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SWEDEN: Something Souring in Utopia

10 minute read

It is a country whose very name has become a synonym for a materialist paradise. Its citizens enjoy one of the world’s highest living standards, and a great many possess symbols of individual affluence: a private home or a modern apartment, a family car, a stuga (summer cottage) and often a sailboat. No slums disfigure their cities, their air and water are largely pollution-free, and they have ever more leisure to indulge a collective passion for being ut i naturen (out in nature) in their half-forested country. Neither ill-health, unemployment nor old age pose the terror of financial hardship. In short, Sweden’s 8.2 million citizens have ample reasons for being satisfied. In fact, most are.

Yet growing numbers are plagued by a persistent, gnawing question: Is their Utopia going sour? Despite Sweden’s prosperity, a sharp increase in burglaries and robberies has produced a sudden sales boom in police locks and other antitheft devices. Police in a country that for years took pride in having no drug problem have recently uncovered several large caches of heroin. There are no signs, moreover, that Sweden has made any progress in dealing with its nagging alcoholism problem or its high suicide rate.*

Above all, perhaps, there is increasing concern that the samhället—the unique collective society created by Sweden’s own brand of socialism—has fostered both a bureaucracy and a mentality that put security ahead of initiative, welfare ahead of opportunity and to envelop life in a cocoon of red tape. It was the labyrinth of tax regulations administered by a stern bureaucracy that prompted the self-exile of one of Sweden’s most creative citizens: Writer-Director Ingmar Bergman, 58, who settled in Hollywood in April after suffering a nervous breakdown brought on by his arrest on tax-evasion charges. (The courts have yet to decide whether Bergman does indeed owe back taxes.)

The samhället’s cradle-to-grave benefits are unmatched in any other free society outside Scandinavia. Swedes enjoy free public education through college, four weeks’ annual vacation and comprehensive retraining programs if they want to switch careers. On the average, Swedish workers take 22 days per year of sick leave (for which they get 90% of their regular salary) and pay $3.40 at most for each visit to an out-patient clinic. On retirement at age 65, an industrial laborer earning $11,250 annually is entitled to a pension of $8,726. In pursuit of new ways to ease the Angst of life, a local politician actually proposed that the government provide free sex partners for the lonely.

The samhället is the creation of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, now headed by Prime Minister Olof Palme, which has ruled the country (sometimes with coalition partners) for the past 44 years. Scarcely Marxist, the party long ago discarded belief in class warfare and state ownership of the means of production. Sweden’s socialism has encouraged continued capitalist ownership of enterprises (90% of industry is in private hands) and private investment in new areas of production.

Yet the government has severely curtailed the discretion of Sweden’s capitalists in using their wealth and managing their businesses. Observes Stockholm University Jurist Gustaf Lindencrona: “As long as you use your money to raise productivity, the government won’t do anything against it. But if people want to consume their money, the government will keep them from doing it.” The aim has been to foster what the Social Democrats call “social” rather than “antisocial” uses of ownership. This will be furthered by legislation that takes effect next year, encouraging all management decisions to be subject to collective bargaining with labor unions: not only what wages to pay but how to budget investments, allocate profits—in short, everything.

Special Conditions. Sweden’s hybrid economy rode out the recent worldwide recession rather well. The Swedish gross national product grew (albeit modestly), and unemployment was minimal (49,000, or 1.2% of the labor force, as of last May). The success of Stockholm’s antirecession measures (like subsidizing production for stockpiles in order to keep employment high) was praised as an example of adroit fine tuning by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Yet the price Sweden paid for combatting unemployment this way was a sharp decline in productivity and a high rate of inflation (currently about 11%); together they have made Swedish goods less competitive in world markets.

Moreover, it is questionable whether Sweden’s techniques can be exported. Reports TIME Bonn Correspondent Gisela Bolte: “For the Swedish system to work requires Swedish conditions. It is a small country on the periphery of Europe (it has not been involved in a war for 160 years) with a homogeneous population. Not only do Swedes trust one another, they also trust their government. Labor and business cooperate so smoothly that strikes are virtually unknown, and the unions have not resisted structural changes in the economy. Key decisions are made in personal contacts among a small number of government, labor and business leaders.

“One illustration of the country’s uniqueness is the anecdote about a Swedish economist bragging to an Indian of the splendid performance of Sweden’s economy. ‘How many countrymen do you have?’ inquired the Indian. When the Swede replied, the Indian retorted wryly, ‘Well, that is what in my country we call a laboratory.”

But is the cost of the social welfare experiment in Sweden’s laboratory getting out of hand? Many Swedes think so. To pay for social security, employers must now ante up as much as $38.70 to the state for every $100 in salary they disburse. This is in addition to what businesses must spend for vacations, holidays and sick leaves. The individual Swede also pays for his privileges, in the form of some of the world’s highest income taxes; that industrial worker who earns $11,250, for instance, must give the taxman $4,125. Levies on the half-million self-employed Swedes—professionals, farmers, intellectuals and small businessmen—are even more onerous. The maximum tax rate is supposed to be 85%, but in one recent, celebrated case involving Astrid Lindgren, a writer of children’s books, the taxman threatened to take 102% of her royalty earnings.

Back to Barter. The Lindgren case resulted from a quirk in the law (which will be changed), but it dramatized the near confiscatory nature of Sweden’s tax structure, which inhibits individual initiative. Sven Stolpe, 70, one of Sweden’s most distinguished writers, announced last month that he had burned the manuscripts for a new five-volume series of novels. His angry explanation: “Practically everything I earn is taxed around 100%. It is all my life’s work that is being stolen.” Silversmith Rey Urban, 46, moans that while his products are in demand everywhere, “I don’t dare produce on a large scale” because of the taxes. In order to avoid records of transactions and hence a tax on earnings, there has even been something of a return to barter. Example: a dentist will fix a plumber’s teeth in exchange for having a sink repaired.

Adding to the Swedes’ frustration over tax rates is the sweeping power of the tax collectors. They can enter houses without court order, inspect bank records, even survey private medical records. The Bergman case prompted Author Kjell Sundberg to declare angrily, “The way society treated Bergman is the way ordinary people are daily treated by the tax authorities, the judicial system, the penal system, the schools.”

Swedes, in fact, are for the first time beginning to worry about “Big Brother.” Traditional civil liberties are largely intact: there is complete freedom of the press, as well as free elections, free speech and freedom of assembly. But the ever growing government bureaucracy encompasses 1.1 million of the country’s 4.1 million workers. It inundates businessmen with almost endless forms and regulates a great deal of private life. A man who wants to repaint his house, for instance, must use officially approved colors (chiefly, various shades of tan).

A particularly unpleasant kind of unofficial intimidation is something the Swedes call den kungliga Svenska avundsjukan (the royal Swedish envy): a near universal disapproval of anyone who jumps too far outside the norm, either in the quantity of his material possessions or, by extension, the quality of his ideas. It is, moreover, nearly impossible for anyone to hide from a neighbor’s scrutiny: all income-tax data, birth records and other personal documents are matters of public information, available for inspection at public records offices.

There is a growing irritation with the stifling welfare system, in large measure because Swedes have discovered it does not always deliver as much as it promises. In health care, the government discourages Swedes from using costly medical services by forcing patients to wait in long queues. It can take up to two months to get an appointment to see a doctor, and such visits average about ten minutes. Referral to a specialist often takes two years, and the wait for elective surgery (like the removal of a troublesome but not too dangerous gall bladder) can take five years.

The complaints have had political impact. The three nonsocialist opposition parties (Liberal, Center and Moderate) have pledged to halt the trend toward greater government centralization and slow the growth of the welfare state; the nonsocialist bloc has gained considerable strength. Since the 1973 election that left the Social Democrats with only 156 of Parliament’s 350 seats, they have had to govern as a minority, relying on the support of 19 Communist votes and occasional deals with other opposition Deputies in order to enact key legislation. According to the latest polls, the Social Democrats’ support is down to 40.5% of the voters (compared with the 43.6% the party won in 1973), while the nonsocialist bloc has climbed to 53.5% (up from 48.8% in 1973).

The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for this September; by then, the socialists—as they have often done before—may come from behind, thanks to a powerful machine that gets out the votes. A close outcome, however, would be a hard-to-ignore signal of continuing discontent with the Social Democratic blueprint for a Utopia.

At the Limits. Observes TIME’s Bolte: “Nobody really knows where the limits of the welfare state are. Sweden, however, could be approaching them. Some businesses are already becoming noncompetitive with foreign manufacturers. The Swedish work ethic has suffered from high taxation and easy welfare. People refuse to work overtime, and the absenteeism rate—now at 10%—is one of the highest in the developed world. Some of the most creative people are opting for self-exile, not only because of bureaucratic harassment but also because conformity has made Sweden a very dull place. Although the welfare state seems to have worked so far, in the long run the regimentation of people’s lives may kill the individual initiative and the private entrepreneurship needed for continued progress.”

* Compared with other countries, Sweden ranks 17th in deaths from cirrhosis of the liver (9.3 per 100,000); the U.S. ranks ninth (15.5 per 100,000). Although the Swedish suicide rate (20.3 per 100,000) is the seventh highest in the world, the Swedes argue that most nations, for religious or legal reasons, underreport suicides.

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