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Why we should be more like Denmark Covid has brought us face-to-face with the need for common purpose

The Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen actually connects with her citizens. Credit: HENNING BAGGER/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

The Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen actually connects with her citizens. Credit: HENNING BAGGER/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images


October 16, 2020   5 mins

Capitalism was not working well before Covid. It is a system with unique capacities to build cohesive societies capable of surmounting problems, but the sort of capitalism that we have encouraged during the past four decades has done the opposite. Given the unprecedented scale of the current shock, will coronavirus accentuate these failings, or trigger remedies?

At its best, capitalism generates “adaptive communities”, a simple-sounding phrase that packs a lot of meaning and is key to how we¬†will get through the current crisis.

We have evolved to belong to community. Humans are a distinctively pro-social mammal: we want to be part of a group and to win the good opinion of its other members. Small communities happen naturally, but large ones have to be organised. Rousseau was the first philosopher to see the advantage of cooperating at scale in a community: hunting solo we could only catch rabbits, whereas hunting together we can catch stags.

Successful businesses and public bureaucracies do not just rely on formal hierarchy, they build themselves into communities that achieve a purpose. Similarly, successful cities, regions and countries rise beyond just being places where a random collection of individuals happen to live, to being purposive communities. So how does a community become capable of acting together for some shared goal?

The surest way is through dialogue and trusted leadership. Dialogue is a particular form of communication, and usually takes the form of narrative: the style that all of us have evolved to master. It engages everyone, so that all members of the community can participate and co-own the outcome. It flows back and forth between equals who aim to understand each other, in contrast to instructions flowing down a hierarchy. And it presumes mutual regard between participants, not indifference or worse.

Dialogues tend to build a common understanding of a situation, a common sense of identity that can co-exist with our other identities. But above all, they can create a sense of common obligation that encourages us to put these collective purposes ahead of our own individual interests.

Trusted leadership is valuable in building new common purposes¬†quickly, such as we suddenly all needed with Covid. Again, humans have evolved to be¬†distinctive. All other mammals have only one style of leadership ‚ÄĒ¬†dominance. We are a mammal species and so unfortunately there are plenty of¬†dominant leaders around. But uniquely, we have evolved an alternative¬†style of leadership, through behaviour that demonstrates that the¬†community comes before self: self-deprecating humour and¬†self-sacrificing actions that win people‚Äôs trust. Dominant leaders see¬†themselves only as commanders-in-chief; trusted leaders can also be¬†communicators-in-chief.

That combination of community dialogue repeatedly achieving common purposes, plus a trusted leader who can guide the dialogue rapidly into new common purposes is, I believe, why Denmark has handled Covid-19 so successfully. Other than for a brief initial lockdown which signalled the new common danger, it has kept its schools open and had among the smallest hits to its economy, while also suffering among the lowest excess deaths.

What Denmark has achieved this year is part of a repeated pattern of¬†achieving common purposes, which is why on all the indices of¬†wellbeing, happiness and living standards, it is the most successful¬†country in the world. And it is currently led by Mette Frederiksen, a¬†working-class single mother who easily relates to people: when she¬†says “we”, everyone is willing to listen, and so she has been able to¬†build the new common purpose of containing Covid without damaging the¬†economy.

She did not need a doctorate in virology to understand what everyone needed to know and to do. We all need to know whether we have Covid, hence the government providing mass track-and-trace. And we need to protect our neighbours: if young, that means getting on with our lives while staying clear of the old; if old or vulnerable, it means taking neccessary precautions to minimise risk. The genius of Denmark is not big science, but fast common purpose.

Communities need to be adaptive, though ‚ÄĒ and again, evolution has come to¬†our assistance. We are distinctively imaginative, starting in¬†childhood. We dream up situations which would be improvements on our¬†present life ‚ÄĒ I remember as a kid dreaming of something like a¬†mobile phone that I could use to chat with my friend. Currently, in¬†Silicon Valley the dream seems to be “if only we had flying cars”.¬†And¬†then we use those imaginations for creative ideas: my kids now have¬†those phones, and they are every bit as much fun as I had imagined¬†(albeit a parental nightmare).

Of course, it is much easier to dream than to create, and so an¬†existential condition of humanity is that we attempt goals that we do¬†not know how to achieve. Both our ambition, and the vagaries of life,¬†keep plunging us into unknowable futures: a condition now recognised¬†as radical uncertainty. Globally, we have had two massive episodes of¬†it in the past 12 years ‚ÄĒ during the Financial Crisis of 2008 and with¬†the onset of Covid. No one knew what to do, and that is why we need to be¬†adaptive: if we don‚Äôt know, we need to find out as fast as possible.¬†How can we do that?

The knowledge needed for good decisions comes in two forms, expert and¬†tacit. Expert knowledge is what I am supposed to have as a professor¬†of economics. Tacit knowledge is what you get from experience doing a¬†task in a context. Expert knowledge without tacit knowledge is¬†dangerous: the arrogance of experts is a menace. But it is designed to¬†be shared ‚ÄĒ teaching it is part of my job. In contrast, tacit¬†knowledge is very hard to share ‚ÄĒ you learn it by doing it, and it is¬†very particular to context. So, for rapid learning, it is more¬†effective to share expert knowledge down the hierarchy, than to drag¬†tacit knowledge up it. The implication is when an organisation needs¬†to adapt, the right form of governance is devolved.

But if we don’t know what to do, fusing expert and tacit knowledge is not enough: we also need to experiment. We need as many experiments as possible and so they should be done in parallel, a further reason why an adaptive organisation needs devolved governance. When all decisions are taken at the top of the hierarchy it often leads to doing the same thing everywhere, or to differentiation by crudely drawn central criteria. Devolution enables teams in different parts of the organisation to use their creativity and so will naturally lead to differing approaches.

Some will work better than others, and yet again evolution is on our side: we are uniquely good at imitating the success of others within our community. But for imitation to work, we need devolved decisions within an encompassing community, not separation into rival communities. Everything should not be decided in Brussels or London: decisions about common purpose need to be taken at the lowest level possible, both for a strong sense of common obligation, and for rapid learning. But to share that experience we need the encompassing identities as well: European and British.

Before Covid, government had retreated from a pragmatic quest for common purposes within a community, to dogma-driven disputes between rival identity groups. Equally, business had retreated from being our primary organisation for purposeful innovation to overcome practical problems, into a scramble for short-term profit that often causes more problems than it solves. Capitalism wasn’t working.

The post-Covid world will inherit all the previous problems and add more. So, we will need adaptive communities more than ever, in our businesses and in our polities.

Will we get them? I am hopeful. The rise of individualism has weakened¬†our societies but it is now being discredited, the ideas which claimed¬†to justify it now being refuted. Greed is¬†Dead, co-authored by John Kay and I, is part of a tidal wave of work by communitarian intellectuals looking at the new evidence, among them Raghu Rajan’s The Third Pillar and¬†The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel.

And we can all see before our eyes the manifest damage that the loss of community has wreaked. Covid has brought us face-to-face with the need for common purpose and a way to remake capitalism for the better. In Britain, one of the most over-centralised countries in the world, the Government issued commands but felt obliged to open a portal for volunteering.

The scheme¬†revealed a strong residual desire to¬†contribute to community, so that while the Government expected 250,000 people, more than twice than figure volunteered just on the first day. And yet Westminster¬†had no idea what it might¬†do with them.¬†In contrast in the USA, where individualism has been rampant for¬†longer, people‚Äôs initial response was to queue outside gun shops. Not “protect your neighbour” but “shoot your neighbour.”¬†And the America political “debate” we watched with disbelief? Not dialogue, but shouting down.

Covid can bring us to our senses; or it can complete the process of tearing us apart.

 

Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University. His latest book is Greed is Dead: Politics after Individualism (with John Kay).


Sir Paul Collier is a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Oxford Blavatnik School of Government.


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Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Denmark is capitalist, yet the article insists that capitalism has failed. Denmark is also 90%+ white and heavily native-born, ethnic Danish people, but I doubt the good professor is advocating a move toward greater cultural homogeneity. Even the article cannot ignore that last point:
The genius of Denmark is not big science, but fast common purpose.

Common purpose comes from people who have a great deal in common, people who share a value system, a culture, and a way of life. That’s harder to do in societies where you can’t tell who’s been around five minutes and who’s been there five generations. And it is near impossible to do in nations that have imported people who are hostile to the native culture.

On a smaller scale, South Dakota did not shut down when the pandemic arrived. It did not panic, it did depend on govt to dictate every waking move. It is also a world apart in culture from, say, New York, especially the city.

Su Mac
Su Mac
3 years ago

Classic ivory tower misunderstandings of American society. Nowhere does personal and financial contribution to charity and community like Americans – even as a society of individualists they are focused on giving a hand up and individual betterment. And which sector of American society represented the largest increase in gun ownership in the last months as cars were set ablaze, malls boarded up, windows of local businesses were smashed and the police pulled back out of their communities? BLACK. WOMEN. How does that fit in with your cliches?

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
3 years ago
Reply to  Su Mac

At their best, Americans behave as you say; we saw that with the rescuers in small boats during the Dallas floods a few years back.

Sadly, many Americans are often not at their best. And the problem is not restricted to the mega-city jungles.

Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
3 years ago

Sorry, but this article is a word salad of platitudes.

Yes, Denmark seems like a nice country and the author highlights some good qualities. Too bad they have the highest levels of personal debt of any country in the world. And their animal welfare standards are a bit of a shame. None of this, however, provides any actionable information about how to deal with Covid-19.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

“.. highest levels of personal debt..”
Lower government debt as % of GDP; higher GDP per capita, higher productivity, lower Gini coefficient, better public services, lower C19 death rate, better current account balance, AND much better looking people.

Niels Georg Bach
Niels Georg Bach
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

SE the link above

Niels Georg Bach
Niels Georg Bach
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

Like most English – like Nick Cohen – you don’t know much about about the danish economic system. Here is a short primer from our National Bank. – Analyses by Danmarks Nationalbank and others show that the vast majority of Danish households have robust finances and are resilient to an interest-rate hike or a prolonged period of unemployment. Most families have sufficient scope in their budgets to be able to handle e.g. rising interest expenses at their current income levels. Others have savings that they can eat into if their incomes are not quite sufficient, even for longer periods. The share of households with robust finances is particularly high among those with mortgage debt. It is relevant to focus on this group, as mortgage debt accounts for the lion’s share of household debt. – + Most danish employees has a well fundet pension fund – most Danes pay between 15-18% og their wages to a employee owned pension fund, depending on their job. WE are rather rich. And our State finances are well founded too even after Corona. https://www.nationalbanken….

John Stone
John Stone
3 years ago

Well, you may be telling Andrew Harvey off, but what about Sir Paul Collier – Harvey May denigrate Denmark but how is this comparable to the British situation. And Collier is supposed to be a high ranking economist, not to mention a knight!

Orla 28
Orla 28
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

Communitarianism is just that, verbose, vague and full of platitude, the difference is the billionaire class get more power.

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp
3 years ago

Sheep are pretty much the same in any country: unquestioning, compliant, contented in their ignorance.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Crisp

True, the question is your sheepdog better.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

It’s not a sheepdog that’s needed but rather that gladiator of dogs, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier .

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Crisp

Rather like most of the human race, judged by the world wide panic that is raging around C-19.

John Stone
John Stone
3 years ago

From the Oxford Blavatnik School of Government website:

” Our supporters range widely, from our original donor Len Blavatnik to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Amersi Foundation, the Inamori Foundation, the Africa Initiative for Governance, the Lemann Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Wellcome Trust and many more.”¬Ě

Oxford is a morass of philanthropy all apparently to stitch us up with very likely the same networks behind them: the Martin School, the Uehiro Foundation for Practical Ethics, the Jenner Trust, the Oxford Internet Institute. Behind them are the super rich.

So who is all this conformism really for?

Derek M
Derek M
3 years ago
Reply to  John Stone

Indeed, Cui Bono?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘Trusted leadership is valuable in building new common purposes quickly, such as we suddenly all needed with Covid.’

All a national level all trust ln leadership was destroyed by Iraq, followed by Libya, the response to the financial crisis, MPs expenses, the response to Brexit and various other issues. Their contempt for us is matched only by our hatred of them. And, due to the catastrophically authoritarian and incompetent response to Covid I now hate the Tories as much as I hate Labour.

Meanwhile, hardly anybody trusts the leadership at local levels, although I am currently quite impressed with Burnham, who has always been a little more human and rational than most politicians.

Anyway, It is not necessarily common purpose we need, but common sense. Sadly, there is no chance of that at any level of authority or within any arm of the British state. The whole system is devoid of all integrity, competence or accountability. At least in China there is some accountability. If you don’t run things properly you are out. If you are corrupt you are in jail. Or worse. If we are going to be run by vile authoritarians they might as well be possessed of some competence and accountability. The pathogens that have infested the western mind are, I think, terminal.

As for ‘Greed is Dead’, really, do me a favour. It is more rampant than ever, across the oorporate, governing and public sectors.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“…leadership was destroyed by Iraq…”

Didn’t stop the British people from voting for the 2 main parties that institutionally supported the war. The party that opposed the war didn’t win the GE2005!

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Only 61.4% of the great British public saw fit vote in 2005.
For most of us the Iraq War was a “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing”¬Ě.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

It doesn’t change the fact that the British people voted for the same parties

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Which tells you a lot about the British people and the media from which they suckle. Whatever, I never voted for New Labour, not even in 1997, so I don’t have the dead on my conscience.

Chris C
Chris C
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

If you voted Tory, you voted for a party which was keener on the Iraq War than Labour, in terms of percentage of MPs opposing it. The Labour opponents were the Labour Left, people like Jeremy Corbyn.

Penny Gallagher
Penny Gallagher
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris C

Charles Kennedy? I voted for him for precisely that reason.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

Not enough of you!

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

H.L. Mencken understood the people correctly 100 years ago.

Niels Georg Bach
Niels Georg Bach
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Meaby that’s why the English left prefer to talk about the Iraq war 20 years ago instead of Iraq today. A generation ago young left would express solidarity with the young Iraq people who fight for a better future today, they don’t care.

stephensjpriest
stephensjpriest
3 years ago

Hello Unherd

Full national lockdowns should ONLY be used against coronavirus as a last resort because of the ‘collateral damage’ on mental health, says WHO boss

But he said total lockdowns caused ‘collateral damage’ and should be avoided
DAILY MAIL /news/article-8846019/National-lockdowns-resort-says-boss.html

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
3 years ago

The author knows nothing about volunteerism and positive community response to disasters in the United States. We have no shortage of either behavior. Moreover, our tradition of individualism and “can-do” spirit results in spectacular and heroic efforts in response to disasters—we don’t always wait around for some official government to give us permission or come up with a plan; we just do it.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
3 years ago
Reply to  Sheryl Rhodes

In other words, the USA is only a good society at times of disaster.

At all other times, it is a sad and lonely society plagued by social problems.

Eg the opioid and other drug epidemics now ravaging the American heartland

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Since the author was specifically speaking about how many Brits responded to a call for volunteers in response to the Covid crisis, my point about how Americans respond enthusiastically with volunteering (and money) in times of crisis is completely on point. We just do, and anyone who thinks we do not is uninformed.

In response to your unsupported leap from my statement that we Americans, too, respond in times of crisis, to an assertion that Americans ONLY respond in times of disaster, that’s also demonstrably false. Data shows that Americans are very generous in donating time and money both locally and abroad.

My quibble is with the author’s illogical and unsupported assertions about American volunteerism. There’s no logical connection between an uptick in firearms sales and volunteerism. You can be concerned enough about personal safety, in a time of civil unrest when police protection has been purposefully withdrawn, to decide to arm yourself–AND also give time and money to help out your community.

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp
3 years ago

The unscientific dictatorship is the same here as any European country.

Aden Wellsmith
Aden Wellsmith
3 years ago

So we have mixed economies.

So lets look at the socialist element, the welfare states.

USA, $230 trillion pounds of debts, zero assets, hidden off the books. 30% of taxes going ont he debts.

UK. √ā¬£14 trillion pounds of debts, zero assets. hidden off the books. 30% of taxes going on the debts. Annual rate of increase, 10%

So austerity, wealth inequality, pensioner poverty, lack of investment all caused by the socialist welfare state.

No wonder people want to blame capitalism.

bocalance
bocalance
3 years ago
Reply to  Aden Wellsmith

In re the US, I wouldn’t say “zero assets”. The US has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. That’s still must be worth something. But, yes, it is sure not worth $230,000,000,000,000.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
3 years ago
Reply to  Aden Wellsmith

No, caused mainly by:

1. The top echelon (say the top twelfth) gobbling too much of the cake

ie big business and finance, plus tech entrepreneurs (+ all the hangers-on of the above) wrecking capitalism for the sake of their selfish and unbridled Appetites and Egos

Thus

2. The desperate need for welfare measures to rescue much of the population.

The Homesteaders who built America were dispossessed by big business and the banks – not by “socialism” or welfarism.

David Redfern
David Redfern
3 years ago

What a lot of ideological drivel. No wonder we’re in the mess we are with these loonies influencing our youth.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

Perfect article for imperfect times but having read the comments below, it now seems I’m the odd one out.

Seems ethnic nationalism led by Andy Burnham might be the solution in the UK.

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp
3 years ago

What a load of bollocks! Idiotic restrictions are as prevalent here as any other country. I have witnessed the illogical restrictions imposed here that the public have followed like mindless sheep.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

UK should invite the Danes to liberate the country from BoJo/Tories. Let’s call it Glorious Revolution 2.0.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

What a splendid idea. We could also offer them ‘Danegeld’, as we used to!

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Access to fishing grounds should be good enough (Danegeld = Danefisk).

Niels Georg Bach
Niels Georg Bach
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

No, expand your own fishing industries. But of course Denmark has made fishing deals with England since the 13. century

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
3 years ago

Capitalism was built on the Protestant faith + the accompanying virtues and public spirit

All those things died in the 1960’s.

Only ghosts and pretences now remain.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

I am aware of Max Weber’s work on Protestantism and capitalism but I would argue that it was in Renaissance Italy that capitalism was born (finance, banking, accounting, etc.) And Spanish/Portuguese voyages made possible the flood of gold/silver to Europe.

Orla 28
Orla 28
3 years ago

The professor claims to have refuted capitalism but fails to acknowledge communitarianism has been refuted as nothing more than a cult of the wealthiest top 1%.
Communitarianism still leaves us with a wealthy elite ruling class, many from said higher social class have made their money off the backs of the tax payer, now they want a panopticon styled communitarian system to give us back charitable tokens in the name of community.
Instead of government welfare we will have welfare doled out by the billionaire class in the form of stakeholder capitalism dressed as communitarianism.
Acknowledging the flaws within central bank money creation and adjusting accordingly solves many of the issues the Professor highlights.
The communitarian cult is nothing more than a vague and verbose way for the billionaire class to condense power under the guise of humanitarianism.

Amitai Etzioni is the cult leader of communitarianism, he is israeli.

Orla 28
Orla 28
3 years ago

The professor claims to have refuted capitalism but fails to acknowledge communitarianism has been refuted as nothing more than a cult of the wealthiest top 1%.
Communitarianism still leaves us with a wealthy elite ruling class, many from said higher social class have made their money off the backs of the tax payer, now they want a panopticon styled communitarian system to give us back charitable tokens in the name of community.
Instead of government welfare we will have welfare doled out by the billionaire class in the form of stakeholder capitalism dressed as communitarianism.

Acknowledging the flaws within central bank money creation and adjusting accordingly solves many of the issues the Professor highlights.

The communitarian cult is nothing more than a vague and verbose way for the billionaire class to condense power under the guise of humanitarianism.

Amitai Etzioni is the cult leader of communitarianism, he is israeli.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
3 years ago

Our current Selfish Individualism must be replaced by Altruistic Individualism (co-operative Individualism, if you prefer).

Repeat: MUST !

This is not a mere option.

For the first time since 1945, we are in a time of crisis. And in such times, WH Auden’s line “We must love one another or die” becomes constant political necessity, not mere ethical aspiration.

John Stone
John Stone
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

People thinking of the common good is not the same as them all having to think the same thing, as determined very likely by global oligarchs.