The Best Country in the World!
Newsweek recently ranked the world’s countries. Finland, where I happen to be from, is the best country in the world, according to their research. Yay! said lots of Finns. Soon after that, the Gallup organization released its results from a survey that asked people where they would like to live if all the border controls in the world were abandoned. They calculated what the population of a country would be as a result. Interestingly, Finland — the best damned country in the world! — with a current population of about five million, would only have about seven million people.
What’s up? Don’t people read Newsweek?
OK, so the two projects are not at all compatible, methodologically, in about nine bazillion ways. Nobody who gets a paycheck from a university should cite them together. My bad. But the seeming (I said seeming!) discrepancy raises an interesting question: what makes a place worth living? And that gets us into political theory territory.
Why wouldn’t Finland have seven hundred million people living it? First, it’s pretty much out of the way, for everybody. And not just out of the way, but up north. In the winter, the sun barely rises (in parts of the country, it doesn’t rise). Summer lasts, oh, about an afternoon. And one of the national delicacies, a thing called mämmi, looks like poo and doesn’t taste much better.
And, yeah, the suicide rates are pretty high. The language is impossibly hard, though the one blessing is that nobody likes to say anything, so you might be fine without speaking for five years. You aren’t packing your bags yet?
Fine, it’s not all miserable. There is some edible food, the people are friendly once you start talking to them, and since almost everybody can speak English, you’ll be fine without Finnish. And there’s tons of amazing natural beauty, if that’s what you go for. Still, that’s slim pickings for the best country in the world. Best, in what sense?
The late great American political philosopher John Rawls developed an interesting thought experiment for thinking about what principles citizens of liberal-democratic societies would choose to govern themselves. He called it “the veil of ignorance.” I’m both adapting and simplifying things here. His interest was for figuring out the principles of justice for a given country. But imagine you got to shop for the country you wanted to live in, except that you didn’t know who you were. You knew you were going to be a citizen of the country you chose, probably for life — most humans prefer to live in the culture they are from the rest of their lives — but you didn’t know anything about whether you were smart or dumb, intrepid or lazy, and you didn’t know your sex, race, religion, interests, life goals and the like would be. How would you choose? What would you choose?
Ha! Here’s where Finland — and Switzerland, and Sweden, and Canada, and the other top scorers — begin to look appealing. You’d probably be interested in finding a place that made it probable you’d thrive regardless of who you turned out to be. And the variables Newsweek tracked — education, quality of life, healthcare, political climate, business climate — would probably be pretty good proxies. Rawls would point out you would also be interested in the level of inequality, which Newsweek didn’t directly track, because it’s no fun if there’s a significant population of sad losers who lack the goodies while others have them in large amounts. But you see the point: from one perspective, it seems obvious why the countries Newsweek found to be the best might seem the best.
Yet there’s another perspective, that of the individual not behind a veil of ignorance. Most people have an almost natural bias for the familiar — how could it really be otherwise. From the individual perspective, then, it depends on whom you talk to. For Americans, it might be mämmi, after all, and the lack of sunlight, in Finland, that fail to seal the deal. Or, considering yet another perspective, you might ask a Muslim immigrant to Switzerland whether he or she thinks it’s the best country in the world. My point then, again, is: it depends.