Denmark's "Ghetto Laws" Show How the Welfare State Breeds Conflict

Authoritarian cultural homogeneity is the only way for a vast welfare state to survive.

Danish Parliament recently passed a majority of controversial laws in a 22-proposal bundle known locally as the “ghetto package.” Among these laws are plans to forcibly educate poor immigrant children in Danish customs for 25 hours per week, double the punishment for crimes committed in certain immigrant-majority neighborhoods, and increased surveillance of government-designated “ghetto families.”

At the heart of these oppressive policies lies a desire to protect the Danish welfare state from immigrants who are perceived as a drain on public funding and a threat to culture. When an ethnically homogenous country like Denmark builds up a leviathan welfare state, it becomes incapable of adequately dealing with increasing diversity. The only way to protect the collective social safety net is to divide society into two tiers: the indoctrinated and the outsiders. The proponents of group rights would rather trample the liberties of outsiders than embrace the individualism required for a successfully diverse society.

The Diversity Problem

It is well established that diversity reduces social trust. We’re more likely to assume good intentions of those who look, sound, and act the same way we do. Facial resemblance alone makes us believe others to be more trustworthy, even if they really aren’t. This is probably because we are inclined to trust those in our immediate family, and others who share similar racial traits simply benefit from this natural predisposition.

Authoritarian cultural homogeneity is the only way for such a vast welfare state to survive.

Those who look different than us, however, are more difficult to read. We have trouble discerning their motivations and values when they speak a different language and hail from a far-off place. Now mix this natural distrust with a vast number of public dollars and a lavish welfare system. Those who were once living in a comfortably homogenous country feel that they are subsidizing an unfamiliar way of life—one that could be seen as threatening to the long-established cultural norms of an ethnocentric state.

Researchers lauded Denmark as recently as 2014 for its seemingly ideal social trust. Nordic states have been placed upon an unrealistic pedestal, and those who wish to bring their model to the US have shied away from the fact that authoritarian cultural homogeneity is the only way for such a vast welfare state to survive.

George Lackey, author of Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got it Right – and How We Can Too, told the Atlantic that Nordic people “envy the kind of richness of cultural and racial diversity that we have here in the United States.” The voters and politicians of Denmark, however, provide a harrowing refutation of Lackey’s optimism.

When a country values society itself over the individuals in society, the social order must be preserved at all costs.

Among calls for “assimilation” over “integration,” Danish politicians push policies like a four-year prison sentence for immigrant parents who have their children visit their country of origin. According to the New York Times, these “re-education trips” will damage society and harm the children in question. This may seem like legislation that diminishes liberty and runs counter to western democracy, but even among western states, there is no consensus on what it means to be free.

Does Society Determine Our Freedom?

The Anglo-Saxon Western conception of freedom is best laid out in the American Declaration of Independence. People have rights, and governments are instituted by people to defend these rights from those who might do them harm. The rights come first, and the society is created to protect them. Rune Lykkeberg, editor in chief of a left-liberal newspaper in Denmark, says the Danish see things differently. Lykkeberg told the Times: “Our conception of freedom is the opposite, that man is only free in society.”

This is not a trivial or semantic difference. When a country values society itself over the individuals in society, the social order must be preserved at all costs. Crimes in certain neighborhoods can face twice as severe a punishment because the government must maintain harmony. Parents cannot have their children visit their country of origin because the kids may return with ideas that run counter to the long-standing culture of their current home. Taking children away from their families for forced indoctrination is not a moral failure because the national identity must be preserved.

When people tether their rights to a state-identified group, they view policy through that group’s lens. Members of outside groups are obstacles.

In what feels like a brief reading of George Orwell’s 1984, an older Danish woman told the Times: “The young people will see what it is to be Danish and they will not be like their parents.” Her husband added: “The grandmothers will die sometime. They are the ones resisting change.”

These are not compassionate statements about the benefits of a large social safety net but the remarks of people who think their ethnocentric public infrastructure is facing invasion by a dangerous, backward people. It’s assimilation at all costs. If people must be stripped of civil liberties and their children indoctrinated for hours each week, that is a small price to pay for preserving a strong system of public spending. The social order is more important than the individuals within it.

Societies that only grant rights to the individual within the framework of society will be more prone to authoritarianism and less equipped to rebuke threats to liberty when they arise. When people tether their rights to a collective, state-identified group, they view public policy through that group’s lens rather than as individuals. Members of outside groups are obstacles. Governments based upon such group identities will inevitably turn to tyrannical methods to keep the collective in power, and individuals will be viewed either as inputs or outputs of state projects.

The Collective versus the Stranger

Collectivist government does not attempt to protect people’s rights—it tries to determine them. Those who have earned the government’s favor enjoy more liberties than those who are seen as a drain, or worse, a threat. To this society, those who don’t have the resources to pay into the leviathan social safety net have no stake in the system and they don’t belong.

If the collective is the arbiter that awards certain people rights, and the collective decides that immigrants aren’t satisfactorily assimilating into society, then of course there will be attempts to justify abhorrent policy that creates a lower tier of citizens. Avoiding such sinister legislation would require a reverence for the individual and a refusal to relinquish to the government such sweeping power to determine who is part of the societal in-group.

The group in power can levy the legal system to destroy opportunity and foster hatred for those who don’t look, speak, or worship like others do.

When we incautiously gift these powers to government in times of prosperity, however, we see heart-wrenching abuses in times of duress.

Maintaining a multicultural society isn’t easy. Members of different groups will always struggle with one another, and public spending will be contentious. For a diverse country to find success, it must institute a government that holds the individuals who constitute society more sacred than the social construct as a whole. Otherwise, the group in power can levy the legal system to destroy opportunity and foster hatred for those who don’t look, speak, or worship like others do.

Rokhaia Naassan, a pregnant woman living in one of the 25 low-income “immigrant ghettos” designated by the Danish government, spoke to the Times. When asked about the policy to culturally indoctrinate her coming child, she aptly replied: “I’d rather lose my benefits than submit to force.” Unfortunately, in a culture that only acknowledges freedom through collective identity, Naassan and outsiders like her have few options other than submission.

Further Reading

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