If you ask Tyler Cowen, Scandinavians just have the right stuff! He approvingly quoted a new Nima Sanandaji book where he claims that the Scandinavian countries don’t have more equitable societies because of their redistributive systems but rather because Scandinavians are just better. And we know this because, “Median incomes of Scandinavian descendants are 20 per cent higher than average US incomes.” This isn’t about race but rather “cultural norms.” This is almost too delicious. I should not be allowed such cake to masticate!
Here’s the thing: of course it isn’t about race. It couldn’t be about race because race is a myth. But even among those who still believe in race, nothing can be about race because everyone (except for the proud bigots) knows that you just don’t talk about racial differences. So this is how people who want to make these kinds of anti-egalitarian, classist arguments talk about it. Sanandaji is Swedish, but it hardly matters. Paul Ryan is American and he talks about the “dependency culture.” But the meaning is the same. The point is that words become offensive because the the ideas that they represent. For example, we know that the “poll tax” was racist, so people don’t use the term today, even though they are using the same kinds of tactics today.
It’s clear enough today that phrases like “cultural norms” and “dependency culture” are racist. But it isn’t clear to most people. In 20 or 40 or 100 years, people will see it very clearly for what it is. And this isn’t to say that Cowen and Sanandaji think of themselves as racists. They may not even be — at least directly. They seem like men who are ideologues who want to push a particular economic system that just so happens to be good for them and their allies. But roughly the same can be said for a lot of 19th century slave owners: it wasn’t about racism; it was about profits.
Over time, I’m sure that science will show that all this business about “cultural norms” will be seen as working in exactly the opposite direction. Matt Bruenig thinks this, Institutions Matter Except When They Are Socialist. He noted that Scandinavia has a long tradition of egalitarianism. So those societies have set up economic and political systems that facilitate this. I assume he means to imply that the 20% advantage is just the result of the Scandinavian ancestors being lucky in the sense that they are white in a white-controlled racist society. I wish he had been explicit in that regard.
But the main thing is conservatives like Cowen have this neat trick. They start with a racist society — one that has done everything it can to keep down African Americans especially. Then they rush off and find people who came from countries that are heavily represented in the power elite. And then they conclude that the American economic system must just be treating everyone the way they ought to be treated: according to their “cultural norms.” Whether it is because of explicit racism or the desire to acquire as much money as they can, the result is the same: unjustified inequality.