]> In Finland

In Finland

Part 7 of 11
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This is a blog of various impressions and experiences during the first of my settled life in Finland, home of my Finnish vaimo, in 2010-2011 and 2013-.

The Rule of Law or Love of Rules?

January 10, 2015

Every country in Europe has its pleasures and pitfalls. In France you can enjoy food and drink prepared with patience and great attention to detail, but don't try to take a train during one of the many strikes held throughout the year, or accidentally start a conversation in English with the wrong person at the wrong time. In Italy fashion and style are exuded by people on every street corner, the coffee is great, the lifestyle casual. But watch your step and try not to breathe in when walking around alleys and back staircases, and be careful venturing out onto the roads, particularly on two wheels. In Germany everything works, just not as colorfully as in more southern neighboring countries, in the UK you have lousy food but can understand what everyone is saying, and in Eastern Europe you have beautiful architecture preserved for unbeautiful reasons.

The high points of Scandinavia are less well-known, these northern countries being situated somewhat off the beaten path, but they exist nonetheless. There is something of the Teutonic penchant for organization, but as well a certain peacefulness deriving from the uncrowded nature of these sparsely-populated countries. Here in Finland, nature remains a tangible presence in daily life, whether in the smell of pine trees blowing in to even suburban areas, or the organic wood and earth tones of the sauna.

And everything works. At bus stops there are digital displays spelling out the arrival times of the next buses of various numbers, trains are generally showing up and leaving on time (and with good frequency), and broken sidewalks and potholed streets are quickly repaired. There is no sense of decay or neglect, but rather one of newness and orderliness. Sometimes that comes into conflict with the expressions of nature, but it's always possible to escape to the countryside.

These are the first impressions, gathered over the course of a year or so of residency. But if you stay longer, other patterns start to reveal themselves.

Public spaces in towns and cities can be brutally regular and square. Trees planted in strict rows, benches at right angles, grass here, stone there, nothing in between where it shouldn't be. This order in space is mirrored by order in time. When the Finns go on vacation, they do it strictly according to schedule. Almost no one works in July, almost no one takes a vacation in April. All of southern Finland takes the first week of February off for "ski break", then eastern Finland takes the second week off, and finally the west and the north go during the third. The rates at hotels can go up and down by 50% from one week to the next depending on whether anything is scheduled for that time. If a national holiday falls on a Saturday, there is no Friday off beforehand nor Monday afterwards. The holiday was on that Saturday and that was it -- better luck next year. If one falls on a Thursday then the day off from work is on Thursday, no ifs, ands or buts. You can try asking for the Friday off as well, but don't expect an understanding attitude or to have anyone else joining you if the request is actually granted.

As you might expect, the situation is at its worst with bureaucrats in companies and government agencies. We've all had frustrating experiences dealing with institutions where someone refuses to make a small exception to some rule intended to deal with completely different situations than ours, no matter that it would make our own life an order of magnitude easier. But here that kind of thing is ramped up a notch. In fact, most of the time no one even bothers asking for exceptions since it's so inconceivable they would ever be granted.

And it's not just bureaucrats. I had a woman literally threaten to call the police one time because I was parked in her reserved spot in front of my building. It was unimaginable to her that there could be any excuse or acceptable reason for me to occupy "her" spot at that time or any other, or that I could be forgiven for my transgression.

We have to ask whether all of this rule-orientatedness is completely a good thing. On one hand, rule-following is at the heart of a society abiding by the "rule of law" -- that is, one that consistently applies the same principles to decide the same kinds of situations occurring despite different actors and details. The rule of law dispels anarchy and allows people to rise above having to constantly be out for and worrying about themselves and their short term well-being. Without rules, there cannot be the perception of fairness, and without the perception of fairness all life becomes a Hobbesian struggle to secure the best situation for oneself.

On the other hand the act of applying rules dehumanizes the participants. The person affected is seen not as an individual but as a member of a category, or simply an agent in a particular situational pattern. And the person applying the rule is reduced to a mere machine, measuring which template fits the given situation and then mechanically applying its implications.

The situation is exacerbated if there is a lack of willingness to question rules, which seems to be the case in Finland. The attitude is that as long as a consistent rule is being followed then things are "fair" -- whether the rule itself is optimal in the first place is secondary. Perhaps overall it is better than the opposite extreme, but I find myself missing the slightly more rebellious spirit our cultural history has fostered in the good ol' U.S. of A.

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