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opportunity societyHaving spent a few weeks teaching here in Iceland, a few things are becoming clear. First, Icelanders are a friendly people who have managed to maintain a society with very little crime or violence, in which children are very safe and in which there is an extremely strong sense of community. Second, it is a society that values security over opportunity. That is, it is one where great effort is expended to make certain that people can get by (as, for example, with the many adults working part-time jobs). From what I have seen and been told, there is no great outcry at such underemployment in part because getting by is not considered such a terrible thing. Indeed, it seems more problematic, here, for people to be too focused on getting ahead.

And this is where I see the major social difference between social democratic Iceland and the until-recently free, market-oriented United States. Iceland is self-consciously a security society. In it there is great concern that people be “taken care of.” Until recent years in the U.S., on the other hand, there was much greater concern that people be given the opportunity to make the most of their lives, professionally, spiritually, and in more purely economic terms. We had an opportunity society, in which getting ahead was considered a worthy goal and in which standing on one’s own two feet was considered an important accomplishment for oneself, one’s family, and one’s local community.

As a very small (320,000) homogeneous and relatively prosperous nation, Iceland can “work” as a security society, particularly because the people themselves are deeply communal and committed to forms and levels of equality few Americans would have tolerated—again, until recent years. That said, as America is driven further and more quickly away from its former character as an opportunity society, it might be worth considering what an opportunity society is not. An indicator, here, may be found in the Icelandic attitude on tipping. It is all very European, of course. Other than in a few high-traffic tourist areas, where everyone appreciates the extra money those foolish Americans insist on throwing around, no one tips in Iceland. As a result, of course, service is not fast. Then again, the Icelanders do not mind this, and there is something to be said for their attitude. No one bothers you in an Icelandic restaurant. If you want to sit and enjoy a meal or just a cup of tea for a long time, there is no problem. I am told that one reason restaurants are more expensive in Iceland than in the United States is that they only plan on sitting two parties per night at any given table—versus four or five at a typical American restaurant. So, there is a lifestyle choice being made. More important, from an “opportunity” point of view, is the reasoning behind the opposition to tipping. As one Icelander explained it to me (slowly and with emphasis to make certain I understood): “Icelanders do not want anyone to have to depend for their livelihood on the whims of some customer.”

basketball_icelandic_crowd_flagAnd there you have, in a nutshell, the attitude behind a security society. Justice requires that the individual opinions of particular consumers not affect the incomes of wait staff. Instead there must be a general rule (a government set minimum wage) aimed at providing fair compensation. Again, I am enjoying my time and the people, here, and I would not say that Icelanders would accept any other system—I highly doubt they would. But this is, of course, the mentality of socialism, in which a given political structure is charged with establishing the proper outcome for all people, and they obey. In a country like Iceland, where the populace is highly educated, small, and tight-knit, the result “works” in the sense that one does not see abject poverty and the people, while often under-employed, seem relatively content with their lot.

One can understand, in a nation like Iceland, the attachment to such economic moralizing. To add to the problem for any would-be importer of capitalist ideology, the drive for monetary wealth did not work out so well a few years ago. Bankers committed massive fraud and, to their credit and unlike in the U.S., Icelanders put several of them in jail. Greed definitely did not bring good to Iceland. Then again, economic liberty is not by nature aimed at producing massive incomes from the clever manipulation of financial rules. A scheming society is not an opportunity society. A scheming society is what excessive government regulation and power produces in a fragmenting opportunity society.

What, then, is an opportunity society? In reconsidering this question in light of Icelanders’ tight communalism, I find myself concerned first with identifying what it is not. Luckily, there is the Obama Administration available to show us what most sane and decent social forms and institutions most definitely are not. How does this apply to an opportunity society?

An opportunity society is not one in which benefits like overtime, high wages, and health insurance are “guaranteed” by the government. Presidential decrees in this area merely produce a stagnant economy and underemployment. Businesses will only hire people on a part-time or temporary basis so that they will not have to pay for benefits they cannot afford if they are to stay in business.

An opportunity society is not one in which people who run small businesses have to fear huge fines and even gag orders if they follow their consciences in refusing to engage in celebrations of nuptials their religions for millennia have refused to recognize as legitimate. Opportunities, livelihoods, and lives are crushed in such a society in pursuit of a radical social agenda.

An opportunity society is not one in which the government itself sues employers and providers of benefits for hiring and delivering good things in racially neutral ways that happen, in some particular circumstances, to produce outcomes that fail to fit with some bureaucrat’s notions of racial equality and diversity. Our society squelches opportunity today because businesses and even local agencies must constantly reconfigure their policies to meet the latest trend of the diversity scam.

An opportunity society does not institute a mandatory subsidization scheme for health insurance that puts millions of dollars into the pockets of an oligopoly of insurers at the expense of middle class families.

aattp-obama-An opportunity society does not pulverize its existing culture in pursuit of an ideological vision emphasizing grievance, emotive autonomy, and governmental support for persons based on their group membership. Then again, at least as indicated by the Icelandic example, a security society cannot function if it divides itself into warring camps. The result, in Iceland, Obama´s America, and worldwide, can only be massive failure.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Spot on Prof. Frohnen. I love when conservatives can find their way into cultural critique instead of worrying about laws and systems, and manage to absorb the wisdom of preserved societies, socialist or no. Traditional societies are societies of satisfaction, whereas what we are accustomed to, is a society of lack.

    Nonetheless you work back around to the US system and bullet points realting to recent events which you consider “anti-conservative.” They look fine, but my quibble is the repeated failure to shine the spotlight on boardrooms. As noted, big business of course is not constrained by the regulations and regimes you decry, they help to shape them toward their own administrative guidelines and thank their lucky starts that they have the advantage of such barriers to entry. That is how opportunity is staunched. However the large bureaucracies we need to subdue at this stage, and on the other side of the symbiotic fence.

    A conservative program would be dualistic: eliminate some regulations but go ahead and hogtie some of the worst oligarchs, in agriculture, pharma, insurance for example. T.R. would be a good guide, especially given his respect for nature, which also needs proper addressing by the GOP.

  2. Perhaps the model of thought here is inadequate to more fully describe the problems we have. We could use words like security vs opportunity to describe the overall scheme. But neither model really describes the fix that problems which small business and people are facing.

    Without leaving behind the security, with social justice in mind, vs opportunity model of thought, we should also include another model. That model would oppose an economic system that is meant to serve the general public vs one that is meant to be served by the general public. Of course, what is the main issue here is whose welfare is most important: the general public’s or the performance level of the economic system. Even this doesn’t entirely describe the problems faced by small business and individuals. For part of what small business is having to overcome has nothing to do with security or opportunity or whether the economic system is there to serve the general public or the general public is there to maximize the performance of the economy,

    Rather, small business’ biggest obstacle is found in its main competitor and, dare some say, its predator, big business. Likewise, the welfare of the general public can often infringe on the performance levels of big business.This better explains how an opportunity based economic system that could also be described as a system that is designed to be served by the general public could threaten small business and the welfare of the general public. In an everlasting effort to continually increase profits, big business, which has much political clout because of how it can buy gov’t officials, has laws passed that make it more difficult for small business to operate freely and individual citizens to be treated as they deserve to be treated. And why can big business exercise such clout? It is precisely because our economic system is, in addition to an opportunity based/served by the public system kind of economy designed for maximizing the profits of the top “performers,” a predator-oriented system

    Thus, besides the other two ways of describing economic systems, perhaps a model showing predator-oriented economic system, one that not only allows, but is designed to enable predators to come into existence, vs an economic system based on a just coexistence should enter our thinking and vocabulary. Perhaps we should use all three models of thought here to describe economic systems. For reducing the description of any economic system to a single word or characteristic only invites an all-or-nothing type thinking because of the practice labeling. And we should beware of such models of thought because they thrive on significantly incomplete information. Plus, the security vs opportunity description, besides being incomplete, is worded that way to shame American individualists from supporting any other kind of system other than one where one is forced to risk it all, including survival, to prove oneself.

  3. I think this socialistic model like that of Iceland *could* work in a homogenous educated (post) Christian society. Sweden worked in a certain sense, until they started imported hordes of Muslims. Certain things have to be sacrificed to have a security society, but better that than our crazy rapidly collectivizing America, which, in a way, offers neither real economic liberty nor security. And peddles lies about both.

    And I think it’s the constant lies that are hardest for me to bear. Translating the lies is exhausting and lonely, but I find I can do no other. Good piece.

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