Having 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.”
And 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.
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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