Are equality and fairness feasible? A view from Denmark

English: (Green) Denmark. (Light-green) The Eu...

English: (Green) Denmark. (Light-green) The European Union (EU). (Grey) Europe. (Light-grey) The surrounding region. See also: Category:SVG locator maps of countries of Europe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Lisbeth Lyngs

Lane Kenworthy poses the question “Is equality feasible?” in his text on income equality, and then continues to answer this himself in the first sentence: yes. A high rate of income equality is feasible, as he mentions is the case in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The Scandinavian model, where the people get many societal benefits in return for paying high taxes is, according to Kenworthy, indirectly connected to the countries’ low income inequality and “fairness” of the system. As a Dane myself I find this view interesting, and I would like to give my input on the Danish welfare model’s good and bad points and further discuss the “fairness” of this system.

Every child, regardless of where they live or what their parents’ occupation and income is, starts off on equal social ground. Free daycare institutions, public schools and education allow them equal possibility to utilize their abilities—not to worry about getting sick either, since universal health care is also free. Parents get payed child benefits from the state until the child is 18 years old, whereafter every Dane over the age of 18 is entitled to a public support for his or her further education—and should they suddenly be without work, they will receive social security benefits regardless of their position.

All this is only made possible by our taxing fee, which is one of the world’s highest. It is nearly 40% for the average wage receiver, and over 50% for the high wage receiver. In other words, the richer you are, the more you also pay in taxes.

Now, I do not think many Danes would argue that this is not “fair”—they give as much as they take from society. Still, problems arise, e.g. when immigrants gets incorporated in this system. Denmark has a lot of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Eastern Europeans tend to cross the border to find temporary work, while the majority of people from the Middle East come to Denmark in the hopes of finding better life conditions for themselves and stay. And as with the Danes, these people are entitled to receive the social benefits too, after having either worked or lived in Denmark for a certain amount of time.

It is then, that the “fairness” of this system suddenly gets put into question because admittedly, a lot of Danes do not like immigrants “leaching” off of their money in this particular manner. The Polish worker, who has a wife and two kids back in Poland, comes to Denmark to work and thus entitles himself to receive child benefits—which he sends straight home to his family, meaning his Danish colleagues are suddenly paying for people outside their country and society. Meanwhile the Middle Eastern families may experience tough times without work, receive money from the state, and thus further revoke the Danes’ question as to what is a fair handling of their money.

This has been an issue in Danish politics for as long as I can remember. More so since the economic crisis broke out, and Denmark’s economy dropped low and the unemployment rate went up, putting even more pressure on the welfare system’s dependency on people receiving wages and paying tax. The system may be good in creating equality and high social security for its people, but I would argue that just as it has its strength in the people, it also has its weakness. It promises to secure the people in its society, but if too many lose their jobs due to e.g. labor cuts, or their will to pay tax becomes poisoned by the “unfairness”, then where does that lead us?

Lane Kenworthy says equality is feasible, and if the Scandinavian model is proof of this, then yes. But even so, this equal society faces its hardships, relying heavily on the people to support it. Immigrants and a higher rate of unemployed people may put pressure on this system by raising questions of what is “fair” and “just”. An equal society may be feasible, but even then its questionable whether it is “just” and what then makes a society “fair”.

Reference

Kenworthy, Lane. 2007. “Is Equality Feasible?” Contexts 6(3):28-32.

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