When outsiders talk about Denmark, the word ‘socialist’ gets thrown around a lot.
Most agree that this northern European nation is a high-functioning society, and every year it seems a new survey lists Denmark as one of the happiest places on Earth.
But is Denmark really a socialist country? And if it is, what does that mean for the people who live there?
What makes a country socialist?
To understand if Denmark is really a socialist country, we first need to know what this means. So what exactly is ‘socialism’, and how does a country become socialistic?
In theory, at least, a socialist country is one where wealth and resources are spread evenly and all individuals are treated equally.
Unlike capitalism, which is based on private ownership, socialism calls for public control of production and distribution, with society as a whole benefiting from any ‘profits’.
In a country that takes socialism to its natural conclusion, all property and resources would be collectively owned by the state (and the people who live there).
Proponents of socialism may argue about how much private ownership should be allowed (if any), but the overall aim is to create a society that is as ‘fair’ as possible.
This idea can make socialism seem very attractive – after all, who doesn’t want to be treated equally, and have an equal slice of the pie?
But critics say socialism can actually harm a country’s prosperity – for example, by disincentivizing technological advances, and making ‘hard work’ less financially rewarding.
What kind of economy is Denmark?
Does Denmark classify as a socialist country? Well, not really.
Denmark does have relatively high taxes (income tax rates are among the highest in the world) and a high level of government spending. These are both key features of socialism.
But Denmark also has some of the strongest protections of individual property rights in the world. This fact by itself goes against the key tenets of socialism.
Denmark is also unashamedly a free market, capitalist economy, with little of the red tape that’s usually associated with ‘big government’ nations. Doing business in Denmark is just… pretty easy.
And what’s more, although Denmark’s ‘free’ healthcare and schooling are considered great by almost any international measure, private alternatives are available (and indeed paid for by some Danes!).
Yet the idea of Denmark being a truly socialist country somehow persists. Even US presidential candidates have claimed that Denmark is socialist.
So, is Denmark socialist or capitalist?
During a 2020 presidential debate, Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg drew attention to Denmark because of its universal healthcare system.
Buttigieg argued that “the number one place to live out the American Dream right now is Denmark.”
And back when he was running for president in 2015, Bernie Sanders stated that he wanted to model the US after the Scandinavian countries, particularly Denmark, insinuating that the country was a socialist utopia and that the US should recognize its successful economy.
Then Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen was quick to deny this. In a speech following Sanders’ remarks, Rasmussen said: “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”
So there you have it, from one of the country’s most recent leaders: Denmark is a free-market capitalist country.
But like other Scandinavian nations, Denmark does mix in some of socialism’s ideas too.
What is the Nordic Model?
These Nordic nations deliberately mix elements of socialism (like large numbers of people being employed by the public sector) with pure free market economics – often with very positive results for their economies and the lives of local people.
Many argue that it’s a very successful way to run a modern economy, which perhaps this is why politicians from other countries take inspiration from the Nordic nations.
Under the Nordic Model, governments collect high taxes, but citizens enjoy many benefits in return – whether that’s free education and free healthcare for individuals, or generously subsidised parental leave and sickness policies for business owners.
Perhaps because of this, studies show that Danes and other Scandinavians get along fairly well with their governments.
In Denmark, for example, many issues are solved thanks to openness and a sense of collaboration between citizens and the government, rather than through protests or civil disobedience.
This is part of the reason why Scandinavians generally have such high trust in their governments, and why the Nordic Model is often seen as a solution that ‘just works’.
Is socialism still alive in Denmark?
While Denmark is not a socialist country, socialistic values are still evident in Denmark’s modern political landscape.
The governing Social Democrats aim to offer social welfare where it is needed most, and they espouse solidarity with the poorest in society.
However the party has been criticised by some on the left (including socialists) for taking a harder line against immigration, which they claim can have negative consequences for Danes.
Since 2019, the Social Democrats have been supported by the Socialistisk Folkeparti (the ‘Green Left party’), which is based on green and democratic-socialism politics and actively opposes inequality – whether that’s due to economics, education, sexuality or other factors.