“The same for everyone”

“The same for everyone” are  installations of illuminated text by the Scottish artist Nathan Coley, erected on scaffolding around Aarhus, Denmark to celebrate the city as the ‘European Capital of Culture 2017.’ The Capital of Culture’s website explains: “The title, THE SAME FOR EVERYONE, brings our attention to one of the most treasured of Danish values, namely ‘equality for all’.”

“The Danish motto,” I thought when I encountered one of Coley’s installations on a recent visit to Aarhus. Despite having grown up in another Nordic country, Finland, where many share the ideal of equality, I disagree with it. Of course, everyone should have equal individual rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness (as long as they don’t forfeit such rights by violating the rights of others).

But why should everyone otherwise get the same? The same of what? The same education, regardless of academic preparation and motivation? The same evaluation and degrees, regardless of academic merit? The same jobs, regardless of qualifications? The same pay, regardless of performance? The same standard of living, regardless of productivity?

Why should everyone get the same?

In Denmark and the other Nordic countries, that everyone should get the same is an unquestioned ideal. It is based on the altruist premise that we are our brothers’ keepers. In a Finnish magazine article I was reading, someone stated: “We are here for each other.” In other words, serving others is the purpose of life.

Yet almost nobody in the Nordic countries questions the premise that we are our brothers’ keepers and here to serve them.

This is the premise that has led to the Nordic welfare states, with their highly progressive—and high overall—income taxes as well as other taxes, the distribution of income from those who have more to those have less, and the high cost of living. Yet almost nobody in the Nordic countries questions the premise that we are our brothers’ keepers and here to serve them.

But everyone should question that premise.

As Peter Schwartz convincingly argues in his book, In Defense of Selfishness, we are not here for others, but for ourselves. Our purpose is not to live for the sake of others but for ourselves, pursuing our own values, our own happiness.  Other people may be values to us, as loved ones, friends, colleagues, and competent producers and traders of material values we need to survive and enjoy life. We may want to trade values with or help others, but we don’t have a duty to do so, and we don’t live for their sake.

The Nordic ideal of “the same for everyone” is flawed, because equality is not a value—it doesn’t enhance human flourishing.

Despite the relative prosperity of Denmark and other Nordic countries, the heavy taxation encourages the most productive—both individuals and companies—to leave for other countries (such as in Asia) where the income redistribution schemes are less ardent and taxation not as penalizing of productivity. And those who don’t leave will be less productive than they could be because their freedom to produce, trade and create wealth is curtailed.

For us to be happy and thrive, we must be free to choose how to live our lives, through which line of work to support ourselves and to find a central purpose, and how to use the wealth we create.

In Denmark, the highest marginal income tax rate is 59% and the average rate about 45% (although it is possible for high-income earners to pay up to 57% in taxes on their total income). Taxes collected from the productive are redistributed to the unproductive and harm both. The freedom of the productive to pursue their values is limited by the forced income redistribution. The less productive are also harmed, and not only by the lessened production and higher prices of material values. The incentive of the less productive to produce is reduced also by the generous allocation of welfare that allows them to get by without working and leaves them without a meaningful purpose.

The principle of “the same for everyone” does not—and cannot—make people objectively better off (whether they embrace that principle, like the Danes seem to do). Human flourishing is not achieved through forced redistribution of income and wealth but through freedom and justice. We need freedom to pursue our values the best way we see fit and justice as a desert: a reward for producing material values—and a punishment for failing to do so. (Those truly incapable of productivity must depend on private charity).

Absent freedom and justice, we’ll become our brothers’ keepers and instead of achieving our own values, we all get the same.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.

She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad.

Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.

Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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