Sweden—Welfare Statism Fact and Fiction

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December 12, 2012 by Anders Ingemarson

I’m a native of Sweden. My accent normally gives me away. Think the Swedish Chef in The Muppet Show (although my meatballs are tastier). When people find out, they often want to know more. Many Americans, especially those who are supporters of big government, point to Sweden as the solution to all our problems. “Look,” they say, “the Swedes have figured it out. A socialist country with higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, and higher literacy rates than the U.S. And the Swedes are happier than we are! See, here’s another study from the U.N. that ranks them higher than us on the happiness index.”

I’ll try to sort fact from fiction, but first a few words about fundamentals. How morally good or bad a country is should be measured one way only: by how well it protects the individual rights of its inhabitants. The gold standard is a country with total separation of state and the economy and with a government limited to my “Government 1, 2, 3”:

A government’s one legitimate function is to protect our individual rights from two potential sources of rights violations, foreign enemies and our fellow men at home, using three institutions: the military, the police and the courts.

The closest mankind has come was probably the United States the first 50 years after its founding (slavery excepted). I’m not aware of an “index of individual rights protection” for comparing countries today, but the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom is a step in the right direction.

Trying to explain the above to our big government friends will most likely return blank stares, but as freedom fighters it’s important that we keep the context in mind and the vision alive.

Here are a few talking points that may be more helpful at your next cocktail party conversation. By the way, these apply to any welfare state country; differences are only a matter of degree, not of principle.

1. Sweden is a relatively wealthy country despite being a welfare state, not because of it.

Sweden is not a Soviet style socialist country. It is a mixed economy with significant free market elements—private property, private businesses, a functioning banking system, free trade, etc. It is the free market elements that are responsible for the country’s wealth and health. Most of the wealth in real terms was created before and in the early stages of the welfare state, between 1870 and 1960. Since then Sweden has fallen from the top of the list of wealthiest countries to the middle of the pack. Sweden has higher taxes, higher government spending, and probably more regulations than we do, although we’re catching up fast. With lower taxes, lower government spending and less regulations Sweden, and the U.S., would be a much wealthier and healthier country.

2. Sweden has benefitted tremendously from progress made in more free countries, especially the United States.

The past 30-40 years has seen enormous progress in primarily the IT field with spillover effects on every other industry. This has enabled Sweden’s private sector to increase its productivity and continue to pay the taxes that finance the system. Most fundamental IT discoveries and inventions originated in the U.S—try to think of one that didn’t. The success of our IT sector is directly correlated with the fact that IT is the most free, least regulated sector of our economy. The success of our free market IT sector has given Sweden’s welfare state a new lease on life, if only for a while.

3. Better literacy rates are explained by one word: phonics.

Swedes never bought into Progressive education with look-say “reading”, whole language, new math, etc. as Americans did. The three R’s are taught better over there. Learning to read using the phonics method explains the higher literacy rates, period. But make no mistake. Apart from the three R’s, Swedish education is as much in a mess as ours, although they may be a fraction behind us on the road to ignorance. Slow deterioration is an inherent and inescapable trait of any government education system. Return control and rights of educating children to the parents, educators and businessmen of this country and we’ll see phonics back in the driver’s seat and our literacy rates go through the roof in no time.

4. Welfare statism slowly suffocates the individualist spirit.

I don’t put much trust in “research” showing who is the most fulfilled, most informed, healthiest and happiest people, etc. The organizations performing such research for the most part find the answers they are looking for.

However, a Swede will most likely tell you that he’s happy and that Sweden is a good, if cold, country. He may grudgingly comment on waiting lines for medical care, and that his kids don’t get as good an education as he did. But in the same breath he will tell you it’s the price you have to pay for the “safety net” the welfare state provides.

If welfare statism is the immoral big brother creation I claim it is, how do I explain this attitude? When from grandparent to parent to child your individual freedoms are gradually taken away and you become more and more dependent on the state, and when you’re taught in the government schools from Preschool and up that this is how it should be, your outlook on life changes. You gradually lose your independent mind and your self-reliance—you lose the individualist spirit. You start to look to the state as the guarantor of your welfare, despite it being the aggressor taking away your rights. It is ironically but sadly an expression of Stockholm syndrome on a national scale: “a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy, sympathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them.”

Sweden has much to teach us, but not in the sense our big government advocates think. No, Swedes can primarily teach us what not to do. It is their mistakes we should learn from, welfare statism being the biggest, costliest and most immoral mistake.

Further Reading (by Swedes for Americans):

The Swedish Myth

Stagnating Socialist Sweden

How The Welfare State Corrupted Sweden

3 thoughts on “Sweden—Welfare Statism Fact and Fiction

  1. John Zaugg says:

    Excellent article.

  2. Martin L Buchanan says:

    Love the Government 1, 2, 3!

  3. […] spent my first some 30 years in Sweden, I wrote an article a while back addressing some of the misconceptions about Sweden among Americans. Judging from the response, it […]

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