Book Reviews

Book Review: The Nordic Theory of Everything (Anu Partanen)

What does a Finnish journalist, a New Yorker husband, and a new life in America equal? A lot of hassle (though not the husband’s fault), and a great book. Anu Partanen has written for both the New York Times and the Atlantic. She has also worked as a visiting reporter at Fortune magazine through the Innovation Journalism Fellowship at Standford University.

Scandinavia is different. Very different. These five countries consistently hit the top “happiest” lists, along with other lists dealing with schooling and healthcare. Speaking of healthcare, theirs is free. Going to the doctor? The most you’ll pay all year is $300 (unless it’s the dentist. That’s a different story). Though, this isn’t to say that Scandinavia isn’t without it’s problems (whether medically, academically, etc). But the school down the street won’t be crumbling in educational values, and the school across town won’t cost your life savings. In fact, they’ll even be affordable. How do they do this? Partanen describes her anxieties in figuring out the American way. She jumped into something that many of us have grown up in. She learned 


Partanen’s book has nine chapters. Some of the topics she develops are:

  1. Marraiage, babies, and maternity (and paternity) leave
  2. Education and the importance of teachers
  3. Healthcare and insurance
  4. Smart government
  5. Welfare or well-being (and the increased incentive to work hard by tying benefits to one’s income)?
  6. The middle class
  7. Income inequality

    About this, Partanen says,

    Government in the Nordic countries tends to be like a referee who makes sure that the field is level and the rules are followed, but who then steps out of the way and lets the competitors determine who gets the highest score. If the referee were to stop the game and take points away from the winners and give them to the losers, which is what many Americans seem to think happens in the Nordic countries, of course no one would want to play. It’s exactly because that’s not the way it works that Nordic citizens find their system to be in their own best interests (276).

  8. Running a business
  9. The Law of Jante

Though many would count Scandinavia as being “pure” socialism, it isn’t. Without getting into the details, Norway is a mix of socialism and capitalism. Partanen says,

Here’s how we in Finland understand socialism: The government controls production and bans onership of property—no private factories, companies, or stores, or free markets. No one is allowed to accumulate any personal riches. There is only one political party, few personal freedoms, and little or no freedom of speech. Socialism is one step away from communism, which Karl Marx defined as a situation in which the government, or indeed, the state itself, has become expendable (54–55).

These stereotypes wear thin on the Finns. “The number of Finns who sacrificed their lives fighting socialism and communism in the twentieth century is roughly the same as the number of Americans who died in America’s two hot wars against communism—Korea and Vietnam—and that’s out of a population about one-sixtieth the size of America’s” (55).



What you won’t find in this book are practical ways on how to implement changes. TNToE gave me a better understanding on how Scandinavia as a whole works. Perhaps people who read this and have a greater knowledge of economics that I can begin to make changes certain in America. Although, compared to Norway, I really don’t know just how well the other four Scandy countries work in their economic practices. I’ve heard competing theories from they all work fine to Sweden has a difficult time incentivizing people to work. America is still in a state of infancy compared to many other nations, and it has plenty of room left to grow.

I affirm that Christians are to be doing what they can to change the culture and social structures of a country. This means being involved in government and politics, understanding culture, business, economics, and history. Perhaps greater minds than I can pick this up and consider how to benefit America. But also, changing a few laws won’t change people’s hearts. Even still, there are wise ways to govern a country, and there are wicked ways. We should be doing what we can to make whatever country we live in a place that can take care of its citizens.

No country is perfect, and I certainly am not one who can give a response to this book with any kind of real political and economic knowledge. But in terms of interest, in showing some of the problems in America, it has helped to encourage me about living in Norway in the future. This book for many may only serve as a “here’s what’s wrong with America and what’s right with Scandinavia” king of book. And largely, that’s what it is. Partanen doesn’t go into much detail about what’s wrong in the Scandinavian countries. She spends most of her time critiquing America. That said, she does have a point. Generally, people in Scandinavia won’t go broke when a spouse dies from cancer. Insurance isn’t going to make them pay an arm and a leg for cancer treatments (see this Canadian Breaking Bad meme). This doesn’t mean that everything is easy and everybody can be carefree and blissful, but there are certain affairs that Scandinavians don’t need to be too concerned over.

As a Christian, I’m also not sure how I think about the “Nordic Theory of Love.” In some ways, having the independence allows sons and daughters to care for their parents in their old age without having to hoist the heavy burden of this care for an unknown time in the upcoming years. In other ways, how self-sufficient and independent is it okay to be? This isn’t a criticism of Partanen, as she doesn’t slide to an extreme that says there’s no need for marriage or relationships. A “be your own island” mentality. But for Americans, and Christians especially, we’ll need to think through this nordic theory of love in something more than 160 character tweets and in the short seconds between Facebook posts.

You also won’t find in this book the Nordic theory of everything that goes on in the Scandy countries. Partanen gives the reader many opportunities to see into the looking glass and get a top-down view of the Nordic countries. But it’s in relation to how America works, rather than a comparison of each of the five countries (as in The Almost Nearly Perfect People), nor is it a complete look as to why Scandinavians are the way they are. But for what it is, it is interesting, and perhaps it will compel you to do something about (y)our country.


  • Author: Anu Partanen
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Collins (June 28, 2016)

Buy it from Amazon

Disclosure: I received this book free from Harper Collins. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

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