|Why can't we be more like Finland?
By Robert G. Kaiser
The Washington Post
FINLAND IS A LEADING example of the northern European view that a successful,
competitive society should provide basic social services to all its citizens
at affordable prices or at no cost.
This isn't controversial in Finland; it's taken for granted. For a patriotic
American like me, the Finns present a difficult challenge: If we Americans are
so rich and so smart, why can't we treat our citizens as well as the Finns
Finns have one of the world's most-generous systems of state-funded
educational, medical and welfare services. They pay nothing for education at
any level, including medical school or law school. Their medical care, which
contributes to an infant-mortality rate that is half of what ours is and a
life-expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively little. (Finns devote 7
percent of gross domestic product to health care; we spend 15 percent.)
Finnish senior citizens are well cared for. Unemployment benefits are good and
last, in one form or another, indefinitely.
On the other hand, Finns live in smaller homes than Americans and consume a
lot less. They spend relatively little on national defense, though they still
have universal male conscription, and it is popular.
Their per capita national income is about 30 percent lower than ours. Private
consumption of goods and services represents about 52 percent of Finland's
economy, and 71 percent of the United States'. Finns pay considerably higher
taxes -- nearly half their income -- while Americans pay about 30 percent on
average to federal, state and local governments.
Should we be learning from Finland?
The question occurred to me repeatedly as I traveled around Finland this
summer. Americans could easily get used to the sense of well-being that Finns
get from their welfare state, which has effectively removed many of the
sources of anxiety that beset our society.
But the United States could not simply turn itself into another Finland. Too
much of Finnish reality depends on uniquely Finnish circumstances. Finland is
as big as two Missouris, but with just 5.2 million residents. It's ethnically
and religiously homogeneous. A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a
powerful sense of probity, dominates the society.
Homogeneity has led to consensus: Every significant Finnish political party
supports the welfare state and, broadly speaking, the high taxation that makes
it possible. And Finns have extraordinary confidence in their political class
and public officials. Corruption is extremely rare.
One fundamental Finnish value sounds a lot like an American principle -- "to
provide equal opportunities in life for everyone," as Pekka Himanen, 31, an
intellectual wunderkind in Helsinki, put it. Himanen, a product of Finnish
schools who got his Ph.D. in philosophy at 21, argues that Finland now does
this much better than the United States, where he lived for several years
while associated with the University of California, Berkeley.
Finns are enormously proud of their egalitarian tradition. Theirs is the only
country in Europe that has never had a king or a homegrown aristocracy.
Finland has no private schools or universities, no snooty clubs, no gated
communities or compounds where the rich can cut themselves off from everyday
I repeatedly saw signs of a class structure based on economics and educational
attainment, but was also impressed by the life stories of Finns I met in
prominent positions, or who had made a lot of money.
One of the richest Finns is Risto Siilasmaa, 39, founder and CEO of F-Secure,
an Internet-security firm that competes successfully with American giants
Symantec and McAfee. Siilasmaa, a teenage nerd turned self-made tycoon, is
worth several hundred million dollars. His wife, Kaisu, the mother of their
three children, has a decidedly un-tycoonish career: She teaches first and
second grades in an ordinary school.
Like every Finn I spoke to about money, Siilasmaa would not acknowledge any
interest in personal wealth. "I'm a competitive person, I like to win," he
said, "but I've had enough money since I was 15."
This too seems to be part of Finnish egalitarianism; most Finns don't boast or
conspicuously consume (except perhaps when they buy fancy cars). Finnish
authorities know how much everyone earns, and they prorate traffic fines
depending on the wealth of the mal-efactor. Last year the 27-year-old heir to
a local sausage fortune was fined 170,000 euros, about $204,000 at the time of
the fine, for driving at 50 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone in downtown
The Finnish educational system is the key to the country's successes and that,
too, is a manifestation of egalitarianism. Surprisingly, it is a new system,
created over the past generation by a collective act of will.
The individual most responsible for it was Erkki Aho, director general of the
National Board of Education from 1972 to 1992. Aho, now 68, was "a little bit
of a radical," he told me with a smile -- a Finnish Social Democrat who
believed in trying to make his country more fair.
For reformers, education was the principal arena. The traditional Finnish
system was conservative and divisive: Kids were selected for an academic track
at the end of fourth grade. Those not chosen had no chance at higher education.
Universities were relatively few, and mostly mediocre.
Aho and his colleagues thought schooling should be "comprehensive," keeping
all kids together in the same schools for nine years without tracking them by
ability. Only for "upper secondary," or high school, would academic students
be separated from those with vocational interests.
The key to reform, Aho and others believed, was teacher training. Teaching had
always been a high-status profession in Finland, but now it would become even
more prestigious. (Today, there are 10 applicants for every place in the
universities that train teachers.) Teachers would be required to complete
master's degrees, six years of preparation that combined education courses
with substantive work in subject areas.
"Of course I faced much criticism," Aho recalled. "Upper secondary-school
teachers were very skeptical. Many parents were critical. The cultural elite
said this would mean catastrophe for Finnish schools. The right thought the
comprehensive schools smacked of socialism."
But by the end of the 1980s, the new system was broadly popular. It was
strengthened by a reform of higher education that gave Finland numerous new,
high-quality universities. A grave economic recession in the early '90s was a
key test, Aho said. "It was wonderful to see how strong the consensus was,"
even in dire economic straits, he said.
By the '90s Finland had became a high-tech powerhouse, led by Nokia, now the
world's largest maker of cellphones. Finnish students have become the best in
the world, as measured by an international exam of 15-year-olds.
In the end I concluded that Finnish society could not serve as a blueprint for
the United States. National differences matter. Ours is a society driven by
money, blessed by huge private philanthropy, cursed by endemic corruption and
saddled with deep mistrust of government and other public institutions. Finns
have none of those attributes.
Nor do they tune in to American individualism. Groupthink seems to be fine
with most Finns; con-formity is the norm, risk-taking is avoided -- a problem
now, when entrepreneurs are so needed. I was bothered by a sense of
entitlement among many Finns, especially younger people.
Sirpa Jalkanen, a microbiologist and biotech entrepreneur affiliated with
Turku University in that ancient Finnish port city, told me she was
discouraged by "this new generation we have now who love entertainment, the
easy life." She said she wished the government would require every university
student to pay a "significant but affordable" part of the cost of their
education, "just so they'd appreciate it."
But if Finland can't be a blueprint for us, it can be an inspiration.
Education struck me as the area where Americans could most profit by learning
from Finland. Nothing achieved by Aho's reforms would be beyond the reach of
American schools if we really wanted them to become good.
Finns speak of the Finnish National Project, an effort involving much of the
country, and nearly all of its elites, to make the country more educated, more
agile and adaptive, more green, more fair and more competitive in a fast-
changing global economy.
Manuel Castells, the renowned Spanish sociologist who teaches at the
University of Southern California and has been writing about Finland for
nearly a decade, argues that Finland's ability to remake itself followed from
its success in creating a welfare state that made Finns feel secure. "If you
provide security and it is felt, then you can make reforms," he said in an
The complicated Finnish language includes the word talkoot, which means,
roughly, "doing work together." It's a powerful Finnish tradition, and
reflects a national sense that "we're all in the same boat," as numerous Finns
said to me. This idea has always appealed to Americans, but in this country it
has nearly always been an abstraction. Finns seem to make it real.
Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor of The Washington Post, recently
returned from a three-week trip to Finland.
Copyright (c) 2005 The Seattle Times Company