You can’t have Denmark without Danes

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

You can’t have Denmark without Danes, Megan McArdle notes:

On my first day of interviews, I met with Lars Hvidberg, who works as a speechwriter at the culture ministry. Hvidberg has lived in the U.S., so he seemed well qualified to speculate about the differences between the two countries.

“There are basically four stories about Denmark,” he said. Here’s a breakdown:

The social liberal story: Free education, free speech and democratic government have created social trust and the ability of people to take responsibility and to act for themselves.

The social democracy story: Benefits are high and the taxes are high, which creates equality and trust and enables people to plan for the long term without fear of destitution.

The market liberal story: The real reason Denmark is so successful is that compared to other countries, it’s actually very classically liberal. It has free trade, low regulation, almost no corruption, and makes it easy to start a company.

The nationalist version: The reason Denmark has a well-functioning society is that it’s homogeneous, with a lot of people who think the same, and who place a high value on things like work and honesty and trust toward strangers. In other words, Denmark works so well because it’s full of Danes.

A little apologetically, he said, “I believe all of these stories are true.”

Ironically, New Yorker Megan McArdle got her phone stolen in Copenhagen:

I learned a lot about Danish culture by the reaction to the theft of my phone. I discovered the loss the day after it happened, just as I was about to leave my hotel for a few last interviews. Suddenly, I had to my name only a few Danish kroner — too few even for a round-trip bus ride. I briefly debated canceling the interviews and spending the afternoon trying to round up some cash and a way to get to the airport the following day. Instead, throwing caution to the winds, I borrowed a bike from the hotel and set off, arriving bedraggled and half-an-hour late. Then I climbed four flights of stairs and nearly passed out.

The man I was interviewing responded by leaving to fetch me an enormous bottle of sparkling water, which I greedily consumed. (Maybe an American would have done the same.) The next man I interviewed, the think-tank scholar Agerup, offered to lend me whatever money I needed to get home. (Maybe an American stranger would have done the same, or maybe not.)

Later, I informed the staff at the Copenhagen Island Hotel that all my credit cards needed to be canceled, meaning that I would be unable to pay the considerable bill the next day. Also, that I had no cash and no way to eat for the next 24 hours. The clerk commiserated. Then he mobilized what seemed like the whole staff to make sure that it would be all right.

The hotel people pre-charged both dinner and breakfast to my room, figured out how to give the airport taxi service a hotel voucher and then closed out my entire bill a day early, right before I canceled my credit card. They did this all for a stranger they had no reason to trust.

It was exactly what I’d been hearing about Danish businesses and government all week — the individual initiative of relatively low-level employees, the pragmatism, the adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of rules.

I don’t mean to imply that my own company would have left me stranded in Denmark if it hadn’t been for the hotel — as soon as the U.S. woke up, I also had my own team of Bloomberg people trying to make sure I got home safely. The point is that I didn’t need much help, because the marvelously efficient and flexible Danes had already taken care of the problem.

Two weeks later, after I’d canceled my credit cards and replaced my phone, I got a package in the mail covered in foreign stamps. The Danish police had thoughtfully mailed my phone case back to me, at their own expense — sans phone, alas, but with driver’s license and credit cards and various wallet detritus intact. It saved me a trip to the DMV to replace my license, and gave me a warm feeling for the Danes who had, apparently as a matter of course, extended themselves to help a stranger.

Read the whole thing.


  1. TRX says:

    She had no money or credit cards because she lost her phone? Am I missing something here?

    Typing “Megan McArdle” into a search engine returns a reporter from New York, formerly working for Bloomberg. Looks like she has spent a lot of time in high-crime cities.

    If it was her purse that got stolen, I would still have a hard time with this story; anyone with her background, particularly an experienced traveler, would know better than to keep everything in one easily-stolen package.

  2. Wan Wei Lin says:

    It’s called civil society. It is most functional when it’s relatively homogeneous with a cultural heritage of work and trust. Sadly Western civilization was the brief light in the sorry history humans.

  3. Graham says:


    I may have misread it myself, but I read it as:

    1. She doesn’t bother to convert or carry a lot of cash, depending on regular payment via phone/debit or regular withdrawals, again using the phone.

    2. She still had the credit cards but assumed they needed near-immediate cancellation because the loss of the phone would compromise them [purchase records or anything else in the phone's data].

    #1 is a sign of the times. In the past you’d have been able to set something up in person at a local bank to connect to your own. No idea if that is easier now or harder than 20 years ago, and at that my experience is Britain, not Denmark. Or you’d have some more Danish and/or US cash in the hotel safe, or AMEX travellers’ cheques. [Wow. Flashback. Don't leave home without them.]

    #2 I have no idea of best practices. How fast does a stolen cellphone get stripped of data and that sold off to credit card hacker types?

    Curiously, this anecdote suggests loss of phone abroad is a more immediately and seriously damaging scenario than using your wallet used to be. Far more content to lose.

  4. Kirk says:

    The liberal inability to grasp that there is no such thing as “magic dirt” which will somehow, against all experience, imbue the migrant with the virtues of the indigent culture continues to amaze me.

    You don’t expect a European migrant to, say, the jungles of New Guinea or Borneo to take up headhunting on arrival, so why the hell do we expect a Central American peasant, whose sole experience of functioning in a modern state consists of fleeing heavily armed fellow peasants hired by the various ricos in his home country, to be able to immediately participate effectively in an American context upon their crossing the border here?

    You want to validate an idea, you need to show it works both ways, and these geniuses who keep assuming that by adopting the outward forms of a culture, like Danish socialism, you’ll somehow carry over all the underlying things that make that social system work in Denmark. It’s the same ‘effing idiocy that they put into policy in the last housing bubble–”Oh, successful middle-class families all own their own houses; we’ll help these poor people, who have none of the characteristics which made these middle-class families successful, buy houses… And, then they’ll automatically be successful middle-class members!!”. Yeah. Sure. That’s how it works, all right.

    Cue video of the effects of such thinking in Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and soon to be seen in South Africa…

    I’ve concluded that the primary problem with the people running Western civilization (into the ground, I might add…) is that they have a fundamental inability to work out the intricacies of cause and effect, attributing things appearing on the surface to surface causes, while ignoring the deeper waters they actually stem from. It’s like someone looking at an electric light, and paying attention only to the light and the switch, while ignoring the electrical wiring and power plant as being irrelevant to lighting the room…

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