I was in Helsinki last week at the invitation of some combination of the Party of the European Left, the Left Alliance, and the Left Youth. While there, I did a presentation on recent trends in policy on the US left and debated the merits of privatization with Finnish MP Juhana Vartiainen of the National Coalition Party, among other things.

At the beginning of the debate event, I presented a slideshow of the major differences between the US and Nordic countries as I see them. The presentation is here: pdf, pptx.

Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara debated Mikko Kiesiläinen of the Libera think tank and then I debated Juhana Vartiainen. The video of all of this is below:

My debate with Vartiainen was an interesting experience coming from the US. That a conservative Finnish MP agreed to debate an unknown socialist from America in an event organized by the country’s far left is kind of amazing on a discursive democracy level. I can’t imagine a US member of Congress ever agreeing to anything like that.

In his introductory remarks, Vartiainen emphasized his view that he likes both the welfare state and market liberalism and believes there is a symbiotic relationship between them. He summed this up by saying “my slogan would be more market economy and more welfare state.” So an MP from the most economically conservative Finnish party has an ideological position that is generally in line with US Niskanen Center and a set of current policy preferences that is to the left of the US Democratic party.

Later, when asked about unions, Vartiainen says “trade unions are the most important popular movement in Scandanavia. They have really made these countries what they are. So I wish them well.” He also says “I am for representation in company boards [for workers]. It seems to work quite well in Germany and Sweden.” This last quote is a reference to codetermination policy, something Elizabeth Warren recently introduced a bill on. Prominent parts of the American right-wing have described codetermination as nationalization and even Niskanen’s Samuel Hammond rejects the idea as a catastrophe.

The actual substance of the debate ended up being a little odd. Since Vartiainen publicly professes support for the welfare state, trade unions, and even codetermination, the main area of tension between us was supposed to be about whether social services should be produced by private providers (though still funded publicly) and whether state-owned enterprises (which are prominent in Finland) should be privatized. This is the debate the moderator pushed us to have, but it was a debate that Vartiainen did not take a clear stand on.

Instead of saying he thinks privatizing social services like health, education, and social care is good, Vartiainen said he is in favor of seeing whether private or public providers work better and going with whatever the evidence shows us. So the desired debate where he pushes for privatization and then I push back didn’t really play out in the way I was hoping. Rather, Vartiainen basically just took an “it depends” and “we need more research” stance on all the questions asked, saying for instance that it appears education privatization in Sweden did not work well but that, in other places, privatizing certain health service delivery seemed to be effective.

On state-owned enterprises, he took the position that some state-owned enterprises seem to work well and make sense such as Patria, the state-owned military contractor, but that in other areas state-owned enterprises maybe did not make sense.

My reaction to his ambivalent position was to say that the empirical evidence is clear and that private delivery of social services does not generally work well, for instance in the US health care sector. I also argued that it is not easy to save money by contracting out to private providers because there is a lot of corruption in that process (such as in the US military sector) and because social services are labor intensive and therefore hard to make more efficient without degrading the quality of the service, e.g. by increasing the teacher-student ratio or nurse-patient ratio.

Finally, I argued that maintaining state-owned enterprises maximally supports the welfare state because state-owned enterprises turn over their dividends to the state, which can then go to fund the welfare state.