In her new book, Finnish journalist Anu Partanen posits that citizens of Nordic countries have more freedom because they get government help with necessities like health care and education. Partanen appears Tuesday, July 19, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

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‘The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life’

by Anu Partanen

Harper, 418 pp., $27.99

When Finnish journalist Anu Partanen fell in love with an American writer and moved to New York in 2008 to be with him, the culture shock she felt unnerved her.

All the logistics of American life — arranging health care, filing her first tax return, signing up for cellphone service — were far more expensive and Byzantine than what she was used to.

“I blamed myself,” she writes. “Obviously I just wasn’t tough enough and smart enough — American enough — for this exciting and dynamic country.”

Author appearance

Anu Partanen

The author of “The Nordic Theory of Everything” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 19, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or

But the more she talked to her new American friends and the more she pondered the difference between the social contracts prevailing in her native country and her new home, the more she felt there were common-sense lessons Americans could learn from the Nordic example. There were also plenty of myths to be dispelled when it came to American perceptions of “socialist nanny states.” (One frequent reason often cited for Norway’s social largesse is the country’s oil revenues, but Norway’s commitment to its social-program model predated its oil-revenue windfall.)

“The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life” is Partanen’s levelheaded examination of the personal freedoms afforded by the Nordic political model where national governments, rather than private employers, play a central role in providing their citizens with the essentials of civilized life.

Though laced with anecdotes from Partanen’s own story, “Nordic Theory” is meticulously researched. It offers a clear, informative, fact-filled survey of the differences between American and Nordic child care, health care, education, eldercare and taxation arrangements. It could be a game-changer in national conversations about the roles that governments should play in their citizens’ lives.

At the heart of Partanen’s discussion is a concern with what we mean by personal freedom and opportunity. The Nordic model, for example, frees students from dependency on parents who may not be skilled or wealthy enough to help them obtain an education. By tapping their brain power more effectively, the Nordic model facilitates a social mobility that’s on the wane in the U.S.

Partanen also debunks the notion that Scandinavian-style social programs undermine entrepreneurial initiative. Instead, she says, they allow citizens to start businesses or pursue the work they love without worrying about jeopardizing their families’ access to health care in the process.

Moreover, businesses stand to benefit from governments taking responsibility for their citizens’ well-being: “In our hypermodern world, which requires a nimble society with a flexible, healthy workforce, separating health care from the nature of an individual’s employment is smart.”

Partanen addresses Europeans’ misconceptions about the U.S., too, including their belief that Americans are unnecessarily obsessed with money. Partanen subscribed to this herself until she realized just how much money it takes for ordinary Americans to obtain good child care, health care and educations for their children: an anxiety-inducing burden that citizens of Nordic countries don’t face.

Nordic citizens, she admits, gripe about their government-run programs — but with the aim of fine-tuning them. After all, elected governments, unlike private corporations, are required to be transparent and responsive to their citizens.

The terms “out-of-date” and “old-fashioned” recur frequently as Partanen describes U.S. social policies. Still, she has faith that the U.S. can remedy its shortcomings.

“Nordic societies enjoy forms of individualism, freedom, social mobility, and independence from societal obligations that are more quintessentially American than what Americans themselves today are generally able to experience. For the United States,” she concludes, “to borrow ideas from the current successes of the Nordic societies is not only workable and appropriate, but in fact could result in a restoration, and reinvigoration, of the most basic ideals that have defined the nation.”