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The Best Country in the World!

September 9, 2010

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.

  1. Lea Whitby permalink
    September 9, 2010 9:00 PM

    I read the Newsweek article and thought of you, Mika. I also thought of the lack of sunlight, etc. Somebody said that most of the countries that ranked high had rather homogeneous populations, thus possibly avoiding some of the clashing and noise that we are subjected to here in the USA. Then there is the “sitting in the sauna” competition. Difficult to determine what that means. If I could go anywhere, I’d stay right here in Wisconsin. That probably means I am old and not wanting to deal with change anymore–or it could mean that I like our weather (variable) our water (plentiful) and our people (not too many crazies and most of us are rather amusing, without really knowing that we are)–we can entertain ourselves by just looking around!

  2. Lorig Stepanian permalink
    September 13, 2010 4:06 PM

    I really like how this post explains the basis of which Newsweek and other magazines rate the “Greatest country in the World”. Financially a country like Finland or Canada seem to be very attractive; however, on a day to day basis, I personally find that sunlight, culture, and human interaction are more appealing. In my opinion, I would rather live in a place where there is more diversity culturally and where I could spend more time outdoors, being that I do have a particular identity as a teenaged female living in the US. I am used to having a summer, eating many different foods and meeting many different people. It would be very difficult to adapt to a such a change in environment. (Not to trash your home country!!!)

  3. Shan Lin permalink
    September 13, 2010 8:42 PM

    In my opinion, Newsweek’s rankings does not accurately reflect the majority views or opinions of the public. Newsweek is naturally bias toward the more educated middle and upper class citizens because they are the ones who are buying and reading the magazine. It’s not hard to believe that it’s much easier for a educated person to read and understand some of the materials presented by the Newsweek. It’s not very often that you will find a low income, single mother picking up a Newsweek in a store or at a magazine stand . People who read the magazine are most often professors, economists, attorneys, and maybe students when they are doing research and require Newsweek as a resource. Not every one wants to read the Newsweek. It’s not a big surprise to find that people with more money and knowledge would want to live in countries that are financially stable, provide quality education and healthcare to its citizens, and at the same time enjoy what the nature has to offer. To them, these ideal countries are like the perfect vacation spots to escape from their hectic lives. Then to others, these countries are just plain boring. I think the States is wonderful. It’s filled with cultures of the world. I’m from NYC. I can travel around the globe in less than 24 hours tasting different foods and experiencing different cultures without the costs of the plane tickets. So it all depends on what people enjoy doing; although I still think that people enjoy great food more than the nature beauty. Maybe that’s why Finland would only have six millions population. (not saying that Finland is not a great country :))

  4. Alexandra Jeannine permalink
    September 19, 2010 11:32 AM

    I think the question of “the best country in the world” can also be translated to ask “the best state in the USA”. To me, this question is easier to answer because I am more familiar with the States than I am other countries. To answer this question, I have to agree with Mika and Shan Lin. It depends. But what does it depend on? Personally, I would like to live in a state, like Wisconsin, that offers a similar experience to my Midwestern life. I enjoy the easy-going culture, a farmland setting, and a slower lifestyle. Shan Lin, you said that you enjoy NYC for its access to different cultures’ traditions. I think we both chose states that we are from because those states offer a lifestyle that we are familiar with. Although it may seem closed minded of me, I can’t imagine living anywhere else when I’m older or even raising a family anywhere besides the Midwest. I’ve traveled to many parts of the country, but since I know I had a wonderful experience growing up in the Midwest, I am hesitant to risk creating a new life somewhere else and not liking it as much.
    Therefore, I think much how we decide how to go foreword in our life depends on what we have already experienced and know. It is easy to listen to someone from another state talk about his or her experience, but to take his or her word, is a completely different ballgame. I will always trust my judgment before I readily accept another person’s, and I think most people would agree with me.

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