President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson: Social Welfare Benefits the Free Market

The president of Iceland explains the secret to the Nordic countries' recent economic and social success. Social welfare programs such as free access to education and healthcare have proved to be a boon to the free market economy.

Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson recently visited Big Think to discuss a number of the successes and challenges relevant to his small island nation. These are issues both resonant in the present day as well as looking ahead toward the future. A few weeks ago, Grímsson tackled climate change, obviously a challenge moving forward rather than a success (at least, not yet). As for today, the topic is one that has contributed to the progress and prosperity of the Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. 


Each of those nations, says Grímsson, has a competitive free market economy augmented by a robust social welfare system. These programs ensure that "everybody, irrespective of their income and class, gets the same right to education, to healthcare, and to equal treatment in an economic way." In countries like the United States, social welfare and economic progress are sometimes seen as opposing goals. As Grímsson explains, social welfare in the Nordic states is integral to economic progress:

"This coexistence of a social welfare society, with a right to education and healthcare equally distributed throughout society, is one of the pillars of our economic and business success. So you cannot find any business organization in any of the Nordic countries, which is advocating that we should decrease this social welfare system. On the contrary, the prominent business leaders of our countries realize that the evolution of this social welfare system in terms of education and healthcare is one of the major reasons why the Nordic businesses have been globally so successful and why our market economies have grown so aggressively."

Grímsson tells how an established system dedicated to caring for the sick and educating every child allows the business community to focus on what they do best -- business.

"The Nordic formula, not just the Icelandic one, but also from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, has created what The Economist, the preeminent weekly economic newspaper in the world, deemed a few months ago perhaps the most successful economic model in the last few decades."

Finally, Grímsson notes that his American friends who decry the Nordic system and employ words like "socialist" as pejorative terms are completely missing the point. All you have to do is look at Iceland's economic record, as well as the economies of the other Nordic states, to realize that the rewards of this particular social framework transcend all outdated and myopic biases.

"The evidence is absolutely clear that to provide everybody with a right to education and healthcare is a formula for economic and business success."

For more on social welfare's role in the successful Nordic free market economy, watch the following clip from President Grímsson's Big Think interview:


President Grímsson's is co-founder of Arctic Circle, a non-profit, non-partisan open assembly focused on Arctic issues.

Why a great education means engaging with controversy

Jonathan Zimmerman explains why teachers should invite, not censor, tough classroom debates.

Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • During times of war or national crisis in the U.S., school boards and officials are much more wary about allowing teachers and kids to say what they think.
  • If our teachers avoid controversial questions in the classroom, kids won't get the experience they need to know how to engage with difficult questions and with criticism.
  • Jonathan Zimmerman argues that controversial issues should be taught in schools as they naturally arise. Otherwise kids will learn from TV news what politics looks like – which is more often a rant than a healthy debate.
Keep reading Show less

Are these 100 people killing the planet?

Controversial map names CEOs of 100 companies producing 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Image: Jordan Engel, reused via Decolonial Media License 0.1
Strange Maps
  • Just 100 companies produce 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.
  • This map lists their names and locations, and their CEOs.
  • The climate crisis may be too complex for these 100 people to solve, but naming and shaming them is a good start.
Keep reading Show less

SpaceX catches Falcon Heavy nosecone with net-outfitted boat

It marks another milestone in SpaceX's long-standing effort to make spaceflight cheaper.

Technology & Innovation
  • SpaceX launched Falcon Heavy into space early Tuesday morning.
  • A part of its nosecone – known as a fairing – descended back to Earth using special parachutes.
  • A net-outfitted boat in the Atlantic Ocean successfully caught the reusable fairing, likely saving the company millions of dollars.
Keep reading Show less