If you ask many progressives what changes they'd like to see long-term, and encourage them to think big, they might imagine an America that looks something like Denmark. Indeed, last year Bernie Sanders traveled around Vermont with the Danish ambassador to the United States to tout all the great things that that country does. As Sanders wrote in an article after the road trip:
The minimum wage in Denmark is about twice that of the United States and people who are totally out of the labor market or unable to care for themselves have a basic income guarantee of about $100 per day. Health care in Denmark is universal, free of charge and high quality. . . In order to give strong support to expecting parents, mothers get four weeks of paid leave before giving birth. They get another 14 weeks afterward. Expecting fathers get two paid weeks off, and both parents have the right to 32 more weeks of leave during the first nine years of a child’s life. The state covers three-quarters of the cost of child care, more for lower-income workers. . . . virtually all higher education in Denmark is free. That includes not just college but graduate schools as well, including medical school. . . . Every worker in Denmark is entitled to five weeks of paid vacation plus 11 paid holidays. . . .more than 75 percent of the people are members of trade unions
And so on. All of this is paid for by a tax burden that is far higher than in the United States.
Sounds like the worst nightmare of conservatives? Well, not exactly. Recently, the Heritage Foundation released its new index of the most economically free countries in the world, and what nation should rank in the top 10 but Denmark!
This is actually no surprise, since Denmark has made this and similar lists before. And I have written on other occasions, most of the "freest" nations in the world, as ranked by Heritage and Cato, have universal health insurance systems and a stronger social safety net than the United States.
How can that be? Well, it turns out that promoting economic freedom and having a strong safety net are not mutually exclusive. You can structure society so it's easy for people to conduct business and trade with the rest of the world, yet also put in place social programs that catch people who fail. One way to do this is by de-linking social protections from the workplace. So instead of the U.S. system of employer-sponsored health insurance -- which puts a burden on businesses that is going to get even heavier under Obamacare -- you create a universal health system that has nothing to do with the workplace. Ditto for pensions.
It's a simple idea: Let business focus on making good and services (and money), free them from other responsibilities, and then tax the hell out the wealthy to finance the social protections that every society needs.
Heritage publishes its Index of Economic Freedom in order to publicize examples of societies that are doing things better, as Heritage sees it. But progressives might also want to take a close look at the list, and get some insights into a very important question: Can we imagine a policy agenda that moves the United States toward where Denmark is, but also pleases conservatives who are forever fretting about economic freedom? I think we can.