Why I love Sweden

by on October 27, 2006 at 4:45 am in Travels | Permalink

A loyal MR reader asks:

Back in 2004, you wrote “I'm willing to take the Swedish model seriously.  I've been to Stockholm several times and loved it”.  What exactly did you love about it?  What made Sweden attractive?

I won’t dwell on the beauty of Stockholm, the quality of the seafood, or the intelligence and good judgment of the people.  Swedish women seem OK too, and Swedish Impressionist painting is underrated.  I even liked the place in December.  But what I enjoy most about Sweden is the sense of freedom.

Let’s be blunt: much of this freedom stems from government, and what you get is freedom from other people.  People are not less free of the tax man, but in Sweden you don’t need other people very much to insure your economic well-being.  You can do your own thing, without much fear (relatively speaking, of course) of personal oppression from others.  You really can choose which personal relationships you wish to have.  Autonomy reigns.  The Swedish family is, of course, fractured.  For all of its collectivist reputation, Sweden is the land of the true individualist, sometimes verging on atomism.  At will you can go off into the woods and eat your lingonberries, weather of course permitting.

I would not want to live there, if only because my restless self needs a large country and lots of space for travel in multiple directions.  Uppsala bored me in less than a day, Malmo was OK, but what next?  The yikes factor kicks in.  Latin America looks so far away.

Nor do I think that living in Sweden necessarily would be good for me.  But when I look at it, I like it.  I like seeing it.  I think it is an important social experiment.  And it is hard to argue that it has been bad for the Swedes.  I also think the whole arrangement, tax payments and all, is no less voluntary (and probably more voluntary) than what we do in the United States.  Some of that is the small country/homogeneity thing, some is simply that Swedes recognize their high quality way of life.

I’ve heard it said that "socialism is the religion of the Swedes."  This is not quite correct, though it hints at an important truth.  I think of "being Swedish" as the religion of the Swedes.  And the more cosmopolitan they behave, the more they are partaking in this religion; don’t be fooled!

This "being Swedish" business is a wonderful religion for Sweden.  It is not a good or possible religion for most of the rest of the world.  And it is not a religion to which I have been or could be invited. 

But Sweden (or should I say Stockholm?) remains one of the best places in the history of the world to date, and we are fooling ourselves if we don’t recognize that.

Lars Smith October 27, 2006 at 8:16 am

Perhaps surprising, the Scandinavian countries have both the most extensive welfare states, and the highest proportion of their populations willing to fight for their countries.
Graph here,
http://conservationfinance.wordpress.com/2006/10/17/does-the-welfare-state-make-you-soft/

Keith October 27, 2006 at 8:35 am

“Many who share the same economic-orientation tend to be a little more, shall we say, intellectually insecure.”

Cain, I’d have to disagree with you, or at least point out that your statement seems to lack perspective. Intellectual insecurity is fairly universal across all ideological stripes, and may even be greater among left-liberals than economic conservatives.

Brad de Long, for instance, deletes many insightful comments from his blog, particularly ones that provide factual evidence that he might be in error. And de Long is one of the smarter and more intellectually open liberal bloggers out there!

And maybe I haven’t been keeping up, but I just don’t see many liberal bloggers pointing out the laissez-faire success story of Hong Kong.

mic October 27, 2006 at 9:21 am

Hong Kong is an even clearer example of how hard it is to disentagle the systematic effects from the idiosyncratic ones. If the swedish model can be hard to export for the lack of swedes in other countries, the Hong Kong prosperity is based on decades of mainland chinese money laundering and not just on laissez faire legislation.

Anderson October 27, 2006 at 10:46 am

Brad de Long, for instance, deletes many insightful comments from his blog

Mostly stupid ones, however. DeLong *does* tend to get in mysterious snits from time to time (about Max Hastings’ Armageddon, for ex), but hell, what is blogging for?

SamChevre October 27, 2006 at 11:07 am

In other words, Sweden is a fully non-tribal society? (Tribes there are consumer goods, not survival necessities.) I can certainly see the attraction, but overall, I think the world of “tribes” is more likely to endure.

US October 27, 2006 at 11:25 am

“Let’s be blunt: much of this freedom stems from government”

No, let’s be blunt: Government do not supply freedom – I hear Orwellian new-speak here. How can you be free in any meaningfull way if more than half your income is stolen from you? If you are not allowed to speak freely about stuff (like immigration) that you find important?

Sweden like the other Scandinavian countries is a relatively homogenous society. Nothing promotes nationalism, authoritarianism and statism more than homogeneity – and little is in higher demand for power-crazed politicians than homogeneity. Anybody remember Bokanovsky’s Process?

The homogeneity is a curse, nothing else.

Christopher Rasch October 27, 2006 at 2:06 pm

Over what time scales should governments be judged? On the one hand, it can take a long time for bad policies to completely play out. After all, despite its tremendous problems, the Soviet Union lasted for 69 years. On the other hand, if it takes 1000 years for the Swedish state to collapse, can it really be said to have been a “bad” state?

Tony October 27, 2006 at 3:16 pm

No, let’s be blunt: Government do not supply freedom – I hear Orwellian new-speak here. How can you be free in any meaningfull way if more than half your income is stolen from you? If you are not allowed to speak freely about stuff (like immigration) that you find important?

I don’t know about the freedom of speech issue in Sweden, but when “more than half your income is stolen” you’re getting a lot in return. Specifically, you’re getting security.

Security costs an enormous amount of money. Health insurance in the US is a case in point – many people can’t afford it except through their employer, and are faced with potential bankruptcy if they switch jobs, get injured, and lose coverage on a technicality (which happens a LOT). The job portability provided by socialized medicine is of tremendous value, and greatly enhances personal freedoms.

The presence of a welfare safety net means you can go out on the trapeze and try new career strategies that are often richly rewarding, but which would be too risky for many Americans to pursue.

But I am a believer in the idea that Sweden works because of Swedes. I imagine a country where, for thousands of years, lazy, antisocial people froze to death generates both a keen sense of personal industry and a great emphasis on solid interpersonal relationships. These qualities seem well matched to a socialist-democratic state. I don’t think that Americans have what it takes to make such a system work.

David Andersen October 27, 2006 at 4:03 pm

“many people can’t afford it except through their employer, and are faced with potential bankruptcy if they switch jobs, get injured, and lose coverage on a technicality (which happens a LOT). The job portability provided by socialized medicine is of tremendous value, and greatly enhances personal freedoms.”

Dude, let’s be completely clear here. You don’t NEED socialized medicine to have health insurance portability. All we need are changes in the existing laws. Surprise, surprise – government is at the root of the portability problem.

will mcbride October 27, 2006 at 6:25 pm

I’ve visited Sweden many times and lived in Malmo for 6 months. I learned that bad weather makes good people. Tony’s right that it is probably this evolution over time under harsh conditions that have created the Swedish spirit, but I would argue it has also resulted in an extensive regime of solidarity. They have a whole slew of fantastic customs which effectively bind people together, such as fica, basically a more formal type of coffee break with friends everyday at 3. I went to school at Lund and they had these huge “nation” parties which were just perfectly arranged. It felt like some medeval banquet: very long candlelit tables, where everybody sat eating and drinking aquavit, periodically breaking out in unison in some ancient drinking song. Tyler’s right, that being Swedish is their religion, but I think it consists more of their shared, peculiar heritage which long preceded any modern cosmopolitan notions.

Further, maybe this helps explain why Americans, lacking such ancient customs, have always been relatively religious (about God, that is).

Peter Schaeffer October 28, 2006 at 1:35 am

Brad De Long deletes a variety of stuff. Some of it just isn’t PC enough. However, he seems to have a problem with anyone who opposes neoliberalism, even if their critique is factual. He deleted one women’s post just because she corrected his GDP growth statistics.

Dan Karreman October 28, 2006 at 11:21 am

Tyler nails it. We are free in exactly the sense he points out. We pay somewhat for that freedom with slighty authoritarian customs: for example, solidarity is expected not only to family members, but to the society as a whole; you are expected to allow fellow citizens to tread on your land, if you are a land owner (this also means that you are obliged to be careful with the ways you tread); and you’re expected to accept that it is morally wrong to not work.

I think Swedishness is much more portable than Tyler admits. But I think his resistance is an important sociological factor why it won’t be exported much: the elites really haven’t much to gain from it, and possibly something to loose (like obvious examples of less fortunate people). And other constituencies don’t know what they are missing. The sense of freedom for all that exists in Sweden – Scandinavia – must be experienced to be believed. The Swedish religion isn’t really socialism – it’s egalitarianism.

.

Teller October 28, 2006 at 8:51 pm

“And it is hard to argue that it has been bad for the Swedes.†

This must be the dumbest economic piece I have ever read on Marginal Revolution, and that includes the illegal immigration debate.

Sweden in 1950-1960s was close to the stereotype Utoppia. GDP per capita was the third or fourth highest in the world, crime about as low as it can get, the growth rate high. Individualism, artistic creation, friendliness of the population as good or better than they are today. Health and life expectancy relatively to other countries of course very high.

Yet in 1950 taxes and government policy similar to the rest of the OECD. In the late 60s, with the overconfidence of how things were going, came the lovely high tax welfare state socialist experiment. 40 years later GDP per capita is 13th in the OECD, with the US 30% above us, and US non-Hispanic whites almost 50% above us.

The average income of Americans with Swedish ancestry (there are several million of them) is 60% higher than the average income of Sweden, from the 2000 census. Their poverty rate is 5.2%, compared with the 12-15% for the rest of the US. This is no different from the Swedish poverty rate.

(here are the 1990 figures online

http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/ancestry/Swedish.txt
http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/ancestry/All_Persons.txt

compare first Swedes with the US average, than US average with Sweden)

Violent Crime is several times more common. Murders per capita almost doubled, rapes, armed robberies, theft per capita up several 100%.

Trust is much lower than historical figures. Since the sixties Sweden “had the parallel downward trend in political trust on national governmental level as the United States†. The famous Swedish norms are not fully gone, but significantly eroded.

http://www.iies.su.se/publications/seminarpapers/719.pdf

The quality of the health care, schools and higher education has fallen dramatically. Untill 40 years ago Sweden was a world leader in many sciences, such as medicine and chemistry, whereas today it is at best mediocre compared to other western nations, especially the US.

Of course people are in absolute terms better of because of technology, but in RELATIVE terms to the rest of the world there is little doubt it was a costly experiment.

The claim that people are “free† from one another is pointless, people can choice to be free from one another in the US if they wish to, just save for your retirement and get some insurance. Breakup of social and family ties is not something Swedes have done voluntarily; it is a byproduct of the welfare state. Loneliness among the elderly is a serious social problem in all Scandinavian welfare states.

And what exactly has the welfare state contributed to? Wealth inequallity is essentially the same today than it was in 1950-60s.

http://www.naringslivsforskning.se/Wfiles/wp/wp667.pdf

Reveled preferences is another thing: Even though it is harder to move from Sweden to the US than vice versa 50.000 Swedes live in the US, compared to 14.000 Americans in Sweden.

Several other claims are nonsensical, and based on making strong claims with no knowledge.

“You can do your own thing, without much fear (relatively speaking, of course) of personal oppression from others.†

What exactly can you do that you can’t do in any other western democracy? Live on welfare? Swedes that want good successful lives have to work in organizations, form social relationships, and submit any other “oppression† from others (by which I assume he means volantary reciprocal exchange or relationships).

However unlike for example the US Sweden is a notoriously socially conformist country, which means that even adults in social relationships tend to have much MORE fear of “oppression† from others. Adult bullying is a serious problem in Swedish organizations.

This conformism and extreme adherence to group cohesion in Scandinavia is a big topic among sociologist. One version of it is Jante

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jante_Law

Instead we get to read that “Autonomy reigns†.

Don’t get me wrong, people are reasonably autonomous in Scandinavia, and in certain regards (sexuality most important) more liberal than Americans. But in many other regards the society is much less autonomous. Socially Sweden is far from laissez faire, quite the countrary.

This is why I am not reading Margial Revolution . This was once an economics blog. But at some point they got overconfident, lazy or just tired of economic analysis. Now instead of arguments, facts or figures the posts are increasingly builds his post on his casual personal impressions.

“I like Latin American food and art? This proves immigration of unskilled immigrants is good for the US economy†.

“I liked my trips to Sweden. You really get a sense of freedom walking through the streets and eating at nice restaurants. I guess this proves the Swedish welfare state was socially and economically successful†.

“And it is hard to argue that it has been bad for the Swedes.†

Apparently the opposite was even harder to argue for, since Cowen didn’t actually try, other than making the claim.

Mark Amerman October 29, 2006 at 10:57 am

Teller,

Your comments are fascinating but I believe you’re over-interpreting
the motivations of others. The mistake I imagine you making is
a common one: assuming that others know what you do, when in fact
that don’t. Most of the people commenting here on Sweden as well
as any other english-language site have either no direct experience
of Sweden or little direct experience. This is true whether they
are arguing for or against the swedish model.

Thus when you perceive egregious mistakes and assume that because
everyone knows they are such, they must be motivated by a
malevont will. But that’s what’s going on, it’s just ignorance,
or the normal human tendency towards fuddled thinking.

Nor would the situation be improved much if we had more native
Swedes commenting because what is really being attempted is
a comparison. Most people either know a lot about Sweden and a
little about anglo-american realities or vice-versa. When people
lack direct immediate overwhelming experience of the two contexts
then they have to resort abstraction.

What for you may be an overwhelming truth with so many roots that
one can’t even list them all may well appear to someone else as just
another set of words whose validity is no more self-evident that what
another one invents using nothing more than their imagination.

I also believe you’re misinterpreting Tyler Cowen’s goal here;
he was, so to speak, thinking a thought and inviting comment.

But to say again I really like reading your thoughts and think
you have a depth and authority on the subject that most lack and
wish you would continue to post those thoughts.

Jason Pappas October 31, 2006 at 12:07 pm

No doubt Sweden is a pleasant place and even with a lower GDP, it provides for a simple modest lifestyle. But overall Sweden is an inconsequential country. It is a small country in an out-of-the-way location so that it can duck when a militaristic bully comes into the neighborhood and parasitically let others fight to make Europe free. It isn’t a model that is scalable and sustainable in other locations.

Having been homogeneous it has mistakenly open its doors to an immigration group that is virtually impossible to assimilate in large concentrations, Muslims, that will provide a formidable challenge to Sweden as it has been for the Netherlands. It has given away its advantage of a single-minded mono-cultural enclave in a remote location. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Barkley Rosser November 2, 2006 at 1:10 pm

Robert,

You are wrong. One of the reasons the Nordic
economies work so well, including Sweden, is that
they interfere very little with business formation,
and there are very few “government sponsored businesses.”
This is the common misperception of many critics of
those economies. They are actually among the freest
in the world. Their “lack of freedom” largely involves
their very high taxes, but little else.

Erik April 22, 2007 at 8:28 am

“It is a small country in an out-of-the-way location so that it can duck when a militaristic bully comes into the neighborhood and parasitically let others fight to make Europe free. It isn’t a model that is scalable and sustainable in other locations.”

I’m not too sure about that. I read about all the European Battlegroups the other day. Sweden is the leadnation for the Nordic Battlegroup and contributes with 2000 soldiers while Norway contributes with 150, Finland: 200, and Estonia: 50.

/ Erik, Austria.

njsu October 19, 2007 at 5:18 am
vdv November 13, 2007 at 4:37 am
ミラナビ July 19, 2008 at 10:40 pm

出会い
をさがしてみました。こんな出会い系
をみつけてしまいました♪

masinn December 18, 2008 at 4:56 am
SWede April 30, 2009 at 11:45 am

Jag mÃ¥ste hÃ¥lla med där:)

Per Bylund July 8, 2009 at 10:41 am

I’m not sure what you are describing, but I know one thing: it isn’t my home country Sweden, where I spent the first 30+ years of my life.

muhabbet July 25, 2009 at 8:18 am
Nellie February 10, 2011 at 2:38 am

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_Sweden

Sweden was in 1766 the first country to introduce a constitutional law where censorship was abolished and the freedom of the press guaranteed.

Today there is only restrictions on child pornography , “hate speech” and information about “military installations” (and formally, but not practically, Film censorship for “exessive violence”- e.g. the “saw” movies was not censorede) .

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