Other forms of Freedom
Whom are more “free”, Norwegians or Americans? Just asking that question is enough to draw the scorn of too many of my countrymen. That’s sad. But what also is sad for an American ego is to at least consider that people in another country may be more free.
It would be too easy to discuss how free Norwegians are in issues already well publicized such as health care, governmental allowances for children, health care, maternity and paternity paid leave, vacation…that’s all been done. I wanted to take this opportunity to think about another angle that by its absence, its invisibility is important.
Yesterday, we traveled via the bus and shanks mare to central Oslo. I had an appointment at a police station for immigrants to get identification cards and tax numbers – the all-access passes. It did not look or feel like a police station, more like a very nice DMV. The two security men I saw where dressed in casual grey uniforms and no visible weapons or other implements.
The center was a diverse place. I heard Russian, a pair of Macedonian women sat next to me. Many men and women wore traditional Islamic garb. Yet, I felt less tension there then waiting for my driver’s license back home. Granted, it was fascinating for me to be people watching, but there was no appreciable spectre of enmity lurking among the many peoples present.
From the police station, we walked to my office located next to the castle. Oslo was lively but not crowded on a Wednesday afternoon. As we walked and gawked, I didn’t see any police. Frankly, I was looking because I was just a little off course – not lost – just off course. As a paranoid American I only wanted to ask an official for assistance. It wasn’t meant to be. Finally, I asked some nice young men manning a cell phone table for directions. And just like that we were on Karl Johans Gate, the most important street (its pedestrian only) in Oslo.
Our walk took us past glamorous shops, swank hotels, the Parliament Building (Storting), the national theater, and the King’s castle.
In all that time, past so many critical landmarks, I only saw the police once. They were mounted officers riding slowly together, from the west to east.
This long setup leads to my question about freedom. Norway spends a lot of tax dollars to reduce inequality. The government, i.e. the people (no, not “We the People”, that’s a different topic) invests strongly in childcare and promoting healthy upbringings, education and workforce training, and general well-being. And perhaps, those monies then obviate the need for a heavy American-style police presence.
What is the opportunity cost in America of a heavy police presence? The police in general have gotten a lot of bad press of late, the bad apples ruining it for all the upstanding officers. If the price of freedom in America is to live in a heavily policed state, then how free can Americans be? I think the Norwegians have gone along way towards achieving Freedom from Fear. They’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but they clearly have done many things right.
Can Americans ever achieve such a social peace? I believe we can, although first we would need to reconsider what freedom means. What if freedom went from meaning, “do anything you want” to living in a community that is free from fear? As I travel this year I hope to be able to come back to this topic with broader perspectives from cities and towns around the land.