Finland and Utopia

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Finland and Utopia

Leftists and Greens want to build a better future. But it is unusual for them to mention Finland as a good example. People don’t notice this country very much but it is one of the most equal, peaceful, and happiest in the world. Danny Dorling and Annika Koljonen write about how Finland shows how good it is to invest in people. And they suggest what Finland can offer to the rest of the world.


For the third year, Finland was top of the UN's World Happiness Report in 2020. Credit: Kostiolavi/Pixabay

Finland is the one place that shows that something better is possible. That is a big responsibility. Of course, Finland is not Utopia, but today it is one of the closest countries to Utopia.

2018 was the first time Finland was top in the UN’s World Happiness Report. A UK newspaper said, ‘and even when its GDP is below the US and Germany!’ When Finland passed Norway to take first place in the World Happiness Report, it had a GDP per capita more than a third lower than Norway. And then it was top in 2019 and 2020.

The World Happiness Report ranks countries by GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption. The quality of their lives is on a scale from 0 for the worst to 10 for the best.

Finland most clearly shows how it is possible to have happiness without needing to get richer and richer. And its material living standards are below the richest parts of the world, including its richer Scandinavian neighbours. Research in Finland shows that ‘well-being depends on our position in society and on the welfare system’. But the research also finds that Finland is unusual in another way - the thoughts and feelings of new migrants to the country. In rich countries, immigrants are usually more optimistic than other people in their new country. When the UN measured the happiness of immigrants for the first time in 2018, Finland was the highest of all the countries compared. But in general in Nordic countries, including Finland, people’s well-being is generally very high. But being an immigrant is not a good thing. It is possible that it is very hard for immigrants to fit into a society that is already so equal. If you arrive in London or New York as an immigrant, you are just one of many others in cities full of immigrants. And you arrive in a society that is very divided. The rich do not trust the poor, and the poor do not trust the rich. Almost everyone is an outsider in one way or another. Many or most people you meet will be migrants like you, or their parents were. The same is not true in Finland or other countries near the top of the list of the happiest or the most politically stable places.


The Fragile State Index ranks 178 countries in 12 areas. This is to try to find the risks and weak points in individual nations. Now Finland is the highest overall, it is the least fragile state in the world. It is also highest in many other areas, including low group grievance, high, socially even economic development, good public services, and low demographic pressures.

At first it seems surprising that Finland is very strong in so many other international rankings, and that Finland is highest of all 178 countries for political stability. But international rankings are very positively linked with each other. It is easier for your people to be happy if your state is not fragile, your press is free and responsible, your schools are well organised, the health of your infants is good, and the health of the population is improving quickly from a poor record before.

Finland today is one of the few places on earth that is closest to a situation where we are happiest: when we are caring for each other and not competing; where we all have the same value. Another rich country, the UK, is in many ways the opposite of Finland. 1 in every 200 people are homeless. In Finland the number of homeless people is at least four times lower and almost no one is sleeping on the streets.

The UK government says that generally the number of homeless rose by 169 per cent between 2009 and 2018 in England. In Finland in the same time period, the number of long-term homeless fell by 35 per cent, and sleeping on the street was nearly zero in Helsinki. In Helsinki there is only one night shelter with 50 beds. In recent years, every week on the streets of England, three people die because they have nowhere safe to sleep. The BBC said that Finland was ‘the only EU state without a housing crisis, the result of Finland’s Housing First plan which started in 2008… in Finland housing is a right, not a reward, as it is often in other EU countries. In Finland public funds and Finnish slot machines pay for the system’, and the Finnish government is thinking about using new (including online) gambling taxes and licences. Finland no longer gives temporary housing to the homeless. It gives them a normal apartment, immediately.


The leaders of Finland’s five coalition parties in December 2019. Original collage: Tuomas Nisakangas Trust in journalism


Universal basic income

When we think of Finland as a model for other countries, one idea we think about is a universal basic income (UBI). There were experiments in Seattle and Ontario. And in 2016 the Finnish government tried an experiment with 2,000 people. UBI is not the only idea for reforming social security in Finland. Most of the country’s political parties have their own models, and the experiment itself was targeted rather than universal. At the 2019 World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman said that universal basic income ‘is all about freedom’.

The first Finnish Basic Income experiment was from 2017 to 2018. It started because of the way work is changing and because more people have temporary and part-time jobs. The 2,000 people in the experiment were unemployed at the start and they received a basic income of €560 ($665) every month for two years. It didn’t matter if they had other income or if they were not looking for work. The experiment was to see if they could make the social-security system simpler, and to see if it encouraged employability, since benefits go down when people start paid employment or receive other income. The idea was that because basic-income payments are not enough for all living costs, it would not stop people from finding work. One person, journalist and writer Tuomas Muraja, replied to people criticising the idea:

People worry about the high cost of the basic income model. But free school meals, free basic education, and free universal basic healthcare are expensive too… The system requires more investment to help the minimum income level, to improve the level of financial incentives, and to simplify it. Critics worry that basic income will make people lazy. But some evidence from many basic-income experiments from around the world shows that people use basic income to improve their quality of life and not as a way of doing nothing.

The results in 2019 showed that the plan did not increase the number of people who found employment, but it did not reduce it. Some people criticised the study but Rutger Bregman said that the people in the experiment reported higher levels of well-being, less stress, and greater overall happiness.

One thing to think about with the early results of the experiment is that increasing employment need not be a major aim of basic income. If people in Europe consume less, and pollute less, then they need to also produce less, and learn to live on lower incomes. A basic income makes it possible to live on a very low income and spend your time doing what you really want to do, including useful unpaid work. If you need a little more money, you can work, but it need not be high-paid work. If Finland is to stay one of the happiest countries in the world, it won’t be because everyone works for as many hours as they can, or for as much money as they can get.

One day…

One day, a country will have a universal basic income (UBI) for everyone. Finland may not be the first, but it will experiment further and is very open to similar new ideas. Many people say that UBI is too expensive. But how much more expensive is it than, as in the UK and especially the US, large numbers of people in overcrowded prisons, with plans to build more prisons, and calls for more and longer sentences? A universal basic income would not go with the idea of wasting money on antisocial activities such as putting so many people in prison. But it would go with very big reductions in carbon emissions. People who choose to consume less reduce carbon emissions. They would not have to drive to work if they choose not to work, and a basic income of course means basic. A universal basic income is only too expensive if you think it is necessary for people to go hungry, cold, and homeless to keep many of the rest of us in paid employment, much of which does not really help society.

One day, a country will have no need for prisons; and Finland already has very few prisoners. People find the idea of no prisons strange, because they think a future society would be the same as now but without prisons. But Alice Speri is a journalist in the Bronx in the United States. She says, ‘the idea of no prisons is not strange in a society dealing with things like white supremacy, economic deprivation, toxic masculinity, and providing connections between people, and where communities are responsible for each other.’ One day, a country will have no homeless people. Finland is very nearly that country.

One day, no one will die early. This utopian idea is at least two hundred years old. In Western countries we remember the words of mill owner Robert Owen to the people of New Lanark in Scotland on New Year’s Day 1816, ‘I know that society may exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little or no unhappiness, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundred times; only ignorance can stop this.’

Finland’s recent history can give us all hope. On 20 March 2020 for the third year Finland was again the happiest country in the world.

Of course, Finland is very good at much more than just happiness, and we should learn more about how and why Finnish ideas work in practice – because we need those ideas urgently in the world.

Danny Dorling is Professor of Human Geography at Oxford University; Annika Koljonen is a Politics And International Relations graduate from the University Of Cambridge. She lives in Helsinki. This is from their book Finntopia: What We Can Learn From The World’s Happiest Country (Agenda Publishing, 2020).


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)