Sweden a Leader in Classical Liberalism, says Daniel Klein

An Interview with an American in Stockholm

Sweden is tossed about in the American political debate, being used as example of both a socialist but democratic paradise and as a “politically correct” suffocating state. This past year Sweden – and certain Swedes – has attracted the attention in the US, and the nation is often described as caught up in rapid political change.

What is the truth about Sweden? Over the summer, Svensk Tidskrift has been talking to Daniel Klein, professor at the George Mason University Department of Economics, an academic unit renowned for classical liberal orientation. Klein has a unique relationship with Sweden. His wife and daughter are Swedish and live in Sweden. Klein helped to produce a video about Sweden, featuring his wife Charlotta Stern. For more than twenty years Klein has been affiliated with the Ratio Institute and works often with Timbro, lecturing, leading a reading group, and co-organizing a yearly classical liberal summer seminar. He has also previously contributed to Svensk Tidskrift, in 2000 and 2003.

We figured if anyone could help us understand Sweden’s role in the American debate, and give us a knowledgeable outsider’s view of the changes in Swedish politics, it would be him.

ST: Professor Klein, you have been coming and going to Sweden since 1996. What do you find most striking about Sweden?

Klein: Saft. I don’t understand why we don’t have it in the US.

ST: Ah. What else?

Klein: On one’s mailbox you can put a sign “Ingen Recklam, Tack!” (“No Junkmail, Thanks!”), and, voila, no junkmail. Can’t do that in the US, where 75 percent of my mail goes straight into the garbage bin.

Another example of how the public sector in Sweden works much better: The road system has few STOP signs and traffic lights. It’s more free-flowing, relying on sophisticated yielding, and traffic-circles. Driving in Sweden is more dignified and more enjoyable.

ST: Would those work in the US?

Klein: The traffic circles would. But the yielding is something that has to be learned and respected. My 18-year old daughter recently obtained her driving license in Sweden, and I was impressed by the rigor of the “theory” examination—I understand that more than 60 percent fail the first attempt. That’s unimaginable in the US. In the US there is a default assumption that the average person is a moron, and naturally has to be passed.

My daughter, by the way, is enjoying her new-found Swedish freedom to “go clubbing,” a freedom denied in the US for an additional three years.

ST: What about politics in Sweden?

Klein: When my connection to Sweden began, in 1996, I was struck by the civility. In the US, political adversaries are demonized, whereas in Sweden they are treated like one’s sister’s friend’s former housemate, which is what they are. Being a fellow Swede is much different than being a fellow American. Almedalen is emblematic—nothing like it in the US, or even conceivable.

Americans do not understand that in Europe a nation is a “folk,” a people. The United States has “being American,” and we root for the Williams sisters, but it’s not so much a folk. The population of the US has always been too large, too spread out, too new, too rootless, and too diverse. Also, Americans think of the language that they speak as the language of planet Earth. Americans don’t understand how language is important to a country like Sweden. When a Swede hears someone speaking Swedish, she knows it’s a fellow member of Club Sweden, and they’re prepared to discover someone who knows someone they both know. In politics this means that when Kristina says, “really, the government policy has perverse effects in my workplace,” people on the other side actually listen to Kristina, and take what she says under advisement, and feel a little guilty about their policy doing that to fellow Swedes. Policy implementation and enforcement is softer and more moderate, and policymaking is actually open to correction—relatively speaking, of course. Also, it means that Swedes are more willing to trust fellow Swedes to take care of themselves. A major area of government intervention, occupational licensing, is much lighter and less extensive in Sweden than in the US. Swedes figure that fellow Swedes can figure out which haircutters don’t do a good job of cutting hair. It even goes for lawyers. Sweden enjoys greater economic freedom in this important respect.

ST: But political culture has been changing rapidly. Is Sweden still so different?

Klein: I think that change has been much more rapid in the US, so in a way the difference between Sweden and the US is even more striking than it was five years ago. I do not see much crumbling of civility in Swedish politics. Things seem to be holding pretty well, though civility and comity were stronger 15 years ago.

The political “central zone”—meaning the central circles of political influence, culture, and leadership—still coheres pretty well. Sweden has an exceptionally functional central zone, and that central zone has much more classical-liberal spirit than it gets credit for. The bumblebee flies. Americans might be surprised. The Swedish universities are less completely dominated by the political left than in the US. In Sweden leftism and “woke” nonsense is much less noisy and pestiferous.

ST: So are you more optimistic about Sweden than about the US?

Klein: Less pessimistic might be more apt.

ST: What about the Sweden Democrats? Isn’t that a big change in Sweden?

Klein: Yes, it is. The greatest departure from the civility of Swedish politics has been the way the other parties have treated the Sweden Democrats. But I think that has been a special political circumstance, reflecting denial and taboo. I think that Swedes themselves now begin to realize that their treatment of the Sweden Democrats has been un-Swedish. Funny enough, it’s been good for the Sweden Democrats, in a way. They gain support by being ill-treated and being kept out of governing; it gives them the “protest vote.” Once they are normalized and join in governing, their support will decline.

ST: Getting back to perceptions, most Swedes do not see Sweden as socialistic. Why do many Americans think of Sweden that way? What is going on here?

Klein: Partly it’s misperception, partly the definition of “socialism.” Sweden has a significantly larger tax-load and welfare state than in the United States. Also, Sweden’s labor markets are greatly shaped by the system of collective agreements. But in other respects, Sweden is less socialistic. Sweden is freer than the United States in several significant ways. Much less military spending per capita, for one thing. In fact, I think that Swedes don’t understand their own country very well.

ST: What do you mean? What do Swedes not understand about Sweden?

Klein: If you think about Sweden in comparison to other countries, you can make a good case that classical liberalism enjoys a standing in Sweden stronger than in just about any other country in Europe, in terms of the country’s heritage and its political sensibilities today.

First, after being a great power and after being reduced to the peninsula with Norway, Sweden in the 19th century fell into a strong sense of national identity, and to a great extent it went for the new image of the nation-state, namely the liberal nation-state, thanks to people like Erik Gustaf Geijer. In this it quietly excelled. Sweden in this respect emulated Britain, but in compressed timespan. The years 1850-1960 are a glory of Sweden the liberal nation-state, growing rapidly and developing a liberal ethic wonderfully celebrated in My Life as a Dog. “Hurray för Ingo! Hurrah för Sverige!”

Second, the history of liberal (Ed: here used in the Swedish meaning of the word) thought and leadership is incredibly rich and impressive, including Anders Chydenius, Hans Järta, Erik Gustaf Geijer, Carl David Skogman, Lars Johan Hierta, Fredrika Bremer, and Johan August Gripenstedt. In the era of rising socialism, Sweden had titan economists who kept their socialist third-cousins from extremes, titans like Knut Wicksell, Gustav Cassel, and Eli Heckscher. They were not only world renowned economists, they were leading public intellectuals within Sweden, and they helped to establish and maintain a sensible coordination between scholarship, public discourse, and policymaking. They were significant central-zone players. In intellectual and moral leadership, Sweden’s classical liberal record far exceeds that of any of the other Nordic countries, and really contends with Britain or the United States, adjusting for population size. In the central zone of Stockholm, liberals have always had a respected seat at the table, where they have served as a conscience to dreamers and schemers.

Third, Astrid Lindgren. (By the way, I regret that today Swedish six-year-olds are not being edified in the Lindgren canon the way that former generations were.)

Fourth, liberal research, scholarship, and discourse require professional liberals. On a per capita basis, Sweden probably sustains professional liberals better than any other country in Europe, usually far better, and maybe even better than England. The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv) and various foundations do a fantastic job supporting fantastic people doing fantastic work, in the heart of Stockholm, with seats in the central zone. Some of my Swedish classical liberal friends do not realize how good they’ve got it, relative to the rest of Europe.

Fifth, the central zone consists also of private enterprise. In Sweden there is a nexus of private enterprise—organizations, families—who still cohere as a loose yet important force of the central zone. They are counterparts to the “honest gentlemen” of Britain that David Hume and Adam Smith appealed to, the people of wealth who are called to assume the responsibility of using their wealth and influence wisely, most notably by not using political influence to acquire privileges against would-be competitors. It is my understanding that the private-enterprise nexus in Sweden tends to lean liberal, even in a scrupulous way.

These liberal elements were drawn upon in the 1960s and 1970s when the Social Democrats forsook their liberal side and lurched too far to the left. Reasonable Swedes took a stand, and Sweden changed direction.

ST: Those are interesting points. If they have merit, shouldn’t Sweden be a leader in economic freedom?

Klein: Sweden does pretty well in the economic freedom ranking, currently 43rd of 162 in the Fraser ranking and 19th of 169 in the Heritage ranking. Incidentally, a significant advantage of Sweden over the US is civil law and litigation. The US system is terrible, as it does not have loser-pays and generally makes for shakedowns and extortion. Like most countries Sweden has loser-pays and no exorbitant and capricious damages. I believe that the freedom indexes do not pick up this advantage to Sweden, but I’m not sure. I’ll bet that per capita the US has ten times as much litigation and ten times as many lawyers as Sweden does. A sane court system shows up in ordinary life in Sweden, where trust and flexibility make possible things you don’t see in the US from fear of legal shakedown. A simple example: One night in Stockholm at a medical clinic my wife was drafted to serve as stitch-nurse to the doctor who sewed up a gash in my hand, because the doctor otherwise would not have been able to give me stitches, since there was no one else in the clinic to provide the necessary assistance. So the doctor delivered the stitches that my wound called for, with on-the-spot help from an untrained, unlicensed, uninsured fellow Swede. Try that in the US!

ST: The school system of Sweden is sometimes touted for its voucher system and growing private sector. Would that count in Sweden’s favor?

Klein: Yes, it would. Also, privatization of some of the mandatory saving for pensions, and contracted-out bus and subway services, and the semi-private ownership of local roadways. But on the school system, I think that two changes need to be made: (1) gut most of the horrible national curriculum; (2) overcome the teacher cartel by abolishing certification requirements. Schools would have better teachers if they could hire whomever they feel is qualified. The certification requirements create a teacher cartel, with monopoly power. The field of certified teachers is very narrow, and they are not the best and the brightest. Moreover, I believe that they tend to have leftist political views. I write about the teacher cartel and national curriculum here (video here). Vouchers are a good thing, but the results will nonetheless be lousy if the schools are locked into hiring lousy teachers teaching according to a lousy curriculum.

ST: If what you say about Sweden is true, how is it held up as a model of socialism?

Klein: Misinformation. Leftists in the US, like Bernie Sanders, naturally point to something nice. Only a few of his followers bother to question it. Most don’t understand that Swedish civic virtue is not a consequence of the welfare state; rather Swedish civic virtue is the reason why the large welfare state has not been the disaster it would be if President Sanders tried to replicate it in the US. Americans don’t understand why the Swedish bumblebee flies as well as it does—a strong and liberal national identity, free markets, civic virtue, a reasonable court system, a functional and relatively liberal central zone—and in spite of a high tax-load and screwy labor markets.

Swedes too need to understand why the bumblebee has flown as well as it has. Sweden’s respectable success must not be taken for granted. The preconditions for it must be preserved and built upon.

Anders Ydstedt är styrelseordförande för Svensk Tidskrift