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Tyler Cowen:

I've said it before, I'll say it again. No matter what your politics, contemporary northern Europe represents a high point in human civilization.

No matter what your politics? I give you Harry Lime:

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Okay, so Harry Lime is a rather unpleasant character, and one can quibble with his interpretation of history - but the point stands. Contemporary northern Europe is a high point in human civilization only if your standards are those of, well, contemporary northern Europe. Those standards are certainly defensible, and indeed I share some of them myself, but it's very easy to imagine all sorts of politics - ranging from Christian to Nietzschean, from Qutbian to Confucian - that would call the Nordic countries a low point, or at least a mediocrity, on the axis of human achievement.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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