Baby Talk

The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics, by Allan Carlson

Allan Carlson, president of the Rockford Institute, has written a slim intellectual history entitled The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics. It chronicles certain obscure events that took place 60 years ago in a minor European country, involving two academics, and a social problem now considered passe. And it has my vote as the social policy book of the year.

The volume is a brilliant little case history of how momentary public panics can be manipulated to produce permanent social rearrangements, of how a handful of energetic and creative activists can transform an entire society, of how very easily the tools of “social science” can be used to intimidate politicians and the public. It provides sobering instruction on the tendency of the modem rationalist impulse to produce centralization, elite control, and compulsory behavior. And it illustrates how frail our stock of inherited social knowledge-the lessons and evolved behaviors of many centuries of often bitter human experience-has become. As we face a new wave of family benders and social reformers, Carlson’s book provides a valuable opportunity to keep the long-run stakes in view.

In the 1920s and 1930s birth rates fell very low in many Western countries hitting levels for the very first time that could bring sharp population declines over the long run. This drop caused great consternation in the affected nations, among persons of all political stripes, and within the elites and masses both. Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, who would later become world famous sociologists and activists but were then relatively obscure Swedish professors, turned their joint attention to the population question.

They produced an influential and popular book, gained Gunnar’s appointment to the Royal Commission set up by the government to deal with the problem, and masterminded a sophisticated political and public-opinion campaign that brought revolutionary new social and economic policies to Sweden. Their core precept was that any effort to improve the status and number of children “required that the largest proportion of the costs and encurnbrances associated with them be transferred to society.”

The fact that this episode initiated Sweden’s conversion into a thoroughly socialized welfare state was no accident. In fact, Carlson shows, that transformation was the deepest motive of the Myrdals and their Social Democratic Party allies all along. “The population question is here transformed into the most effective argument for a thorough and radical socialist remodeling of society,” the Mydrals acknowledged. The government social minister who gave Gunnar his Royal Commission appointment was equally direct in addressing his fellow Riksdag members: “I do not hesitate a moment to frighten however many Conservatives and however many Agrarian Party and Liberal members with the threat that our population will die out, if with that threat I can persuade them to vote for social proposals which I offer.”

Carlson points out that this was the first instance in a modem democracy of the use of scientific data to create a “crisis” atmosphere outside of time of war or serious economic failure, a crisis that could then be exploited for political purposes. Alva Myrdal’s role in this effort was particularly cynical. While Gunnar at times showed a genuine worry over low birth rates and the durability of the Swedish family, Alva concealed a quiet loathing for the pro-natalist agenda even as she pressed her campaign in its name. She felt a pronounced antagonism toward home and private life, and her true goals in hitching her wagon to the popular population issue were the socialization of child-rearing and housework responsibilities plus the imposition of a broad social androgyny.

Carlson shows in intriguing detail how the Myrdals creatively and energetically worked the political system on behalf of their program. His descriptions of their manipulation of the Royal Population Commission make a particularly fascinating detective story. The Myrdals repeatedly demonstrated the “ability to determine the outcome of the commission’s work by setting out assumptions and modes of analysis that could produce no other real result,” as Carlson puts it. Techniques they pioneered-capturing the committee staff, controlling initial definitions of the problems at hand, mastering the technical subjects, and gaining monopoly control of calculations and report drafting remain favorite string-pulling methods within democracies today.

The public policies the Myrdals sold the Swedish people and parliament in the 1930s included large-scale government income redistribution; support for more labor force participation by young parents; publicly funded day-care centers and universal collective child rearing; more communal housing; more state-supplied free meals, health care, and education; subsidies to certain industries; a lot more central economic planning and control; an end to social inducements in favor of marriage before childbearing; new, more “flexible” definitions of what constitutes a family; and new, more flexible “life-values’’ in general.

The Myrdals completely discounted liberal ideas of private responsibility and individual freedom, which they considered outdated and irrelevant. This attitude deeply colored their reform agenda. They were adamant, for instance, that the state should always provide its benefits to individuals in the form of standardized goods and services, never cash, because they strongly distrusted the ability of most people to know “what was good for them.” Merely increasing the financial wherewithal of Swedish parents would do nothing to address what the Myrdals referred to as “quality” shortcomings in contemporary family life. Given that they always claimed to be acting in the name of democracy and equalitarianism, it is ironic that one of the couple’s central convictions was that expanded parental autonomy and broader household options would only perpetuate bad choices and undesired outcomes.

Through its vehicle the state, the Myrdals often argued, society should deliver directly to each household the “rational” amount of each domestic resource. “An income equalization in services,” wrote Alva, provides “a framework for a socialist development of society towards a more planned-and therefore less costly and more effective and adequate meeting of needs.”

Their distrust of average citizens was combined with a startlingly thoroughgoing faith in material and mechanistic solutions to human problems.  Looking around them, the Myrdals saw (as intelligent and sensitive people will) a good deal of human unhappiness, a large measure of inefficiency and sloppiness. And always they insisted that these things could be cured by “a rationalization of human life.”

So, the obvious question becomes: What was the Myrdal legacy? Did it all work? The simple answer is no. There was no clear improvement in fertility, and research shows that several of the programs seem to have increased divorce and reduced marriage rates. They didn’t succeed either in buying more children or in strengthening families.

And then there was the wider fallout. As the relatively modest programs that the Myrdals succeeded in pushing through at the end of the 1930s were gradually expanded and extended, the effects rippled ever more deeply through Swedish life. While rapid changes had been taking place in the country since the mid-l800s, Sweden began this century as a predominantly rural and relatively traditional and socially conservative society. Carlson points out that conventional middle-class domestic structures, sexual norms, and economic arrangements persisted in Sweden for at least a generation beyond 1939 and the wrap-up of the Myrdal’s big push. Indeed, the 1950s marked something of a domestic revival in Sweden, as in most other industrial countries, with marriage rates, home-based child rearing, and familism in general blipping upward.

This trend, however, was short-lived. The ideas and institutions of the 1930s debate-including government income distribution, special aid to never-married mothers, collective housing schemes, progressive taxation weighing especially heavily on families, feminist labor laws, welfare programs for an ever-growing array of social needs, and professionalized child rearing-steadily tinted behavior and attitudes. “State economic and cultural incentives,” Carlson writes, gradually “lured ever more Swedes out of traditional networks.”

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