When the antisocialist government took power in 1976, most Swedes expected two major changes in official government policy: a less socialist economic policy and more room for individual liberties, which had been given low priority in the socialist-collectivist political mix of the social democrats.
Today, the reality is quite different. Concerning economic policies, there has been an increase in government interventionism and government subsidies for companies in trouble, mainly because of economic developments outside the reach of government control. It is not practical policy in Sweden to let half a dozen companies with 20,000 employees each go bankrupt and lay off their entire work force. (The total work force in industry is some one million.) No government would survive such a development, and as times have been bad, especially in trades in which Sweden has traditionally been strong (shipbuilding, second in the world; paper and pulp, third in the world; specialty steel, among the top ten in the world), the government has done what has seemed necessary.
A great deal of taxpayers' money has been lost. More will be lost, and it will cost much in lowered efficiency in industry. The general view is, however, that the government will make an honest effort to loosen its control of industry when the business cycle turns up.
The outlook for the other expected change is much worse, however. Individual liberties are severely threatened in Sweden today, and in ways felt in the everyday life of most Swedes. A leading Swedish political columnist has observed that there is only one period in Swedish history named after the parliament—the "freedom era," 1718-1772, when the parliament was strong and emphasized political freedom and civil liberties and when the king and the aristocracy temporarily lost almost all their power. The present parliament, though, may very well elicit the naming of a new era in Swedish politics: the prohibition era—not because of an outright prohibition of alcoholic beverages (thus far, at any rate), but because of a number of other new laws enacted by the parliament.
MEDDLING IN MORALS
Prohibition had already started under the former social-democratic government, but it has speeded up today. The first step was the ban on sale of the standard Swedish beer in supermarkets. It was only to be allowed in the government-run liquor shops. Still obtainable in the shops is a very untasty brew called beer, but it can in no way be compared to the old type. The breweries have no facilities to make a good beer with less than 3.5 percent alcohol. Now they are forced to make one with only 2.8 percent (or 20 percent less alcohol), and no brewery has succeeded in producing a decent product under the new standards.
Beer consumption has dropped dramatically, with a corresponding increase in the sale of wine and heavy liquors. The purpose of the ban on the standard beer was to decrease the misuse of alcohol among the young. The effect has turned out to be just the opposite. Instead of their beloved beer, young people are turning to vodka, whiskey, and other heavy drinks. And sales of the 4.5 percent super-beer sold in the government's liquor shops have increased by some 400 percent in a year. The number of people arrested for being intoxicated in public has increased sharply since the ban on the beer. The reaction among parliamentarians has not been a move to reintroduce the old beer but a desire to ban the super-beer as well as certain popular brands of wine and hard liquor.
The next step also concerned alcoholic beverages. Do-it-yourself kits for wine making were banned. The new law was so badly worded, however, that the kits reappeared in slightly changed form (sold in two packages instead of one and with the raw materials in unconcentrated instead of concentrated form).
Step number three was the ban altogether of brewing wine from the dandelion flower. Dandelion wine is not tasty, but some regard it as healthful. If anyone succeeded in drinking more than one glass of this wine at a time, he would have to be congratulated. But the parliamentarians saw it as a danger to the general public—it had to go.
Step number four: so-called one-armed bandits were banned. In one or two cases people had lost 20,000 or more Swedish krona, and the revelation of this was more than the parliamentarians could bear. They felt themselves obliged to protect the general public from this moral danger. Since the bandits have one-krona slots, the losses for individual players must have been minimal if they did not spend weeks at the machines. The machines had mostly been allowed only at restaurants and were in fact of significant economic importance for a number of marginal restaurants. A few hundred eating establishments are expected to go bankrupt, causing unemployment of several thousand people in addition to the thousand or so that will have to go from manufacturers and suppliers of machines.
Step number five: a ban on advertisements for alcoholic beverages. This was regarded as unconstitutional by the former government. The new government has heroically introduced an amendment to the constitution enabling this improvement of public morale. Of course, the low-cost brands preferred by alcoholics have never been the focus of advertisements. Ads could only be seen for high-brow drinks like German white wines and high-quality Scotch.
Step number six: new law making it compulsory to drive with car headlights switched on even in daylight. It was said that this would facilitate drivers' recognition of oncoming vehicles. The new law has thus far not improved safety on the roads—but it has increased fuel consumption by between 5 and 10 percent.
Step number seven: new law making it compulsory to wear a helmet when driving a "moped"—an untaxed, unregistered motorcycle with a maximum speed of 18 miles per hour and a maximum motor effect of one horsepower.
And more efforts are made all the time. The parliament defeated—by a narrow five votes—a bill suggesting a ban on "war toys." These are said to be "dangerous to the development of children," although psychologists see them as a way to let children turn their natural aggressions in an unharmful direction.
Another proposed law would force shops to close on Sundays, and maybe also after a certain hour on weekdays. Only some 10 years ago small local shops were dying all over the country. Today, small businessmen have found a way to save them: they run "service shops" with only a small choice of brands, with higher prices, but close to the shoppers and open at times the shoppers want them to be open, including late nights and Sundays. As the labor on Sundays consists mostly of unorganized part-time workers (housewives, students, etc.) the trade unions have been fierce in their opposition to the present policy of no restrictions on opening hours. The great battle is yet to take place, and the outcome is uncertain.
Recently, a group within the Ministry of Justice began to study the possibility of introducing a new law banning knives in public. It would be forbidden to have any kind of knife if moving around in public. Imagine what an enormous bureaucracy this would create, to license craftsmen—and even private individuals wanting to carry their knives from the department store to their private homes.
To add up to a nice total, a woman M.P. from the "liberal" party recently introduced a bill to ban "dangerous" potted plants, or at least make it compulsory to warn all customers that they are dangerous (for example, poisonous if eaten). And another M.P. introduced a bill to ban caged birds and to arrange for the release of all caged birds and for their transport to the Canary Islands or another suitable place. It may be added that private monkeys were banned a few years ago. A few children had been bitten by their (or more likely their neighbors') pet monkey. In spite of this heroic effort to protect the innocent children from these wild beasts, no one has yet proposed a ban on dogs. But the tax on dogs (yes, there is indeed such a tax) has been raised—of course, it may be added.
It must be said that the present government is responsible only for a part of this folly. Much of the villainy has been instigated by the parliament. The socialist opposition, with its collectivist ideas, has a tendency to support measures that limit individual freedom. On the other hand, the former socialist government was not prepared to advocate laws that were too contrary to public opinion. Today, the picture has changed. The strong teetotalers and puritans within the Centre and Liberal parties continue to introduce bills suggesting restrictive laws. And the socialists perceive that such measures will be blamed on the new government, so they are prepared to support the suggested measures that are in fact in accordance with their ideology but the opposite of what they have regarded as practical policies when in power.
The socialists and the puritans have thus created a working majority in these matters. They are able to press their views against the official policies of the government, knowing that the government never would allow such minor questions to turn out as a vote of censure. Such a vote may come, but it will come on a major question like energy or taxation, not on the dozens of small questions that taken together make an impressive total of "prohibition Sweden."
Carl Holm is employed by the Federation of Swedish Industries and also operates the Contra publishing firm.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Saving Swedes from Themselves".
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