more enjoyable than sitting in a car in traffic. I know I could stay in the office until late and be free to walk home without having to fear someone robbing me – or worse – because robbing people isn’t just very profitable compared to living on benefits. (That said, had I been a woman, I probably wouldn’t have been quite as unafraid – unfortunately!) I also know that while I could obtain firearms if I wanted to hunt, for example, it would be very unlikely that a mental case would be able to buy guns: such things have happened, but the loopholes have been plugged as a result.
This is freedom to be yourself, instead of being dependent on your personal networks in case something goes wrong; this is freedom from fear.
In my spare time, I can choose from a variety of public and private services. I can exercise in cheap but well-maintained public sports venues like swimming halls and gyms, or in expensive but fancy private wellness centres. About 500 meters from where I live is a well-stocked public library that these days provides all kinds of services beyond just books. They already have music instruments, art, and tools, and 3D printers may be coming soon – they’re already available in some localities. One of the things I love the most is simply being out there among the nature, and in that, Finland truly excels. From publicly available hiker’s huts in national parks to well-maintained trails, there is no shortage of services to help people enjoy the natural world; and for those who don’t like the beaten trails, our deeply enshrined “everyman’s rights” guarantee that as long as you are not causing any damage or camping directly in someone’s backyard, you have the freedom to roam anywhere, pick berries and mushrooms, and even fish almost wherever you like (provided you’ve paid a modest license whose profits are used to maintain fisheries). In fact, it is illegal for the landowner to put up fences or even signs that forbid trespassing, unless there is a valid reason for that.
These all are freedoms to do what you like.
Now you may be thinking that there are no such things as free lunches, and you would be right. We do pay taxes, and compared to some other countries, we pay a lot. However, Finland is not even the most heavily taxed nation on Earth, and for average Pekka or Maija, the actual tax rates are fairly comparable to other rich countries. In fact, if we calculate what an average American pays in taxes and other fees that are required to gain similar services and standard of living to what a Finn receives from taxes alone, we will find that many middle-class Finns actually pay less: when the municipalities buy goods and services, they can get a volume discount individuals cannot. Most importantly, most of us really don’t mind paying: the majority realises that we actually pay the taxes so that we ourselves can live in a society where most people are highly educated, the sick are taken care of, and even those who are less lucky don’t have to resort to crime. In short, we know taxes are the entry fee to a civilised society and its freedoms for all – and that theoretical freedoms for all would be diminished if people are unfree in practice.
Finland is certainly not an utopia and there are many, many things we need to do better: in fact, I don’t believe in utopias and think that there will always be something any society can improve. However, on this centennial I’d like to tell those people who may never have been to Finland that there is nothing magical about our society, and you too can have what we have if you want.
Do not believe for a moment those who’d like to ascribe the success of Nordic countries to some simplistic explanation, from small population to supposed homogeneity, that provide so very convenient excuses not to even think of the possibility that you too could have greater freedoms. First, our populations might be small, but any human population can be divided into similarly sized chunks, and many administrative divisions in larger countries are already about the same size. Second, the Nordics have never been that homogeneous: a little more than a hundred years ago, the Finnish tribes such as Savonians, Osthrobothnians, and Karelians (not to even mention the Sami peoples, who are even more distinct) were practically isolated from each other, could barely understand each other’s language, and had sometimes wildly differing attitudes and outlooks on life, even different religions. In Finland in particular, the class divide was enormous: before our country was one year old, we had fought a civil war with (then) record-setting brutality, with mass executions of civilians by machine guns, concentration camps, starvation and all the rest.
Just yesterday I heard that one of the wounds of that time had been healed as traditionally bourgeois and traditionally proletarian cooperative store chains (that split in 1917) had decided to merge together. So to anyone who claims we’ve been a homogenous nation: don’t make me laugh, when I was a kid we could still tell whose grandparents had fought on which side based on where they bought groceries and which bank’s savings book they carried – and to cross over to the “other people’s” store was simply not done. People only slightly older than my grandparents could go to their deaths without having spoken to their siblings since 1918, and as late as in the 1970s, those with “unreliable” family background could be discreetly excluded from certain positions. Just because right-wing pundits like to believe Finland has been harmoniously homogenous does not make it so.
What we did was not easy nor fast. The roots of our current society were laid in the 1920s as enough of the winners of the civil war realised they couldn’t turn the clock back to the class divide of 1800s without risking another rebellion, and consequently acquiesced to many of the original demands of the defeated Reds. Slowly, brick by brick, the foundations of a welfare state were laid down – sometimes in a process where two steps forward were followed by one step backward. However, progressive policies tended to prevail, often simply because they made so much sense. For example, even most conservatives realised eventually that the interests of the businesses would be served better if the educated talent pool was broader: by making education free and widely available, we did not squander our human resources the way many countries still insist on doing.
All this was made possible because of social democratic policies – or democratic socialism, if you will. I know socialism is a dirty word to many, but it’s hard to argue with success: all Nordic countries have followed broadly similar policies, and all of them regularly top all the charts that measure quality of life and well-being. At the same time, even our economies grow faster than those of the supposedly competitive dog-eat-dog countries.
But nothing in this was preordained, and nothing in history dictated that only the Nordic countries could make democratic socialism work. Had the Vietnam War been avoided, it’s entirely possible that president Lyndon B. Johnson would’ve found funds to enact legislation much to the same effect – at about the same time as Nordic countries made the transition towards social democracy. This was a wasted opportunity of enormous proportions, but everything is still possible.
After all, few countries today have to deal with the aftermath of a civil war that left one percent of the population dead and two percent imprisoned in concentration camps. (For scale: if the United States had a similar war, three million would be dead and six million would languish in the camps.) If we were able to create a society that maximises individual freedoms to the extent current Finnish society does, anyone can do it.
And that, I hope, is the message one can learn from Finland’s century.