Current Events

Denmark vs. France: On Worker Liberation

From the Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom:


Property Rights            90.0
Business Freedom       99.1
Labor Freedom      92.1
Monetary Freedom     80.7
Trade Freedom             87.1
Investment Freedom  90.0
Financial Freedom       90.0


Property Rights            80.0
Business Freedom       83.7
Labor Freedom      51.6
Monetary Freedom     82.3
Trade Freedom             82.1
Investment Freedom  55.0
Financial Freedom       70.0

N.B. 100 = perfect freedom; 0 = perfect unfreedom

Denmark may be the best existing model for the most statist interpretation of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism. It has one of the freest, most open economies in the world. It respects economic rights far better than most countries, including the USA. It also has well-functioning, government-provided social insurance.

France is a pretty good model for the kinds of economic regulations Bertram et al think we BHLers should advocate. Yet, if our goals are to make sure that workers are not simply at the mercy of employers, that works do not feel trapped, that workers are not easy targets for exploitation, and, also, to make sure that we do not create an insider/outsider economy in which large numbers of would-be workers are kept out of work, isn’t Denmark just obviously better than France? (I encourage Bertram et al to peruse the rankings. They’ll quickly see that, in general, the best places for workers, by their own standards, are those that combine high economic freedom with well-functioning government social insurance–that is, BHL-kinds of countries–rather than countries that have much more limited economic freedom.)

If you want to protect workers, you want high growth, a dynamic economy, and high levels of wealth. As a matter of empirical fact, that has done more to liberate workers than anything else. Workers enjoy substantive liberty in commercial societies and almost nowhere else. Bertram et al have not yet produced an argument against these claims. (Instead, they most rely on speculative thought experiments or some yucky but non-representative cases.)

Now, Bertram et al might say that Sweden looks pretty good, too. Sweden does well on most economic freedom scores (better than the US), but it has low labor freedom, like France. This objection–Sweden is great!–doesn’t work, though. In terms of results, from a left-wing point of view, Denmark does as well as Sweden, but it one-ups Sweden by doing a better job recognizing and protecting people’s economic freedom. Plus, as I mentioned above, the general trend is that the more BHLish countries are better than the less BHLish countries.

On a closing note, since 2007, I’ve worked in places that practice high levels of “workplace democracy”. I do not feel empowered by this at all. If anything, it’s a burden, not a benefit. Faculty meetings are miserable events. As in a real democracy, my vote counts for nothing–the group always decides what it decides irrespective of my vote. By working in a “workplace democracy”, I have simply traded a one-headed boss for a many-headed boss. This many-headed boss loves to hear itself talk and loves to waste my time. In “Political Liberty: Who Needs It?“, I argue that individual political liberty does not make individuals more autonomous or in control in any meaningful sense. My remarks there aptly characterize all of my experiences with workplace democracy.

  • GU

    Studies like this all seem to point to the conclusion that large, heterogenous countries have worse policies and governance than small, more homogeneous countries. The U.S., U.K., Germany, and Italy all do rather poorly in these studies compared to the Nordic countries plus Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
    I’m not sure you can compare Denmark, which is a mostly irrelevant country of 5.5 million people, to France, a world power that is home to a far more diverese population of 65 million people (and a very diverse climate/geography as well). In other words, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll ever have Denmark-like policies. I fear that the U.S.’s propsects for good governance and sensible public policy are seriously harmed by the sheer size and diversity of the place. I think more federalism would help, but whenever you bring this up to the modern left they respond with a reductio ad Jim Crowum.
    NB: consider this friendly fire, I tend to agree with your views and categorize myself a classical liberal.

    • Blain

      Neither Australia nor Canada can plausibly be described as ‘homogenous’ countries. 1 in 4 Australians were born abroad. Canada has 34 ethnic groups with at least 100,000 members each, 11 of which have over 1 million members. New Zealand, obviously, has a large Maori population (15% of the population). And Switzerland, Canada, and New Zealand are linguistically diverse (Switzerland has 4 official languages, Canada and NZ 2).

      • GU

        You’re right to point out that the Nordic countries and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland don’t belong lumped together. However . . .

        Both Canada and Switzerland use hefty doses of federalism to deal with their diversity. Moreover, Canada has less people than California, and Switzerland has only 8 million people—these are very small populations compared to the U.S. and the other big countries I mentioned above. I’ll grant you that Switzerland is linguistically diverse, but it’s racially homogeneous. Nonetheless, both countries seem to have more solidarity and more cultural consensus than the U.S., which seems to improve national-level public policy.

        Australia and New Zealand are both countries with tiny populations (AU: 22 million; NZ: 4.4 million) compared to the U.S. or large European countries. But again, both countries seem to have more solidarity and more cultural consensus than the U.S.

        The U.S. has 315 million residents which are geographically dispersed over a very large area, unlike Canada and Australia, where the vast majority of the population lives near 3 or 4 cities, and unlike Switzerland and New Zealand, which are both physically small. And the U.S. is more diverse than all of these countries on racial, religious, or cultural measures, even if the other countries are diverse compared to the rest of the world.

        I think that large numbers of people who are geographically dispersed makes for sub-standard national public policy. “Diversity” merely makes the problem worse, but of course contributes positively in other ways. Federalism is not a cure-all, but more state and local control would benefit the U.S. The U.S. is sufficiently different from its Anglophone cousins (plus Switzerland) because of its vast population and geographic dispersion.

  • 3cantuna

    There must be something messed up about the Heritage Index. How can the highest taxing country in the world be considered so economically liberated? Maybe the researchers like Legos so much, and who could blame them, that it motivates bias? Rather more likely that Heritage, like BHL, has absorbed just enough of welfare statism that its pointy heads are methodologically barred from conceptualizing a free market economy in the first place. Near 30% of the Danish workforce is employed by the state and its sub-apparati. You call that “empirically” free? You call this blog libertarian, lol?

    • good_in_theory

      Ridiculous. The economic freedom rankings dis-aggregate their metrics. If you disagree with their weighting of different individual metrics in coming up with a composite, then you are free to recalculate an aggregate score accordingly. The “limited government” category includes a metric for tax burden (fiscal freedom) and government indebtedness (government spending).

      The highest taxing country in the world is considered ‘so economically liberated,’ because most people think that ‘economic freedom’ is defined by more than just the tax rate.

      • 3cantuna

        It does not matter where the popular definition of economic freedom lies. Most people will define it somewhat medievally nowadays, unfortunately. A welfare check or government job is economically liberating indeed, says the bleeding heart social organicist. The political recipient deserves to live at the forced expense of others. Are they aware that it creates status more like the kings, nobles and mercantilist lackeys of old than not? Democracy allows for more rearranging of the deck chairs than the Ancien Regime system– but is it less parasitical and less anti-market? Denmark is relatively free compared to most of the world. But economic reasoning is not about relativism or metrics. e.g. Based on Heritage’s empiricism, if the world was nothing but serfdom and slave plantations, Heritage would then pick the most productive of the bunch and give them scores of 90. The Danes have relative economic freedom in spite of its enormous and socially retarding welfare state. This would be a more reasonable statement. I haven’t looked into it closely yet– but I have a hunch that the ranking methodology is skewed to defend the American imperial-warfare state, which Heritage’s backers and proponents are deeply invested in. If it isn’t skewed in this way, then how is it that Heritage could handle the contradiction internally?

        • good_in_theory

          I’m hardly one to have any love for the Heritage institute, but data is data.

          ” Based on Heritage’s empiricism, if the world was nothing but serfdom and slave plantations, Heritage would then pick the most productive of the bunch and give them scores of 90″

          Not true, necessarily. It depends upon how they are calibrating their scale – whether it’s relative or absolute. I can’t tell at first glance how exactly they put things on a 100% scale. And if they are using a relative scale, so what, all it takes is some simple arithmetic to calibrate individual scores against an absolute standard.

          The site doesn’t make “a statement,” it gives a number. They explain how they come up with their composite number (they weight all categories equally), and it’s perfectly fine to reject it out of hand. I would.

          Their site, in fact, makes the exact “statement” you want it to make, in the numbers it presents – Danes have lots of economic freedom apart from their… incredibly low fiscal freedom and government spending scores, which you can observe right there on the site, in the country profile, and in a comparison to each of their individual scores against the world average.

          • commenterguest

            Points taken. Though the data says something different when analyzed through a more realistic appreciation of the anti-economic factors of taxation and bureaucracy (corporatist and government). In fact, they are likely wrong on both counts– where they are being absolute or relative.
            Hey, we agree on something– Heritage s*cks. Cool.

  • Barry Stocker

    I know that Jason Brennan has done important academic work with regard to scepticism about political liberty, but is this the best place to introduce it? A debate with the left about labour regulation? I guess the Crooked Team crowd etc will consider this an opportunity to throw ‘and the libertarians don’t believe in democracy’ into the mix, which will very possibly convince at least some waverers following this debate that libertarians aren’t worth listening to anyway. What JB says about boring faculty meetings is very recognisable, but in my experience (largely in Turkey, where I’m a British ex-pat) it’s much better to be in an academic institution where boring meetings make a difference then ones where they don’t. Universities where such meetings don’t make a difference, in my experience, waste waste the time of faculty even more with meaningless meetings. I have read some of JB’s arguments about the uselessness of political liberty.
    I don’t have enough political science/political sociology back ground to answer them all. However, personal experience of academic institutions doe not match with what JB claims. I can’t know about his experiences, but I suspect that the institutions he’s worked in are all at the upper level for meaning faculty meetings, and I would further add that this is probably part of why they are very good institutions. This is certainly not an argument for mandating every institution to have workplace democracy, I strongly suspect that companies with meaningful feedback from employees tend to do better long term, that is a matter for the market place anyway. Since the issue has been raised, I would like to point out some in the classical liberal tradition have been enthusiasts for political participation, Tocqueville is the best example, to my mind and that scepticism about democracy/political liberty is not a necessary aspect of classical liberalism/libertarianism. I suspect that Denmark’s high scores on economic freedom are linked with the strong constitutional democratic tradition since 1849, and the way in which the monarchy became more responsive to public opinion form the late eighteenth century. France despite scoring less at Heritage is a great commercial democratic nation, just not as good on the commercial side as some others. One can at least say that this has been the case during a period of constant democratic tradition since 1870 (as with Denmark interrupted by WWII). The best examples for JB’s position come from Singapore and Hong Kong. Singapore during the relevant period has always had formal democracy, and the PAP has always been restrained to some degree by the knowledge that electors might use their voting rights against them, and that has been happening more recently. Hong Kong developed under benign protection from Britain which is a long standing democracy, and clearly benefited from a spill over in terms of strong individual rights. I am pretty sure that rule of law and individual rights requires constitutional democracy, and that exceptions are never very strong exceptions. In response to GU, I realise that the American left tends to resort to ‘reductio ad Jim Crowum’, but there is no contradiction between increasing state rights in most areas and retaining civil rights enforcement at the federal level. Going back to Tocqueville (who I am working on at present), there is a distinction to be made between ‘political centralisation’ (strong federal powers with regard to basic rights and a consistent political system) and ‘administrative decentralisation’ which allows state and local power in the other spheres. Anyway, be of good cheer GU and keep making the argument.

    • good_in_theory

      “I suspect that the institutions he’s worked in are all at the upper level for meaning faculty meetings, and I would further add that this is probably part of why they are very good institutions. This is certainly not an argument for mandating every institution to have workplace democracy, I strongly suspect that companies with meaningful feedback from employees tend to do better long term, that is a matter for the market place anyway.”

      Why is whether or not institutions have some degree of workplace democracy (even very minimal degrees) simply a matter for the market, to be decided upon the crucible of what produces the lowest costs?

      If one maintains a philosophical position that supposedly champions liberty, freedom, autonomy, self-ownership, self-determination, and/or individual responsibility, shouldn’t one advocate for relatively more democratic working conditions regardless of what the market dictates?

      This is not to say that one should advocate for laws requiring workplace democracy, but rather that one should advocate for more independence and self determination within the workplace for all workers, in spite of price and cost inefficiencies which might follow from adopting such a principled stance about how to treat others and morally refusing to play the petty tyrant in order to cuts costs.

      • Barry Stocker

        The market doesn’t just work on lowest cost, though this very important, it fundamentally works through satisfying consumer demand with regard to various factors including cost. The reasons I don’t think that legally mandating workplace democracy is good: it would be very difficult to impossible to to design a law suitable for all companies (and other institutions) and their different circumstances; genuine choice of employer/exit rights are the basis of employee autonomy and extra-regualtion tends to reduce the number of employees because regulations always impose compliance costs; it would be against employee welfare to deny the possibility of employment at organisations with a very top down culture, even if they don’t tend to last long, as they may offer other advantages over other employers. Just as a matter of general principle it seems to me that law should be limited to promoting really bad abuses, than designing institutions. There might be room to make it legally easier to set up worker co-ops and business with employee share ownership, but I don’t know enough about this issue to be sure, certainly not with regard to all the market economies in the world. Anyway, I think we agree that more employee consultation is good.

        • good_in_theory

          But my point wasn’t that libertarians should be out making public policy in the workplace. I’ll take their arguments against statism and against public regulation and against using the state to arrange economic relationships.

          My point is that it seems libertarians should, in a very every day, ‘act local’ sort of a sense (ethics, I guess), protest the petty tyranny of many managers and bosses and work environments, and work to empower individuals to do the work they are expected to do without suffering the control of others, simply on the grounds of moral principle. That is, they should advocate for a social order wherein bosses don’t act like jerks.

          But if often seems they’re more interested in arguing for the legal right to be a jerk (if permissible by contract), rather than for the ethical obligation to not be a jerk (even if contractually permissible).

          • Barry Stocker

            Ok we’re completely in agreement then. Sorry I didn’t see where you were coming from. Great points, and yes this is what libertarians should be doing.

  • Barry Stocker

    I feel I should add, that I suppose there is some difference between JB’s arguments against political liberty, and being against constitutional democracy, but JB’s arguments lead to a position there theres seems little reason to care about voting rights for all, and a we might be better off with votes limited to a cognitive elite (which is open to a reduction ad Jim Crowum argument, sorry but it is, and not just with regard to African-Americans, but to supposedly defective whites in the old South).

  • Lars Christensen

    Jason, as a Dane I have a pretty hard time seeing Denmark as a libertarian paradise in anyway. It is correct that the the Danish economy historically has been (and remain) very open and traditionally there is strong support for free trade in Denmark. It is also correct that the Danish labour market is relatively lightly regulated – it is for example easy to fire and hire people in Denmark – unlike in most European countries.

    However, the size of government and the degree of income redistribution certainly is not libertarian. That is underestimate in the Heritage Foundation measures. Fiscally Denmark scores well because the Danish government is fiscally conservative (and that is why we are not getting badly needed tax cuts!)

    Is Denmark more free than France? Obviously that goes without saying. But I refuse to see Denmark as a libertarian role model.

    On the other hand it should make Americans reflect about the outside world – the US is certainly no libertarian paradise either and in many ways the Danish economy is more free than the US economy. Just think trade restrictions…

    • good_in_theory

      But if one, as a left or bleeding heart libertarian, seriously adopts a commitment to a minimum or basic or whatever income as more than just a ruse by which to placate liberals, then one must seriously refuse to see relatively high levels of transfer payments as injurious to liberty. So, in fact, for some libertarians a high “degree of income redistribution” is certainly libertarian. And I think that was part of Jason’s point:

      “the best places for workers, by [Crooked Timber’s] own standards, are those that combine high economic freedom with well-functioning government social insurance–that is, BHL-kinds of countries”

      If one is actually going to be serious about UBI or NIT or whatever form of social insurance, then one is going to have to see levels of government transfers likely much higher, or at least close to, the rates typical now (about $8k per capita in the US), let alone that preferred by your garden variety libertarian ($0) as emblematic of a more libertarian country, not a less libertarian one.

      • Aeon Skoble

        “So, in fact, for some libertarians a high “degree of income redistribution” is certainly libertarian” I’m sorry to be “that guy,” but loving a high degree of income redistribution is not only un-libertarian, it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the economics of libertarianism: there is not a fixed pool of wealth to be distributed, where some distributions are fair and others unfair, like dad bringing home candy but giving it to only one of the kids. In a libertarian framework, people get their income based on how much value they create for other people. Wealth is created through trades and the pool gets bigger and bigger. I can see why a libertarian might argue for a UBI as a second-best type thing that replaces the current model of transfer payments, but “redistribution” per se is not a libertarian idea at all.

        • good_in_theory

          It reveals a completely accidental misconstrual of your understanding of libertarianism. It doesn’t reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of “libertarian,” which was coined by a bunch of French anarcho-communists who wanted to skirt the censors and abolish private property. “Libertarianism” contains multitudes. If you want to play border police, take it up with left-Libertarians or BHLs; I don’t lay any claim to the label. If some libertarians argue that UBIs/NITs/Georgism or whatever is best for liberty, then they are at liberty to do so.

          Your concern with lump of labor/lump of wealth “fallacies” is ignoratio elenchi. But in any case, ‘people getting income through the value they create for others’ is not definitive of a ‘libertarian framework.’ That’s just something like a ‘labor theory of property’ (a ‘social value’ theory of income?).

          • Aeon Skoble

            It’s not just nit-picking. I agree that labels are weird, but at the same time words can’t just mean 10 contradictory things before breakfast. Forcibly taking money from Bob to give to Tom? That’s libertarian now?

          • good_in_theory

            Vigorously defending private property rights? That’s libertarian now? … is what early 20th century anarcho-communists would say to you.

            But if respecting liberty requires taxation, then yes, ‘forcibly taking money from Peter to pay Paul’ (or however we’re putting the insipid proverb now) is potentially libertarian.

            That’s the problem with trying to appropriate an equivocal term like ‘liberty’ for one’s self. If one explicitly fetishized property rights as the one true god of the dogma, rather than liberty, the problem would go away.

          • Aeon Skoble

            I am totally failing to get your point. I am not an anarcho-communist and I don’t endorse anarcho-communism. I am not challenging your assertion that they would object to my defending property rights. But that’s neither here nor there w.r.t. libertarian thought over the last 50 years or so.

          • good_in_theory

            My point is that liberty was, is, and will continue to be a highly contested term across political ideologies. Insofar as being a ‘libertarian’ is in some way about ‘respecting, maximizing, optimizing’ or whatever ‘liberty,’ the fact that definitions of liberty/freedom/autonomy &etc are highly contentious is important.

            Quoting Rothbard: “One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy . . . ‘Libertarians’ . . . had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over . . .”

            This contest is still alive. The “Peace and Freedom” party is a feminist socialist party which advocates for a UBI and high minimum wages. “Warlike and Coercive” party to you, I’m sure. Many left-libertarians, and even some right libertarians, also advocate UBIs or NITs or whatever. Liberals, which are at least liberty-ish, do the same.

            So the claim that “such and such” is or isn’t Libertarian is part of a rhetorical-political battle, and myself, not being party to the dispute, am not going to side with one side or another by treating the word as if it had an uncontested meaning. Perhaps the contest was relatively dormant for the last 50 years, but it’s alive again, and I’m not sure why one should consecrate the victors of the past in what is an ongoing war.

            It seems to me that a philosophy that is always and everywhere against ‘robbing from Peter to pay Paul’ is, in the first instance, about ‘respecting, maximizing, optimizing’ or etc. private property rights. This suggests, to me, that if one wants to uncontroversially signal that one belongs to a political philosophy essentially opposed to taxation, then some name having to do with property is more appropriate.

  • Damien S.

    There seems to be a big missing step or two. I don’t see a definition of “labor freedom” and it’s not obvious why a liberal should put much faith in whatever the WSJ and Heritage define as labor freedom. And in the end we have a bunch of alleged freedom metrics, unlinked to more concrete variables like GDP/capita (mean or median) or employment ratios. (Okay, not quite true, the country pages give some numbers. But there’s no convenient visualization of patterns.)

    • For a discussion of how the various freedom indices are computed, see
      the methodology document published by the Heritage Foundation. “Labor freedom” is basically a measure of employers’ freedom to hire and fire workers; “Six quantitative factors are equally weighted …: ratio of minimum wage to the average value added per worker, hindrance to hiring additional workers, rigidity of hours, difficulty of firing redundant employees, legally mandated notice period, and mandatory severance.” They take the data for these from the World Bank “Doing Business” report.

      • purple_platypus

        In other words, it has bugger-all to do with anything anyone in their right mind would call labour freedom, only the “freedom” of employers to do whatever the fuck they want. Why, considering the source, am I not surprised.

        I sincerely hope Brennan was unaware of this. I’d rather believe he merely failed to research this post as well as he could have than that he intentionally tried to pull a fast one of that magnitude. However, if we don’t see some form of public retraction in the next few days, I for one will see no choice but to assume this post is just as disingenuous as it looks right now.

  • Aaron Maltais

    Jason, I have a hard time understanding what you think the CT’ers will dislike about the Danish model. The Danish model has extensive collective bargaining, regulation for vacation and parental leave, generous unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination regulation of employers’ hiring and firing practices, state investment in employment training, free secondary education, lots of buses and trains, bicycles, etc… I guess the big difference between Sweden and Denmark is the relative ease of firing someone but that ease is nothing like ‘at will’. For example you can fire somebody who is pregnant or on parental leave but not because they are pregnant or on parental leave. Moreover, if challenged the burden of proof is on the employer to show that an person on parental leave was not fired because they were on leave. I guess you can imagine what the Danish view is on firing people because they have the wrong political views or because they react negatively to sexual advances.

    • Blain

      “I have a hard time understanding what you think the CT’ers will dislike about the Danish model.”
      Indeed. This core assumption of this post is baffling.

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