Swedish Surprise


"Why not?" Swedish Minister of Education and Science Per Unckel says with a smile when I ask if his government really has the national post office on its list of monopolies to privatize.

Unckel was in Los Angeles in September with King Carl XVI Gustaf and several other high-ranking members of the Swedish government to hold a luncheon and seminar on privatization in their country. The downtown hotel banquet room was packed with Swedish nationals, and several times during their speeches the ministers were interrupted by loud applause for their plans to restrict and reform the Swedish state.

That's right, "socialist" Sweden is well on its way to selling some 30 government industries, utilities, and services to the private sector. Headed by conservative Prime Minister Carl Bildt, the government has also started a school-voucher system and is planning drastic cuts in the country's welfare system.

"The state is and will always be a lousy company manager," insists Unckel, explaining Sweden's reason for privatizing such government monopolies as the electric utilities, telephone company, and train service "as soon as possible."

Jan Amethier, head of the privatization unit at the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, says revenue from the sales, estimated to be 120–150 billion krona ($22.6 billion–$28.3 billion), will go to improve Sweden's infrastructure or to reduce the budget deficit.

Last spring Sweden implemented its education-voucher system. Every Swedish child may now bring 85 percent of his education funds with him to any school in the country—public, private, or religious. Unckel says that when he recently met U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, the American expressed surprise at how far along the Swedish system is compared to voucher efforts in the United States.

Sweden also plans to cut child benefits; housing subsidies; pensions; sickness and work-injury benefits; development assistance; and political party and student grants by 18.9 billion krona ($3.6 billion) in 1993 and 31.4 billion krona ($5.9 billion) by 1997. Says Unckel, "What was known as the Swedish model does not work any more."

He says the government plans to "develop the social-welfare sector by extending individual freedom of choice"—by cutting unemployment benefits and encouraging the unemployed to join temporary public-works projects.

The new Swedish government, says Unckel, hopes to make Sweden "the best home possible for individual freedom and entrpreneurship."