David Heinemeier Hansson

June 25, 2023

Back to America

After spending much of the past three years in Denmark, our family is returning to America full time this summer. The original reasons for temporarily emigrating – the prolonged school lockdowns and other pandemic madness – have long since evaporated, and we've had a solid chance to taste all that Copenhagen has to offer. And that's a lot. This is a wonderful country and a wonderful capital.

In fact, if you were to make a pro/con list contrasting family life in Denmark vs America, I think even fairly conservative parents from the US would find it difficult to compose a slam-dunk case for God's own country. I have perhaps never spent serious time in a major city so well-designed for children as that of Copenhagen. Just the idea of giving up on letting our pre-teen zip around the city on the metro by himself seems like a big loss.

But life isn't just a set of rational arguments for or against. As Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground puts it:

Reason is an excellent thing, there's no disputing that, but reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man's nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots. Here I, for instance, quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life. What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning.

Reason as "simply one twentieth of my capacity for life" is one of those insights that immediately and permanently marked my soul after I first read it. And it squares perfectly with recent interest in the "little brain in the heart", and the concept of the second brain of the body, which encompasses our gut as well.

You can draw a connection to Sowell's exposition of "unarticulated wisdom" too. Just because we can't quite put words to the argument doesn't make it invalid.

But the best articulation I can make is that Denmark works so well as it does because it's a small, homogenous society with strong norms that force a stringent cultural conformity. This has a world of benefits, and presents perhaps the most compelling case for the kind of capitalist-collectivist hybrid that the ideal image of a socially-democratic state possibly could.

It also breeds a small box for acceptable manners, thinking, and being. How could it not. If we realize that our benefits are reaped by our collective sameness, then any material otherness is a threat. And because the monoculture, to its credit and celebration, is so strong, it also means it's full of implicit sink holes for the uninitiated to fall through.

Americans and Danes share such a grand overlap in popular culture that it's easy to miss this at first. And we sorta did, when we lived the first part of our time here in the cozy comfort of the expat bubble. It wasn't until we gave the promise of long-term integration a proper go that the fault lines emerged.

Again, I can't fault the Danes for guarding the intricate, delicate web of norms, customs, values, and appearances. We've seen how fragile the social contract can be around the world. So when you have something good going, and as always find it hard to pin exactly why it's this good, you're naturally loathe to tinker too much with the recipe. I salute that!

But it's also meant that in important ways, this country had a hard time becoming home, deep in our hearts, however persuasive the argument was to our heads.

Maybe we'll be back at some point, but for now, I'm just ever so grateful that we got an amazing three years. And now I'm looking forward to being back in the whirlwind of America. Tickling many of the other nineteen tenths of our capacity for life.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.