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The Denmark Diversion


Ygelsias has a good column about conservative “intellectual” Kevin Williamson’s screed about Elizabeth Warren’s codetermination proposal, which he does not remotely understand. He concludes with a perfect description of the opportunistic uses of Denmark by the American right:

For several years now, Bernie Sanders has been prominently describing himself as a “socialist” and more specifically praising the social model of Denmark. Denmark’s prime minister (who leads a conservative political party) stridently disagrees that this social model amounts to “socialism.” And for the specific purposes of dunking on Sanders, most American conservatives are inclined to agree with the prime minister.

Two years ago, for example, Williamson himself praised Denmark, noting that “our friends at the Heritage Foundation rank its economy the eleventh most free in the world, one place ahead of the United States, reflecting Denmark’s strong property rights, relative freedom from corruption, low public debt, freedom of trade and investment, etc.” Sanders and his ilk, according to Williamson, “do not understand Denmark, or America, or much of anything.”

The libertarian Cato Institute agrees with Williamson that Denmark should be understood as a free market success story that happens to have a generous welfare state attached to it.
But guess what?

Denmark has some of the strongest codetermination laws in the world, with employee representation on corporate boards kicking in at a much lower threshold than Warren proposed.

Yet even though Cato regards Denmark as an example of a successful free market economic system, Scott Shackford at the libertarian magazine Reason writes that Warren’s proposal to adopt a version of Danish-style codetermination would “destroy capitalism.”

Williamson, who a few years ago was scornful of Sanders’s lack of appreciation of the high degree of economic freedom in Denmark, now writes scornfully that Warren’s proposal to adopt a version of Danish-style codetermination would destroy the American economy.

There’s a weird quirk in conservative ideology in America: Since it’s knowable from first principles that policy action to create a more egalitarian economic system is undesirable, editors and writers can assign negative takes on something like Warren’s proposal without anyone taking the time to actually assess whether it’s a good idea.

But since it’s clear that the people working on this subject so far don’t actually know anything about it, it might be helpful to everyone concerned for Warren critics to slow down and do a little research first.

Warren is proposing a large change, and it might be a bad idea. But it’s simply not the case that codetermination systems lead naturally to tyranny or imminent economic collapse. And it’s simply not the case that she is proposing the nationalization of all American business. (Or of any American business.)

Indeed, a critical part of the appeal of the idea is precisely that it directly empowers middle- and working-class employees without asking them to trust the wisdom or competence of a large new government entity.

Reforming corporate governance is an idea that polls extremely well, so it’s probably true that conservatives’ best tactic for defeating it is to wildly mischaracterize it. The audience for conservative media deserves better than this.

As Dan observed recently, Republicans are using Denmark the way opponents of legal abortion and professional contrarians use France — as a strange bluff of a deal liberals would take and they describe as full communism when liberals propose it.


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