Finland is a leading example of the northern European view that a successful, competitive society should provide basic social services to...

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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 treat theirs?

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.

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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.

Finnish Report Card

Finland has largely remade itself over the last 35 years, revamping its education system, transforming its medical-care structure and creating a new high-tech sector that, thanks to cellphone manufacturer Nokia, has become an international player. Today Finland is regularly cited as among the world’s best in a variety of indices and comparisons. For example:

• The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, ranks Finland’s the most competitive economy in the world.

• Yale and Columbia universities rank the nations of the world in a “sustainability index” that measures a country’s ability to “protect the natural environment over the next several decades.” Finland ranks first.

• Statistics kept by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that Finland invests more of its gross domestic product in research and development than any country except Sweden.

• According to a global survey by Transparency International, Finland is perceived as the least corrupt country in the world. (The United States is tied for 17th.)

• Finns read newspapers and take books out of libraries at rates as high or higher than all other countries.

• Finnish 15-year-olds score first in the industrial world on comparative tests of their academic abilities.

• Finland trains more musicians, per capita, than any other country.

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 life.

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 Helsinki.

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 interview.

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.