Cynics and Cheats

What's happened to Sweden under socialism


I am a native of Sweden, but I had had the opportunity to live outside of Sweden for 25 years before returning in 1972 for eight years. Having learned in the United States what the principles of freedom mean, I could see the consequences of the social welfare state for Sweden and its people. What I discovered during those eight years made me very disheartened, for I love my own people. (I have traced my genealogy back to the 1600s and I am pure Swedish, and therefore my roots are very firmly anchored in that nation, but the principles of freedom I learned in the United States.)

What disheartened me is the way the social welfare system set up in Sweden has affected the moral behavior itself of the Swedish people. I am led to the conclusion that social welfare provisions of various kinds are not only accompanied by misuse of them; they engender misuse. The reason is not very surprising. We all like to look out for ourselves; we want "what's coming to us." And if you have a system of socialism, which is really just another word for institutionalized envy, then you are appealing to the crassest variety of this universal human feature. So while Sweden has always been known as an honest nation, the Swedes as an honest people, I'm afraid that this cannot be the adjective that we use about Swedes today to the same extent as in the past.


My countrymen have been subjected to a very repressive tax system that they feel is unjust. With no overt way to protest against this because of various factors of indoctrination, they have devised other ways, other means, of getting back at it—various forms of cheating on taxes and cheating in order to benefit from the social welfare system supported by their taxes. Let me catalog some of the ways whereby the Swedes feel that they get back some of the tax money that has been expropriated from them.

• In the past, hardly any tax declarations needed to be checked very thoroughly. Today it is estimated that Sweden loses between three and four billion crowns each year because of false declarations. In 1979, for example, out of about 6 million tax declarations no less than 2 million had some inaccuracy in them—perhaps not all of them due to intentional falsification but nevertheless needing to be checked. And the extent of the inaccuracies was 4.5 billion crowns (about $1 billion) in 1979 alone.

• Work Projects Administration types of retraining programs have grown to such an extent that today 85 million crowns are distributed every year to various persons or industries to provide them with subsidies either for retraining or to employ people who, it is thought, would otherwise not have work. Naturally, when you allocate such a large amount of money there is a potential for misuse. Often people will say, "Well, I'm tired of working. I'm going to go into a WPA program." So they're trained for a job in an occupation that is needed in the economy, but they don't use it. They are not compelled to take the job for which they have been trained, and many don't. I've seen cases of this time and time again.

• The Swedish government pays for taxi service for those who are handicapped. Taxi drivers are then tempted to, and do, write out receipts for having taken people around when they haven't done so. Or you have a couple where the man is handicapped and the woman is not. She would be inclined to call up the taxi service because she's going shopping, and by using her husband's card, she gets a free taxi ride although she is not entitled to it. In one year alone in Stockholm, 194,000 persons use this service, and in all of Sweden it costs 490 million crowns annually for this taxi service for the handicapped.

• Every time something is offered, there is a temptation to utilize it unjustly. The illness insurance is another sad example. It's quite frequent for people simply to call in ill. It's not even called being ill any more, but being "reported ill." It's a new term in the Swedish language. There was one case in which the office staff didn't like a new employee, so they decided the protest would be for all of them to "call in ill." They got their illness insurance compensation, and the office had to close. Recently a union leader for the teachers, saying that their teaching load was too heavy, suggested that the teachers "report themselves being ill" in order to protest. This is a very serious subversion of the program.

• There are 50 different kinds of aid provided by municipal and central government for various industries. A few years ago there were 2 aid programs for ailing industries; today there are 50. Can you imagine the temptation of a small industrialist, who, in addition to paying his employees, must "contribute" the equivalent of 40 percent of his employees' wages to a social fund, to want to get some money back in the form of utilizing this aid? And naturally, case after case proves that they have taken the "25-crown" subsidy, for example, to employ people where they have not had any such people to employ.

• Every student in Sweden gets a study allowance—in part a loan and in part a grant from the government. And there have been a number of cases lately of abuse of this. At the beginning of the school half-year, students get an allowance that amounts to 9,600 crowns. It is very much a temptation for those who really do not intend to study to go out and use this large amount of money for other purposes.

I have some acquaintances, a young American man and his Swedish wife, who had been in Sweden long enough to be subverted by this system. They decided that they wanted to go back to America, but they didn't have the funds because it's very difficult to save when you only have 20 percent of your salary left. So they decided both to enroll at the university, and I said, "Well, are you going to study at the university?" "We'll study," they said, "but that isn't our real intention. You see, each one of us is entitled to a household loan, as students, of 30,000 crowns. That's 60,000 crowns between us. There'll be just enough to take us back to the United States and settle." Now that is not quite the way the Swedes in the past century came to the United States, and it isn't what I would recommend to anybody.

• Sweden has an adult education scheme, and of this I have particular personal knowledge because while I was back in the country I was asked to teach Swedish for immigrants in an adult education class. They are very prevalent, these study circles for adults in Sweden, and they involve a great many people. But I quit the program in disgust because I was asked to sign as present persons who were not there. And why? Because if the attendance falls below a certain number, this particular study circle cannot get the subsidy from the government. And this happened time and time again. In one little city alone, one organization claimed 128 circles and received 192,000 crowns in government subsidies to which they were not entitled.

• In Sweden there is a housing allowance for people whose income is not sufficient to pay the rent. This program illustrates how Sweden indicates an increase in the standard of living through the increase of people receiving various forms. If my income is not sufficient, I can call on the local government, and from tax funds they and the central government step in and pay the difference. The temptation, then, is to move to a more expensive apartment, because it's not going to cost me any more.

• There is a housing allowance that is determined according to how low an income you have—the lower your income, the higher your allowance. But there is also an unemployment scheme that provides more money the more money you have earned; in other words, compensation is determined according to wage income. So it's been very interesting, for the authorities have been compelled lately to compare the income reported to the housing authorities and the income reported to the unemployment authority. And they found that the differential is sometimes as high as tenfold. One more example of how a policy is subverted in a desperate attempt to get back some money.

• Sweden has also a children's allowance—families get an allowance for the children who are still living at home. Some immigrant families who went to Sweden learned rather soon that there was something to be gained from this system. They simply reported their children to the authorities, and the checks began to come. But they realized that this money would go further in their home country, so they simply went back home. But they had one contact in Sweden who maintained the address so that all the checks would come; they would be cashed by this contact, and he would keep a certain percentage and the rest of the money would be sent home.

• Even the TV licensing system provides a way to get back at the state. There is a state monopoly on radio and television in Sweden. Each viewer and listener, inasmuch as it's not commercially paid for, must pay a license fee for programs. The license fees are not exorbitant; it is nevertheless estimated that, by 1980, 200 million crowns in license fees were not being paid each year. Now the government runs a fleet of cars that sneak around the streets with a little antenna to determine when people are watching television without having paid, and then they are hauled away and made to pay up or go to jail.

• The widespread practice of providing subsidies to almost all newspapers and magazines (except some of the largest newspapers in major cities) has also given rise to misuses, when false claims about circulation are made in order to get larger subsidies. The subsidy system is by now involved in almost every area of Swedish life—and so, of course, are the abuses of the system.


When the building of a welfare state was begun in Sweden, the intention was to create a new society. The schools were to play a vital role in this. Olof Palme, the third socialist prime minister of Sweden and the one who created the ideologically honed Swedish social welfare state, said, while serving as minister of education before becoming prime minister: "The school is, without doubt, one of the best instruments in regards to the structural transformation of society. The school's function is to change social reality." How the officials of the social welfare state have shaped education to fulfill that role is instructive.

One of the creators of the Swedish welfare state, Ernst Mischanek, said in his analysis of the system that it promised everyone "freedom of choice" in education. Such freedom in Sweden is a chimera—it doesn't exist; it is not even conceivable in Sweden, where the egalitarian notion that everyone ought to have the same education is so entrenched that there is no realistic possibility of private education. Only one half of one percent of Sweden's school population attends private schools. They are operated by small Christian organizations, and it's very difficult indeed to be able to continue them, because parents have to pay the high taxes toward the public schools and at the same time try to pay the cost of the private schools.

Now, the local communities and their school boards have become aware of their need to control even preschools. They did this in an interesting way: we will not, they said, interfere with the existing preschool-kindergartens that are operated by churches or other charitable groups. We are merely going to provide an additional service for those communities that don't have such a service, so that everybody can be equal. Now the next step was: we must reserve the right to determine which one of these preschool institutions is to be allowed to operate at what time of day. And after a while the Christian preschools started to be eliminated, because the municipal or government school had a priority, and naturally the time allotted was mostly from 9:00 to 12:00 or 9:00 to 1:00, when working mothers needed to place their children in some sort of a care institution. Thus was eliminated this alternative in education.

Sweden's schools have religion classes, and although Sweden has signed a UNESCO provision and another international convention limiting the state's involvement in this area, the Swedish government has taken the position that "we don't need to conform to this inasmuch as our religious schooling is so objective in character." That means that Jesus and Mohammed and Marx and Buddha are placed on the same level. Now there are some Christian parents who object to that sort of objectivity and would, if they could, withdraw their children from the religion classes. But the Swedish government said no: we cannot start allowing this sort of deviation in the educational system. The parents had to go all the way to the Human Rights Commission of the Council of Europe to force the Swedish government to recognize parents' elemental right to provide religious training of their own choosing for their children. And so we see what a just society this is when fundamental rights must be wrested from the state.

But the architects of the social welfare state assured everyone that the benefits would be worth the losses of individual liberty. Alva Myrdal said, for example, that "we are creating a society in which brutality and violence are gradually being stamped out like other contagious social diseases." Today, the Myrdals—Alva and her partner, Nobel Prize–winning economist Gunnar Myrdal—live in Santa Barbara, California. The rise of crime and juvenile delinquency in the postwar world is a trend alike in industrial and developing nations, in capitalist as well as socialist states. The difference is that capitalism does not make the claim to eliminate social problems, whereas the creators of Sweden's Fabian welfare society promised that their system in fact would wipe out crime and violence. It is demonstrably true that in no other industrial society is the problem of juvenile crime so pronounced as in Sweden. Drug addiction, alcoholism, and vandalism are daily occurrences, and with all the edifices of the welfare state, the problems cannot be solved by the Swedish authorities. They merely prescribe more of the same, more collectivized institutions to take care of it.

Vandalism costs Swedish communities 100 million crowns each year. In Malmö, the city where I lived, with a population of 240,000, the bill for vandalized schools alone is five million a year. But the municipal authorities and others who are now seriously concerned about this problem simply fail to realize that there is a very intimate link between the right to property and the vandalism. They never consider this link; they never even contemplate that there might be a connection between the two.

In Sweden today, very few people own private property in the cities, and there is a propaganda campaign against all those who wish to own private housing. As Clarence Carson once observed, writing in the Freeman, "There is an essential nexus between property and man, but socialism breaks this connection." While "property is the vital extension of the man who owns it," he explained, "property held in common is frequently abused and neglected, and state-owned property can attract little more respect than the state that owns it." So vandalism today is first of all evidence of the ruthlessness that comes out of the fact these juveniles come from families who do not own property and therefore have not been able to instill in the child a respect for their own as well as other persons' property.


Alcoholism, too, is an immense problem among the young in Sweden today. I was horrified to see 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds dead-drunk on the ferry between Denmark and Sweden. More restrictions are being imposed, more rules and controls, yet nothing seems to work. The government has banned medium-strength beer in an attempt to eliminate problems with juvenile drinking. The youth merely graduated to stronger beer or to wine. So there are calls for more restrictions.

The libertarian in me says it won't work, but I am myself in a quandary about the right solution. I do not think that the Swedish character is so completely different from human character in the rest of Europe. If you do eliminate restrictions, after a period of time perhaps the drama that surrounds having the forbidden might diminish and the Swedish people might drink less. But it's primarily the young people that I'm concerned about. Nine out of 10 of the 15-year-olds have consumed hard liquor, and one-third of the boys and one-fifth of the girls have been drunk. When I asked 18-year-olds about this to check for accuracy, they said, "It is much worse than what you are describing." Stina Bengtsson, who for 40 years has dealt with alcohol problems in Sweden, reported to me: "We now have fully confirmed alcoholics in the early 20s and 20-, and 25-year-olds who must be given pensions as permanently unemployed people for acute alcoholism." At least 15 persons are known to die each day in Sweden from causes directly attributed to alcoholism.

We need to ask the question why Sweden is plagued with this problem. I have merely been describing the symptoms, but I am also suggesting that the causes may be found in a society in which the individual is lost. Alcoholism is a form of slow suicide by primarily young people who have lost their moorings. Just before I left Sweden, there was a program with young people on television and they were asked why they drink. They said, well, because it gives us a sense of security; we drink with our companions because there we feel we are being accepted. And when asked, only 1 in 10 said that they felt loved, wanted, and needed by anyone. It is not without significance to note that the greatest degree of alienation, isolation, hopelessness, purposelessness, in Sweden today is found among the very young.

One of Sweden's foremost authorities of the Swedish welfare state, Nils Bejerot, medical doctor and sociologist, has said:

We must seek for the causes of the destructive behavior of the young in the basic foundations of the welfare state.

My personal interpretation is that, during a long period of time, there have accumulated so many and such serious disturbances in the system that we now find ourselves in a deepening crisis of the system, where the welfare system itself through its mechanisms produces young analphabets [illiterates], juvenile delinquents, alcoholics, narcotics addicts, physically and psychologically ill, tranquilized and rejected, people at an accelerating speed.

The fundamental problem is that we are on our way to creating a society where the individual person no longer fills any function. There is no longer a nexus between actions and results. The society becomes increasingly artificial. And an artificial society cannot produce anything but alienation, indifference, and destructiveness.


These, then, are some of the results of the Swedish social welfare state, a state that was created in the mistaken belief that human suffering and social ills can be eliminated merely by governmental efforts toward economic equalization or through a network of social reforms. Now social evils exist, of course, in every society in various forms, from the Soviet Union to the United States. But to claim that the welfare state can eliminate these evils is a fantastic claim. I would in fact say that they have, by taking away individual responsibility and by always placing emphasis on the collective, eliminated some of the essential fabric of Swedish society. After all, in a society the individual must be responsible for his or her acts.

Let me quote again from an article in the Freeman by Clarence Carson, where he analyzes the Swedish society:

The tendency of democratic socialism is to make the individual deny himself in all those ways in which he is unique, different, peculiar. It may be the worst tyranny of all, for it denies the individual conscience, denies it by not allowing it room for operation in the ordinary way, in the warp and woof of life. To be forced to yield to the collective will in the ordinary decisions of life, is to deny the individual a significant portion of humanity. The shift from living under the social influence of tradition to living under the compulsion of collectivism may occur so gradually that the individual is hardly aware of it. It is a crucial part of the theory and practice of gradualism that this should be so. This has been especially the case in a country like Sweden, where the outer works of tradition have been preserved while the inner works have been eroded away. The church still stands, but it stands for very little. The home has not been outlawed, but many of its functions are now served by the state. The moral and spiritual dimensions of life have been severed from their roots in social democratic Sweden. This has not been done by outlawing them; Sweden has substantive religious freedom, and many spend about as much time as they will contemplating the domain of the spirit. It is rather an order of priorities that has been established. Priorities that are material in character which leave little room for the development of moral and spiritual beings.

Finally, let me quote from a book that I regard as one of the most incisive analyses of the Swedish welfare state, Roland Huntford's The New Totalitarians. He says:

Pioneers in the new totalitarianism, the Swedes are a warning of what probably lies in store for the rest of us unless we take care to resist control and centralization, and unless we remember that politics are not to be delegated but are the concern of the individual. The new totalitarians dealing in persuasion and manipulation must be more efficient than the old who depend upon force. It is straining optimism to the limit to suppose that other men will necessarily choose freedom simply because, unlike the Swedes, they are still taught to admire it.

It will be rightly noted that I am very critical of the nation that gave me birth. But I also have a loyalty to the country of which I have become a citizen, the United States. I believe that it is too late to save Sweden, but it is not too late for the United States. There is a peculiar resilience in the American character that defies the edicts and the fiats of bureaucrats and governments. It was from my religion that I learned to respect and value the individual. It was in the United States that I realized that there are institutions and ways for us to recapture that tradition that is ours, a tradition that we might be able to invigorate in order to defend our precious heritage of freedom, that same freedom that many millions have sought for 200 years, yearning and longing to be free. This is why I think we must be very concerned about what has happened in the land of my birth.

Eric Brodin holds the Lundy Chair of the Philosophy of Business at Campbell University in North Carolina. This article is adapted from an address to the Annual Institute on Free Enterprise and Public Policy at Grove City College.