Sweden: paradise or purgatory?

I know, I should link more. I tend to forget that my readers don't know everything I know--that they haven't written a couple dozen stories about European disability and pension systems, growth rates, unemployment, immigration, and so forth. That's the hazard of blogging--print journalists have editors there to remind them what other people don't know.

So sorry that I didn't provide links on my Sweden post about disability, unemployment, and so forth. I just sort of assumed that Sweden's amazing rates of disability, "true" unemployment rate that may top 20%, and so forth were common knowledge. They certainly aren't particularly controversial. But if there is anything less common than common sense, it's probably "common knowledge".

That, presumably, is how this got written. It's a compendium of extremely weak Google-fu that betrays a pretty fundamental lack of knowledge about Sweden's economic problems.

Let me be clear: Sweden is not by any means a dystopian hell on earth full of morose workers standing in endless queues for Yugoslavian shoes. It's a lovely place to live, full of people who are about as happy as genetics and the weather permit them to be. However, Sweden is wrestling with a lot of big issues. I was going to write a post about them to correct some of Ms. G's more bizarre misperceptions, but I was beaten to the punch by the inimitable Michael Moynihan, who has lived in Sweden, is married to a (lovely) Swede, and has spent far more time on the subject than I have, explain. Luckily for you, he's done a far better job than I would have. I won't excerpt, because it should be read in its entirety.

One other point I should make, though: the subject of cultural homogeneity and welfare states is complicated, delicate, and by no means settled. But there are a few things we think we do know. First, the more ethnically diverse a population is, the lower the political support for lavish safety nets (the subject of Robert Putnam's recent anguished paper). We also know to a pretty high degree of certainty that social solidarity plays a big role in keeping down free riding--most people don't refrain from shoplifting because they're afraid of a minor court case, but because Mom would cry and the neighbors would snicker. When you have multiple, somewhat mutually suspicious communities, you have to rely on other, harsher measures, like fraud police--or see public support erode even further. Most people don't mind paying taxes for people they think can't work. But very few want to support people who won't work. Cultural norms about what constitutes "can't", "won't", and "shouldn't have to" matter a great deal.

And even with a small country with a single culture that defines these categories pretty much the same, if those norms change, as seems (from both anecdotal and empirical evidence) to be happening in Sweden, it may be that the change will make welfare programs either fiscally or politically untenable. I don't know that this is true, and indeed don't know of any way to prove it. But I think it's worth exploring.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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