Swedish Reunion

When I attended my thirtieth reunion, something really unexpected happened: Jonas arrived. In high school, he had seemed emotionally withdrawn and was considered to have few redeeming qualities; he hadn't been heard from since graduation. Rumor had it that he had never done well at anything.

When he arrived for the thirtieth anniversary, he was quiet and well mannered. Only later did word get out that he was the wealthiest member of the class, and also probably the healthiest physically and emotionally, and that he was widely loved by all who knew him well.


Our Anti-Socialist Attitudes

In the late 1950s, President Eisenhower publicly proclaimed that Sweden, with its cradle-to-grave socialism, had the highest alcohol and suicide rate in the world and a very low economic growth rate. This was an indictment of socialism at a time when the United States. was fighting communism, the Republicans were fighting national health care, and the liberals were fighting tailfin Cadillacs.

Since then, our national view of world affairs has convinced us that communism as an economic system has failed in Cuba, China, and the Soviet Union. We believe that, for all intents and purposes, communism and socialism are so close that no meaningful distinction exists, so therefore socialism has failed as well. As the coup de grace to this analysis, we point out the socialist experiments in nationalizing industry in England and France were inefficient and that ultimately these industries were privatized.

However, like Jonas, who came quietly back to the thirtieth high-school reunion, Sweden is back on our news horizon. She still has the highest tax rates in the world and cradle-to-grave socialism. But for those who would care to look, she is the second-richest country in the world, by any reasonable measure.

The United States is the fourth, fifth, or possibly sixth richest country on the list of wealthy nations, depending on current exchange rates. The first is Switzerland and the third is Japan.

"Second in wealth "is very simple to define. We exclude the countries who have income based on oil (a few Arab countries and Norway), and we measure wealth by per-capita gross domestic product. If we considered income distribution&emdash;the proportion of very wealthy to very poor&emdash;Sweden would do even better, because she has very few extremes compared to the United States, which has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world.


It's All Untrue

This socialist country, our 1950s nemesis, never did have a suicide, alcohol, or mental illness problem that was statistically any worse than those in the United States. But even if we accepted Eisenhower's fabrications, all three have declined steadily in Sweden over the last 30 years, while they have all grown worse in the United States. Sweden today is ranked seventh and fourteenth today among major nations in suicide and alcoholism.

Mental health isn't measured by any international agency. You can judge for yourself the likely level of mental illness within a society. Swedes have a low unemployment rate in spite of lifetime insurance to support workers when they are out of work (meaning they work even when they don't have to financially ).

Sweden, unlike the United States, has a very extensive child care system. It also provides direct cash subsidies to children, lifetime free education and medical care, low-cost housing, very strong labor unions, the most extensive consumer co-op system in the world, and government subsidies for small businesses. In comparison to the problems that the average Swede has to cope with, his American peers are almost overwhelmed with the threat of illness and poverty, the lack of child care, and countless other exigencies we're left to struggle with alone.

Despite all this evidence, many Americans still ignore the reality of Sweden's socialist success. Three rationales are customarily evoked to justify our blindness. The first is that the Swedes are different from us culturally, so maybe socialism uniquely works for them (they are much more homogeneous than we are, and it's cold up there so they have nothing else to do but work hard).

This position is the result of ignorance. American whites, in fact, are primarily Nordic people. The difference between Americans and Swedes is hardly greater than the difference between New Yorkers and San Diegans.

As for homogeneity, it is true that our society is more diverse than that of the Swedes. The implication of this first position, however, is that because we have blacks in our society (12.1 percent) and some other minorities in our population (Hispanic, Native American, and others: 3.0 percent), our society can't work smoothly. And if we offered good unemployment benefits, child care, free education, and health insurance, even less work would get done, as they wouldn't work as hard (people of different skin color).

This is, of course, a racist argument. Whenever the argument is advanced that America's heterogeneity is the reason for some failure, it must stir the rational thinker to examine whether this very same argument explains our callous unwillingness to extend social welfare to our poorest. All countries similar to ours (Canada, Australia, Sweden, England, Germany) have far more comprehensive social care for the poor, and they are all much more homogeneous.

Racial differences seem to be a reason for not caring much about the poor, and it also saves us money. The person who uses our heterogeneity to explain why we are less economically successful than Sweden should admit that it also has the net effect of reducing national expenditures on welfare.

Others often point out that it is our non-homogeneous groups that do the unpleasant work for us, such as Hispanics in agriculture and blacks in driving city buses. This would seem to be an economic advantage over countries such as Sweden and Switzerland, where the middle class does the work that the lower class does here.

Do Swedes work harder because it's so cold in winter? I haven't seen it. After seven trips to Sweden, my observation is that they are more like Americans in every way than any people in the world, including their work habits. In the winter, they work the same way we do&emdash;except more cooperatively&emdash;and in the summer the whole country shuts down to enjoy the sun and water for two months (which should give us some time to catch up with them).


Forward-Looking Sweden

The reason I've gone to Sweden six times over a decade as a guest has been to help Sweden produce small businesses. With a population of eight million people, this country is very good at planning their economy, planning for long-term technical change, and planning in general. The combination of their ability to plan on a national level and their other innovative social attributes may make Sweden the most outstanding country in the coming century. It may already be the most interesting country in the world to study, particularly for Americans.

In the mid 1970s, Swedish planners recognized their long-term need to export, particularly to small third-world countries, and to sell to small markets in large countries. Small businesses seemed appropriate for this, and Sweden has a very small number and proportion of small businesses.


Creating Small Businesses

The ability to start and run small businesses has been an attribute associated with a person's primary culture. The overseas Chinese have a high ratio of businesses to population, as do the Japanese, the Danes and the French. The Slavs, the Spanish, most Africans, and the Arabs have very low ratios. These patterns have held true over centuries for immigrant groups who came to America.

In Sweden there is one area, Smoeland, where the ratio is high, because of large Danish emigration a millennium ago, but otherwise the Swedes have a low ratio of small businesses to total population. I was invited there because of a discovery I made that small businesses could be effectively generated among people who don't have the appropriate cultural background. This discovery is based on honesty and cooperation among businesses. The work in Sweden resulted in a large number of new businesses being generated, and those businesses have had a very high survival rate.


An Anomaly

All in all, our view of Sweden seems to be based on an anomaly. It is almost as though one whole wall in a small room were painted a brightly different color, but the visitors to the room didn't notice it. Here is a country, the second richest in the world, that is like us in its primary culture, that is clearly socialist by any definition, and that is doing wonderfully by all of our values, but which is being completely disregarded by us.

Here is one example of their socialist way of thought: decades ago Sweden eliminated the concept of trespassing. I was staying on a farm on a peninsula that reached into a lake, and I often noticed people walking through the farm who didn't live there, and saw small parties of strangers on the beach. The Swedes explained their law allowing public access to private property, and pointed out that only bad behavior would justify the eviction of strangers.


Michael Phillips, 1983 (revised 2000)


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