"So Why Is the Swedish Welfare State So Successful?"


For those of us who place more trust in free markets than state-directed economies, we must inevitably (and repeatedly) confront the skeptical interlocutor who details the "successes" of Swedish social democracy. "If state intervention into the economy is so bad, high taxes so destructive, then why is Sweden such a success?" It's an irritatingly simple question with a incredibly complicated answer, though I do recommend pointing out, when the conversation turns to health care and secondary education, that nothing, in a state the confiscates a massive portion of your income, is "free." But as many have pointed out, during its boom years, Sweden was a pretty free market place; from the 1970s through the 1990s—when taxes and regulation dramatically increased—the economy slowed until it spun out in the early 1990s.

There isn't enough time in the day to respond to the ceaseless stream of Sweden hagiographers, though I took a crack at it a few years back, when a liberal blogger at The American Prospect, in an error-laden piece of Google scholarship, told readers that "everything they knew about Sweden was wrong." But this video, while certainly not Avatar-like in its production values (and with an unfortunate reference to peeing one's pants), does a pretty good job explaining the country's free market past and the reforms enacted in the past few decades.

My favorite Sweden-know-it-all, incidentally, is lefty blogger Matthew Yglesias, who never misses an opportunity to correct American "misconceptions" about the land of Ace of Base and early retirement (you see, he went on a junket to Stockholm last year). "Americans often find this a bit confusing but Scandinavia," he recently wrote, "strictly speaking, only refers to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway." Or this classic bit of pompous pedantry, correcting the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on whether, when he served as prime minister, he was technically the "head of state": "I don't necessarily expect Americans to grasp the distinction, since our President is both head of state and head of government, but Sweden's prime minister is not a head of state." 

Elsewhere, Yglesias claims that former conservative party leader Bo Lundgren is the "architect" of the Swedish model. As Lundgren, author of the 1989 book Sänk skatten för alla (Lower Taxes for All), recently explained to the Telegraph, "I am a market liberal. I was even called the nearest Sweden had every (sic) come to having a party one could call libertarian." Picayune details, I suppose. 

But the nitpicky often segues into the bizarre generalization: "My bottom line: Visit the Nordic countries and you'll be impressed that their civilian public agencies are much more effective than ours." Well. How one determines that Sweden's "civilian public agencies" are better functioning than those in the United States during a few days in Stockholm (Did he try to post a letter? Start a business?), is left unsaid. But I have dealt with all manner of public agencies in Sweden and the results were, at best, mixed (try changing doctors in Stockholm).

So here is my bottom line: When some American pundit, with expertise is everything, explains why some European welfare state "works," or how everything you know is wrong about taxing income at 75 percent, do a little digging, make use of Google Translate, and don't trust that, because Swedes and Danes tell researchers that they are happy, the United States should introduce "daddy leave" and provide subsidies to syndicalist newspapers.

The best English-language explication of the Swedish model comes from my pal Johan Norberg, who wrote this brilliant piece for The National Interest a few years back. And watch my interview with Norberg on Swedish welfare politics here and on Naomi Klein here.