Throughout my travels this summer, I’ve been struck by the different ways societies and great cities handle their challenges. Everyone wants to live well.
Denmark is so expensive, yet so efficient. People live better than their income would suggest — in fact, they seem to live extremely well. I don’t understand the inner-works of a society, but Danish society seems to be a social internal-combustion engine in a glass box. High taxes, all interrelated and connected. It seems Scandinavians have evolved as far as socialism can go without violating the necessary fundamentals of capitalism. Communalism.
What happens when a tune-up is needed? “Who does it?” I ask. My Danish friends say, “The government.” What does government represent in Denmark: corporate or the people’s interest? Clearly the people’s. Danes say, “If our government lets us down, we let ourselves down.”
In a Danish village, you are allowed to pick berries and nuts “no more than would fit in your hat.” I saw Danish communalism in the reaction a friend had in that village when the biggest hotel in town started renting bikes. They don’t need to do that — it is Mrs. Hansen’s (who runs the bike-rental shop next to the gas station) livelihood. Of course there’s no law forbidding it…it was a matter of neighborly decency.
Switzerland has its own approach to persistent social problems. Once someone pointed out Switzerland’s syringe-vending machines, I saw them in every city — big, blocky vending machines which, if you read the paint-overs carefully, originally sold cigarettes, then condoms, and now syringes. The same syringes cost 1 Swiss franc in Bern and 3 in Zürich. I wondered why.
Another little difference I noticed in Swiss cities is their system of garbage collection. People buy bright-blue bags for 2 SF ($1.50) each. Each plastic bag includes pick-up service. They just fill the bags with garbage, put them on the curb, and they’re picked up.
As I travel, I have picked up these ideas in conversations. They’re not clear to me. Perhaps you can help.
Someone told me that war doesn’t shape history, successful systems and economics do. Maybe it’s roads and free trade — freedom to learn and challenge — that makes history. War powers like Sparta, Prussia, and the Third Reich have left relatively little for today’s sightseers — the warrior cultures ultimately have had little impact. English is spoken because England (and later the USA) had (and have?) the best system. Rome’s impact was thanks to trade and roads–not its centurions.
Societies advance in a Darwinian way. Like Adam Smith’s invisible hand directs the evolution of economies, what makes people happy directs the evolution of social and political systems.
As I headed to the airport earlier this summer in Zagreb, people were running to catch their trams. At the airport coffee shop, a manager had his staff scurrying to provide high-priced drinks to fast-paced, Red Bull-slurping Croats. Above the cash register was a photo of Pope John Paul II smiling on and tenderly touching the flag of a new and free nation — Croatia.
Surrounded by a shiny, new, and affluent Croatia, it was clear to me that when left to grow — nourished by democracy, capitalism, and national pride — the cultural garden of Europe (and lands beyond) can be both diverse and fruitful.