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A taste of Danish integrity

New surveys rank Denmark as tops in honest government and low corruption, making it a model for others. What can be gleaned from this relative lack of rottenness among the Danes?

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People walk past a windmill in Kastellet park in Copenhagen

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With all due respect to Shakespeare, something is not so rotten in the state of Denmark.

A new survey finds Danes are more likely than other Europeans to regard corruption as rare in their society. Yet oddly enough, the Danish government is not ranked very high in rules against greasy fingers or other forms of graft.

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The survey, whose results were released Monday, was conducted last year for the European Union as a result of the EU citing corrupt practices in a few countries as a cause of the eurozone crisis.

For a continent that has long prided itself as a cut above other parts of the world, the survey’s results came as a shock. The extent of corruption in Europe is “breathtaking,” said EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. Three-quarters of Europeans say corruption is widespread. More than half say it has increased. Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Spain and the Czech Republic are on par with poorer nations in their levels of graft.

All the more reason to ask why Denmark (along with Finland and Sweden) is tops in its class for clean governance. Can others learn something?

Denmark stands out because it is also the world’s least-corrupt country, based on last year’s perception survey by the Berlin-based Transparency International. It is the happiest country, according to the 2013 World Happiness Report, which tracks corruption as one of its factors. And a 2011 study of 30 established democracies ranks Denmark as the highest.

No wonder many countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, have sent officials to Copenhagen to glean the sweet secrets of this Danish success. For sure, Denmark has its occasional corruption scandal. But what makes them rare, according to Transparency International, is a strong culture of public administration, relatively few anticorruption rules, and a strong practice of integrity. Danes have a very inclusive political culture and a high degree of social cohesion.

Their rate of volunteerism is about 40 percent, reflecting a civic sense of responsibility. Denmark also ranks high in gender equality and egalitarianism.

These traits are woven into society rather than imposed. This may appear to make the Danish model somewhat untransferable. Yet the history of many countries shows a culture can shift toward honest governance.

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England of the 18th century was highly corrupt, as was America in the 19th century. Yet with civic and moral campaigns, corruption is now much less in each. In the 20th century, Singapore stands out as a country that swiftly developed clean government after breaking away from Malaysia. Its leader at the time, Lee Kuan Yew, said, “We were sickened by the greed, corruption and decadence of many Asian leaders.”

For a nation to lessen corruption, honesty must be internalized by a majority of its citizens. They can be influenced by changes in laws, wealth, democracy, economic freedom, appreciation of diversity, and stability. Dishonesty, in other words, need not be a permanent fixture in a society.

Rottenness in a nation is best avoided if enough individuals see themselves as incorruptible. Or as Horatio says in “Hamlet”:

“Heaven will direct it.”