In The Almost Nearly Perfect People, British writer Michael Booth, while living in Denmark, sets out to explore the much-heralded success of the Nordic countries. Denmark regularly tops indices of global happiness. Sweden’s welfare state is the envy of progressives around the globe. What is it that makes these countries so great?
The Scandinavian countries are famed for their high-tax, high-benefit social welfare regimes. Booth meets with numerous local experts, revealing some of the thinking behind these countries’ choices for such robust social insurance. For instance, Henrik Herggren, a leading Swedish historian and social commentator, explained that the aim of the Swedish welfare state is to eliminate dependency and provide people with the foundation to lead a secure, fulfilled life:
- Berggren: “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.”
- Booth: “But doesn’t this just replace one dependency with another—the state . . ?”
- Berggren: “We are not arguing that people are totally independent, because they are dependent on the state. [. . .] [But] [y]ou can get an awful lot of autonomy by accepting a democratic state is actually furnishing you with the means to be autonomous in this way, and reach a certain self-realization.”
“For Americans and Brits the state is such a bogeyman, such a horrible menacing thing . . . . But 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.”
That is, Swedes believe a generous social welfare state is a perquisite to true individual freedom. In order for individuals to pursue self-realization, the government provides extensive public supports. Sixteen months of family leave per child, to be taken by parents any time during the child’s first eight years. Guaranteed healthcare. Publicly-funded daycare and eldercare.
In Booth’s telling, Sweden’s welfare state is a deliberate choice to facilitate a sort of radical individualism. Swedes agree to pay high taxes in order to obtain public goods that facilitate freedom. By paying into the welfare state, Swedes purchase a freedom that ensures they will not be otherwise obligated to others, nor resigned to rely on anyone else in turn.
This may be a jarring sentiment to American ears. In the United States, conservatives are too often allowed to claim the mantle of freedom as the absence of government intervention. Big government is cast as an oppressor, the free market as a liberator.
This argument hasn’t always reigned supreme in the United States though. In his famed 1944 State of the Union address, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that “necessitous men are not free men,” recognizing that the American ideal of freedom requires basic security and standards of living. Without proactive government intervention, the distribution of real freedom in America is wildly unequal: the rich and financially secure enjoy far more freedom than those barely making it.
The Swedish case for the welfare state is echoed in some of the arguments made in favor of a basic income today. A guaranteed income for all would free people to pursue higher-order ideals than mere survival. With basic needs met, more of our lives could be focused on passions and intellectual pursuits than simply grinding away at work in order to pay for food, shelter, and healthcare.
The radical autonomy of the Swedish welfare state is in some tension with the communitarian strain of liberalism in the United States associated with Michael Sandel and other political philosophers. Communitarians emphasize not just individual rights and freedom, but obligations and duties individuals owe to their local communities, ranging from families to neighborhoods to nations. For communitarians, freedom is not the ultimate goal so much as a richer and more interdependent fabric of community life and collective good.
Swedes, on the other hand, aim to free individuals of the trappings of obligation. If the government fails to provide childcare, this condemns parents to step in to fill the void. Same for eldercare—without government-sponsored nursing homes, children may be forced to care for aging parents. That curbs freedom, it’s thought.
Booth spends much of his tour across the Nordics poking holes in the myth of Scandinavian utopia. He finds the Norwegians to be anti-social loners; the Finns hooked on anti-psychotics; the Icelanders to be reckless finance Vikings weirdly obsessed with elves; the Swedes lulled into conformity by their welfare states. All of the Nordics are struggling to reconcile their traditional heterogeneity with an influx of multicultural immigration, and grappling with the effect on public support for the welfare state. He finds curiosities and disturbances in each distinct culture, but also finds much to admire.
But ultimately, Booth endorses the Scandinavian reliance on government institutions to improve individual autonomy: “To achieve authentic, sustained happiness, above all else you need to be in charge of your life, to be in control of who you want to be, and be able to make the appropriate changes if you are not. This cannot be a perception, a slogan like the American Dream . . . . In Scandinavia it is a reality. These are the real lands of opportunity. There is far greater social mobility in the Nordic countries than in the United States or Britain and, for all the collectivism and state interference in the lives of the people who live here, there is far greater freedom to be the person you want to be, and do the things you want to do, up here in the north.” Indeed, Booth has outright backed Bernie Sanders and his bid to bring elements of Scandinavian social democracy to the United States.
As Booth demonstrates, the Scandinavians are by no means super-humans, nor are their societies perfect utopias. But they do happen to be humans who have done exceptionally fine jobs of crafting fair and just societies to a degree that exceeds most everyone else. When societies band together to take care of basic needs and pool collective risks, people are left with more room to explore their humanity, and greater ability to actuate their freedom.
Those of us in the United States would be wise to realize that big government is not the inherent enemy of freedom. Indeed, it may often be its enabler.