On the Edge: Power without responsibility, responsibility without power

Solveig Torvik

Solveig Torvik

“On the Edge” is the new opinion column in the Norwegian American Weekly. These are opinion pieces written by invited contributors to make some comments on the current issues that define modern Norway.

Written by Solveig Torvik

The Norwegian Study of Power and Democracy was a five-year, government-mandated effort overseen by five academic experts charged with assessing what’s going on with democracy in Norway. This heroic undertaking bore the imprint of the Crown and resulted in 50 books by more than 100 authors.

Yet only one hour was allotted to a 2003 briefing in Storting on the study’s conclusions. The study and its findings sank like a stone – perhaps because it highlighted worrisome areas of decline in Norwegian democracy that certain factions of Norway’s political class might prefer to ignore.

“The report was discussed very little and that’s the disappointing part of it,” says Storting’s Secretary General Hans Brattestaa. “It’s rather depressing to see what happens at the end of the road because nothing really happens and no decisions are taken.” (Americans are well acquainted with similar outcomes whenever panels of experts are deputized to assess daunting social/political problems.)

The study seems to have gotten more thoughtful attention in England than in Norway. Stein Ringen, professor of sociology and social policy at Oxford University, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that much is going right in Norway, a cohesive nation with weak social conflicts, high quality of life and “a content and optimistic population…” As he put it:

“By European standards, crime is low, the law lenient, and the prison population small. Governance is honest and benevolent, democratic institutions retain high legitimacy and voter participation is comparatively high (but falling).” Thanks to the oil, “the government’s problem is an unmanageable surplus.”

But Ringen also pointed to less positive developments, particularly that the central government has usurped the power of local municipalities and that political parties, because they’re subsidized by taxpayers, have become unaccountable to the will of their members.

“The decline in local democracy is driven in part by the irrationalities in the organization of the welfare state… Central government has power without responsibility and the local government has responsibility without power. Citizens need feel no inhibition in making ever-greater demands on the municipal authorities because their demands are sanctioned by the Storting. Nowhere in this spiral are dues and duties linked and no one is in control,” he wrote.

According to Ringen, the message of the democracy study is that the decline in Norway’s democracy is caused by “a demise of local government, in election and party systems, in a lack of accountability in the welfare state, in the courts and judicial review.”

That’s a big accountability deficit for any nation hoping to function as a healthy democracy.

“Deny political parties subsidies and make them compete for members. Shape the election system so that government formation follows the outcome of the vote and so that governments hold enough power to rule,” Ringen rightly argued.

British political commentator Simon Jenkins also weighed in on the study at The Times Online in an article titled “Democracy is dying but we’re too rich to care.”

His take was that “The Storting’s proportional representation is disastrous for most Norwegians,” who, he wrote, “feel cheated and ignored by a shifting state army of politicians in Oslo. The Storting has lost public respect and seems no more than a talent pool for government.”

Asked if he agreed with the assessment that there’s a lack of accountability in the Norwegian political system, sociology professor Fredrik Engelstad, head of the study and of the Institute of Social Research, said, “I have to admit I haven’t reacted that way.” But, he added, “The parties have become a bit arrogant.”

Three men and two women were on the oversight committee, and the women filed a dissent from the men’ conclusions. Siri Meyer, professor of humanities at the University of Bergen, said the men concluded that the growing power of pressure groups and the media was undermining democracy in Norway because the traditional, time-honored political method – reasoned consideration by members of Storting – was eroding, with a consequent “loss of rationality.” The women disagreed. They championed a more open, less paternalistic system.

For example, the fact that news media can be used by individuals to press political demands was considered a bad thing by the men, according to Meyer. “I don’t think so,” she said.

Ringen, meanwhile, noted that the term “order” was much used in the committee’s summary to describe how things once were in Norway and “disorder” for the way things are now. He gently suggested that this disturbing new disorder might not be entirely bad for Norwegian society.

“But there is also something liberating in the clearing away of a paternalistic all-present cobweb of ‘groups,’ and modern assertive citizens may well be satisfied to have a bit less of someone else’s order weighing down upon them.”

As well they may.

Solveig Torvik is a Norwegian-American journalist and author of “The World’s Best Place Norway and the Norwegians,” available as an e-book or printable document at www. smashwords.com.

Please bear in mind that opinions expressed in “On The Edge” are not necessarily those of the Norwegian American Weekly, and our publication of these views are not an endorsement of them.

This article was originally published in the Jan. 21, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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