Sweden: The Rorschach Nation

There are Swedish policies to which we should pay attention.
There are Swedish policies to which we should pay attention.

‘Everybody loves to talk about Sweden,” says Johan Norberg, the Swedish libertarian and Cato scholar. “We’re a Rorschach test of people’s political ideas. But almost all of them misunderstand what Sweden is about. It’s not really the kind of model that people assume.”

There is a progressive myth of Sweden, and a conservative one, too.

For the American Left, Sweden is the great exemplar of what progressives erroneously call “socialism” or “democratic socialism,” even though the actual facts of life in Sweden’s open and entrepreneurial economy are far from socialistic. They point to Sweden’s robust economy, enviable standard of living, and the general contentedness of its people and conclude that what the United States needs is higher taxes, more social spending, and a larger public sector. Conservatives cannot help but notice that progressives draw precisely the same lesson from . . . everything: that the wisest course of action is to give more money and power to people and institutions politically aligned with progressives.

For some on the American right, Sweden is a socialist hellhole. The talk-radio ranters and Internet-based rage retailers conclude that Sweden is a socialist hellhole because . . . Sweden must be a socialist hellhole. It has very high taxes, a sprawling welfare state, and public-sector spending that represents an enormous share of GDP. The problem with that analysis is that Swedes don’t seem to believe that they live in a socialist hellhole, and Sweden sure as heck doesn’t look like one. It has its troubles, including worrisome unrest within its poorly assimilated immigrant community, but in the main it is a prosperous, healthy, and happy country.

“Those perspectives on Sweden were formed in the Seventies and Eighties, when they were . . . almost correct,” Norberg says. “Sweden was the place where the government tried out on a large scale the most generous welfare-state socialism imaginable. But this was a parenthesis, one episode in Sweden’s history. Sweden was already rich when this happened. It was one of the richest countries on the planet, and it had an open economy, with about the U.S. level of taxes. And that is the precise moment in time when Sweden began to lag behind, the period when Sweden began to fail. It needed a terrible crisis in the 1990s. Since then, Sweden has begun to reform: pension reform, school vouchers, tax cuts, abolishing taxes on inheritances and gifts, and more. That’s the thing that people on the left misunderstand.”

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