No, Norway Was Not a Poor Country Before Oil Was Discovered
A brief economic history of Norway. How Norway developed into a rich country long before the discovery of North Sea oil.
Ask almost any Norwegian about Norway before oil was discovered in 1969, and they will tell you that Norway was poor country before oil.
It is not strange that they say this because it is a myth that we are taught in school. I am not sure what the motivation for this story was, because it isn’t true. It is true that Norway was poor compared to what it is today. The problem is that it gives the impression that Norway was poor in relative terms, which is absolutely wrong.
Norway was not among the poorest countries in Europe historically. It was among the richest! Now, why do I bother writing about this? One reason is because in these times social democracy is being more heavily debated internationally due to political leaders such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Many on the left like to point to Nordic social democracies as models. In these discussions, I’ve noticed there is a propensity to dismiss Norwegian development with the argument that Norway would be a poor backwater if not for the discovery of oil.
Before digging into the details, let me point out that I have better researched stories about this topic which goes into more details, using more solid data:
- How Norway Got Rich Against All Odds Before Oil — A detailed analysis of Norwegian economic history from 1800 to 1940.
- How Fjords Made Norway Rich — Going back all the way to Viking times to better understand the fundamental sources of Norwegian prosperity in modern times.
- The Secret Story of Nordic Prosperity — The strategies Norway and other Nordic countries followed from the 1900s to modern times to become propserous. A look at the role of socialism in that transformation.
Let’s examine the claim with some historical data. The map below shows GDP per capita in Europe before the outbreak of World War II.