Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sweden’s Collective Individualism

Many people in the United States equate federal taxation with socialism.  Some of these same people will also associate taxation with communism and fascism (Nazism to be precise)—often in the same sentence.  Consequently, if asked to give an example of a socialist country—other than their own—they would tend to turn to the Nordic countries with Sweden as the most likely selection.  The Scandinavian countries would hardly qualify under the academic definition of socialism, but they are high-tax, big-government countries, and Sweden is the largest, the best-known, and the most aggressive in social experimentation.

Listening to the local political commentary in the United States might lead one to conclude that individual liberties are inhibited by government intervention in one’s life.  It is intriguing and refreshing to encounter the argument that Sweden’s often intrusive government is designed to maximize individual freedom (autonomy, to be more precise).  How can this be?

Michael Booth provides the necessary perspective in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.  Booth is a British writer who married a Danish woman and lives in Denmark and reports on Scandinavia.  He has provided a quick survey of the five countries he considers to be Scandinavian: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland.  There are no great revelations to be found here if one is seeking detailed analyses of the future stability—or lack thereof—of the particular societies.  However, it is interesting, entertaining, and, occasionally, a source of startling information.  He will leave you wishing to learn more.

Booth provides this brief introduction to recent Swedish history:

“The accomplishments of twentieth-century Sweden are legion and, mostly, noble: from its rationalist, respectful secularism, to its industrial might and economic success and, of course, its compassionate, all-embracing, shining beacon of a welfare state.  For much of the last hundred years, Sweden has been seen, and has very much seen itself, as the social laboratory of the world: a heroic blond collective intent on pioneering better ways of living, abiding by higher, more modern moral codes, and writing really catchy four-minute pop songs.”

“Right now, the Swedish model has the attention of the world’s policymakers and politicians….many a moderate Western political leader has fantasized about emulating Sweden’s mixed economy and consensus-driven politics.  This serene Nordic swan always seems to achieve its goals with minimum fuss and discord: whether it be implementing progressive labor laws, orchestrating an economic recovery following a banking misadventure, or being very, very good at tennis, the Swedes never break a sweat.”

It is the size and power of the state, and its influence on individual lives that is the subject here.  Booth, with his British perspective, is troubled by what he observes.

“Everything I read about the Swedish Social Democratic government of the last century suggested an organization that was driven by one single, overarching goal: to sever the traditional, some would say natural, ties between its citizens, be they those that bound children to their parents, workers to their employers, wives to their husbands, or the elderly to their families.  Instead, individuals were encouraged—mostly by financial incentive or disincentive, but also through legislation, propaganda, and social pressure—to ‘take their place in the collective,’ as one commentator rather ominously put it, and become dependent on the government.”

Swedes who believe in their current system do not agree with this dystopian picture.  They present this description:

“….the real aim of the Swedish government was to liberate its citizens from one another, to set them free and allow them to become fully autonomous, independent entities in charge of their own destinies.  Far from being the collectivist sheep their neighbors perceive them to be….the Swedes are ‘hyper-individualists’—more so even than the Americans—and that they are ‘devoted to the pursuit of personal autonomy’.”

This has the scent of state-sponsored libertarianism.  Could there be such a thing?  What do the Swedes mean by “personal autonomy?”

The key to understanding the Swedish position is to recognize that all social, organizational, religious, or family ties generate restrictions on behavior. These restrictions can be harmful if they force a wife to remain in an unhappy marriage because of economic reasons, or if a child’s ability to attend a university and study whatever she wishes is constrained by the economic circumstances and whims of her parents, or if the elderly must depend on the good will of their children in order to be comfortable in their later years.  Women are provided with all the support they need to both work and have a family.  An extensive system of childcare allows women to make what choices they wish.  Booth suggests that this readily available day care is also a way in which children are encouraged to become less dependent on family ties and thus more autonomous.

Booth provides these quotes from various observers of the Swedish system.

“….The main objective is not to be dependent on your family, the wife shouldn’t be dependent on her husband, the children should be autonomous when they are eighteen, old people should not be dependent on their children taking care of them, and therefore to a large extent the state steps in and provides these things.”

“…the point here is not that the state is saying this is how you should live your life, but it is providing you with the support structure.  Society is unequal and people don’t have the same opportunities, but we are trying to lift everybody to the same level so they can achieve the same kind of freedom and self-realization, which only a small group could do previously.”

“The American wants the freedom to do, the Swede wants the freedom to be.”

Granting such power and influence to a government can be risky.  Not all peoples would be so willing to cooperate and negotiate consensus solutions.  Nevertheless, the assumption that all government is harmful and limits personal freedom is ridiculous.

The basic components of an efficient welfare state are the provision of free or very inexpensive education, healthcare, childcare, pensions, and an income floor.  All of these come at the cost of a high tax rate.  It was argued in Taxation, Redistribution, and Social Insurance that such high taxes can be a good investment, particularly for middle-class families, if the taxes provide that class of benefits.

Have the Scandinavians benefited from their welfare states?  Are they satisfied with their lives?  Are they happy?  Booth is dubious about surveys that tally self-reported claims of “happiness.”  Can the Scandinavians be trusted to convey satisfaction in the same way as the people of other countries?  Nevertheless, Booth admits that one Scandinavian country or another is always at the top of the list when these polls are taken.

“….to win one happiness survey may be regarded as good fortune, to win virtually every one since 1973 is convincing grounds for a definitive anthropological thesis.”

In addition, the Scandinavian countries are also on the top of the list when economic mobility is tallied.  These are places where a person born rich could end up poor, and a person born poor could end up rich.  What a concept!

And the children seem to be thriving under all that state-provided care.

“UNICEF….recently awarded Sweden more first places in its child well-being survey than any other country (Denmark and Finland were second and third)….”

Certainly, not everyone will agree, but if I could have lived my life not worrying about how my own education would be paid for, paid my taxes and not worried about how my children’s education would be paid for or about how to pay for healthcare, and not have to worry about income in retirement, I would have responded much more positively to one of those happiness surveys.  And I would have felt like I had had much more personal freedom.

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