David Heinemeier Hansson

January 4, 2024

The reality of the Danish fairytale

Denmark has long ranked high on the list of societies that American liberals dream about turning the United States into. And for many good reasons. Education is state-funded, and students are even paid a stipend to go to university. Health care is equally free of individual charge, and there’s generally a robust social safety net for unemployment, maternity leave, and the like. Not to mention the fact that Copenhagen is one of the most enthusiastic biking cities in the world, as well as being one of the very safest. There’s a lot to love about Denmark, and I do.

But to pine for a society like the Danish purely on the basis of the benefits is delusional. These benefits are fenced by a myriad of compromises and obligations. The fawning, superficial adoration that American liberals usually bestow on Danish society rarely seems to dwell on these protective factors, so let’s spend a minute doing so.

That free education? Yes, it’s great, but it’s also fiercely guarded by meritocratic access. Every in-demand field of study is guarded by the all-important grade-point average from High School. If yours is too low, well, sorry, you’re just not going to study psychology or become a midwife. It doesn’t matter whether you came from an underprivileged background, did a million extracurriculars, or hail from an ethnic minority. You either make the grade for your first choice or you pick something else to study.

Almost all of higher education is of course also state run, and on a strict budget. Many American colleges more closely resemble a 4-year luxury vacation than they do the often dreary Danish experience (and I’m not just talking about the lack of sunlight for months in the winter!). Last I looked, I think the Danish government spent something like $13,000 per student per year. The teaching itself is usually fine, but the experience overall is rather barebones compared to what many Americans would imagine (but Danish students do compensate in part by consuming record levels of alcohol!).

And even with stipends, most Danish students either hold a part-time job or take out student loans or both. I left my three-year degree with about $14,000 in student loans in 2005, which is about $20,000 today, adjusted for inflation, or about the same as the median US student load.

Healthcare is also state run, and access is fiercely guarded by financial constraints too. You need a referral for all specialties, the wait may be substantial, and usually when you go to the doctor, you’re treated to a strict 15-minute slot, that’s it. Such efficiency has its price. Just in my immediate family, I’ve witnessed at least three faulty diagnosis, two of which had serious consequences.

But much of the time the system is fine, and I’d say for routine stuff, I even prefer the brutal efficiency. Several times while living in Copenhagen from 2020-2023, I’d literally be in and out of the doctor’s office in less than twenty minutes. There’s no paperwork, you just scan your yellow health insurance card, and you never see any of the bills. Nobody has to worry about going bankrupt from becoming seriously ill.

But if you’re used to being able to easily select your own doctor, and expect treatment in a few weeks at most, not months, you’d probably be in for a surprise as a consumer of the Danish healthcare system. Everything is run with an eye on the economics, even if the bill isn’t sent to the patient.

Perhaps the most shocking example of this to me was the maternity ward in Copenhagen’s prestige hospital, where new mothers are customarily discharged a mere four hours after delivery.

That is to say that care is heavily rationed. Doctors usually default to a walk-it-off or wait-and-see diagnosis, and while that’s clearly the only way to constrain costs in a state-run system, it’s certainly not without it’s trade-offs. Any American who’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a good health insurance package would see this setup as a serious reduction in care.

But it is egalitarian. You’ll get the same cancer treatment at the state-run hospitals, broadly speaking, whether you’re a lawyer or a street sweeper. Same too with education where if you put in the work to get good grades, there are no legacy admissions to outrun or donor wheels to grease. That still doesn’t guarantee equal outcomes, of course, but it really is remarkably fair in its equality of opportunity for both treatment and learning.

Which brings us perhaps to the biggest bugbear about Denmark that American liberals tend to skate past: Immigration. Denmark is a highly homogenous society. 87% of Danes share the same ethnic heritage, and they openly credit their cohesive culture and willingness to participate in and share for the common welfare to this fact.

In the mid-90s, after a decade of doe-eyed optimism about immigration in general and asylum seekers in particular, a powerful nationalistic party set a tone for foreigners in Danish politics that remains to this day. At first the political establishment fought this new force, sought to keep them out of influence, but it didn’t last long, because the renegades represented the will of a large number of Danes who realized the dangers of unrestricted immigration early, and voted accordingly.

You can contrast this political reality with Sweden, which otherwise shares a lot of similarities with the Danes in terms of welfare-state design. They went with an open-door policy on immigration for far longer, ended up taking many more (about 3x Denmark), and are now in a world of hurt with the highest gun-murder rate in all of Europe, along with an overall crime rate 50% greater than Denmark.

This example just across the sea has only emboldened the broad Danish hostility to foreigners. What used to be fringe political demands in the early 90s have long since turned into establishment priorities. Denmark has sought for years to process all asylum seekers in Rwanda, passed symbolic laws to confiscate jewelry and other valuables from immigrants to pay for their stay, and are just now evicting minorities from so-called ghettos. Despite the objections from some liberal Danes, these measures all have broad political support from the two main political factions in the country. A super strict approach to immigration is now just taken for granted.

You see, despite the fact that Danes proudly declare themselves to be a social-democratic state, it pursues perceived freeloaders with a savagery worthy of its Viking roots. Anyone deemed to be insufficiently enthusiastic in contributing to the common good, usually through work and by paying taxes, are hunted morally and practically by the culture and the state.

The egalitarian ethos only applies to those who contribute and those who conform. And contribute you will. Your tax rate in Denmark starts at around 37%, and by the time you’re making $85,000/year, you’ll be paying above 50% on your marginal earnings. On top of that, you’ll pay a 25% value-added tax on all purchases. All this free education and free healthcare doesn’t come cheap!

But while high taxes might not offend the liberal American’s sensibilities, the national conforming measures might. There is no separation between Church and State in Denmark. Denmark is a proudly Protestant nation, has a church minister in the government, and pays to maintain a large network of churches around the country. By default, everyone pays 1% of their income to the Danish church system.

Additionally, Danes fund a monarchy headed by one of oldest royal bloodlines in the world. The soon-to-be former Queen can trace her lineage back a thousand years. All the way back to the likes of Harald Bluetooth who introduced Christianity to the Danes in the 9th century. The key figures in the royal family enjoy approval ratings above 80%.

So Denmark is steeped in strong national traditions and institutions, and outside of a small cultural elite, looks highly skeptical on the concept of multiculturalism in theory, and actively fights it on almost every corner in practice.

To generalize broadly, Danes are content paying high taxes for high services, as long as the recipients look like them, and all do their outmost to pitch in. There’s no tolerance for loafers, not even in high society. It’s a sin to sit idle for too long in Denmark.

One area where this is apparent is with working mothers. Denmark has the highest rate of small children in daycare in the world. While new mothers enjoy a generous maternity leave of up to one year, 18% of all Danish children under one years old are already enrolled in daycare. And these new mothers are expected to return to the labor market immediately after their initial leave.

It’s perceived as antisocial or low-status to be a stay-at-home mom. Something typically associated with poorly integrated immigrants. It doesn’t matter how well off you are. You had a kid? Awww, that’s great. So when are you getting back to work?

Still, if you compare to many working mothers in America, this is of course preferable. Even if there’s no socially-approved path to staying home with the kids past the first year, at least you’ll have several months to bond with your new baby. But again, trade-offs, obligations, and strict cultural expectations apply.

Denmark also has zero tolerance for vagrants or drug users. You will not find any of the open-drug scenes that have ravaged American cities like San Francisco. (The tourist attraction of Christiania and it’s “Pusher Street” as the partial exception that proves the rule.) Marijuana remains illegal, drug dealers are caught and prosecuted, and you can get in serious trouble for possession as well.

The same goes for the mentally ill. You’re not going to find obviously distressed individuals roaming the streets of Copenhagen for long before they’re picked up by the police. Denmark will involuntarily commit anyone who’s a potential danger to themselves or others, and it really doesn’t take much.

Panhandling is also illegal. A Romanian man who begged on the streets of Copenhagen was sentenced to 20 days in jail in a case that’s now before the Human Rights Court.

This might all sound rather harsh, and it definitely can be for anyone who violates the social norms. But the upside is a country that is remarkably safe and inviting to everyone who complies with the shared standards.

You see young children everywhere on the streets of Copenhagen, even at night. Our own son started taking the metro alone around the city at age 9! I recall playing outside after dark at age 6 with my friends, and those 1980s freedoms for kids are very much still alive.

The point is that the Danes understand that they can’t both have a safe, open society where young children can be out alone at night, take the metro by themselves, and enjoy the play parks by themselves, if they also allow druggies, vagrants, beggars, and the mentally ill to roam the streets on their own accord. A strong civil society relies invariably on strong norms that are judiciously enforced by both customs and cops.

The fruits of Danish society are meticulously guarded by a strong, tall fence that surrounds the garden. In Denmark, this is self-evident, and not even up for serious debate.

Neither is the fact that when you do all of this in a country with a GDP per capita only 2/3s that of the US, you’re not going to live lavishly in a material sense. The average apartment size in Denmark is just 850 sq feet, the average row house just 1100 sq feet. Most people in Copenhagen get to work by taking the bus, the metro, or their bike. Whether rain or shine (and for about half the year, it’s usually rain!). It’s a national sport to save as much as possible on groceries. It’s common not to have your own washer and dryer.

I say all of this with the greatest admiration for the trade-offs that the Danes have made, and the norms and traditions they’ve embraced to hold on to them. As more of Europe starts struggling with the division we know in America, Danes are able to remain remarkably united.

But don’t you for a second think this unity isn’t contingent on the homogeneity of ethnicity, values, norms, and perhaps even religion. And if you sit over here, in America, pining for those Danish benefits, you should have the intellectual honesty to wrestle with whether you’d be able to stomach a society built on the same compromises and obligations. I rather doubt that most arm-chair social revolutionaries could or would.

In the end, I’ve come to develop a deep appreciation for everything that makes Denmark work for the Danes. It’s a rare achievement in our time, or any time, for that matter. But I’m equally in awe of what I now accept as the exceptional achievement of multiculturalism in America.

And know too, that almost any Dane, with the right will and gumption, could make it in America. Even become American. But almost no American, regardless of their honest intentions to integrate, will ever be able to truly become a Dane in the eyes of the Danish.

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.