Christian Science Monitor: Are free markets the secret to Sweden's success?
Nima Sanandaji has written an interesting paper about Sweden. It largely points to the same historical facts that I have mentioned in my previous writings, namely that Sweden during its most free market oriented era, from 1870 to 1950, had the highest rate of per capita economic growth in the world. After massive tax and spending increases during the 1950s and 1960s, Sweden stopped outperforming other countries, and after a dramatic leftist shift in economic policies implemented by Socialist Olof Palme after he became prime minister in 1969, Sweden started to seriously lagg other countries. However, free market reforms implemented in the 1990s, and in recent years, have enabled Sweden to once again outperform other Western countries in growth.
He also discusses possible cultural factors, and also points out that Sweden in 1920 had a relatively low level of economic inequality, despite the fact that government spending and taxation at that time was only 10% of GDP.
Here is the conclusion from the Sanandaji report, The surprising ingredients of Swedish success – free markets and social cohesion:
Scandinavian societies have developed a unique culture with a strong work ethic and strong ethical attitudes regarding the claiming of welfare benefits. There are also high levels of trust and social cohesion. This social capital, which was built up before the advent of the modern welfare state, has played an important role in the success of Scandinavian countries.
For many decades, this pre-existing culture, allowed countries such as Sweden to have extensive welfare systems without the social difficulties, rise in worklessness and other effects that many would have predicted. Scandinavian countries have also reaped the rewards of relatively free market policies in some areas of economic life to reach impressive levels of wealth creation.
To characterise the Swedish model either as a social democratic utopia or a failed socialist experiment is a mistake. Sweden is a successful country in terms of having a low poverty rate and long life expectancy. However, these factors have much to do with non-government facets of Swedish society that pre-existed the welfare state.
As Milton Friedman has previously noted, the millions of US residents of Swedish descent also display low rates of poverty. They combine this with a living standard that is significantly better compared with Swedes living in Sweden. The transformation of Sweden from an impoverished agrarian society to a modern industrialised nation is a rarely mentioned, but quite significant, example of the role of free markets in lifting a country out of poverty and into prosperity. Low levels of inequality and low levels of government spending characterised this period of economic transformation. The golden age of Swedish entrepreneurship - when one successful firm after another was founded in this small country and gained international renown – occurred at a time when taxes and the scope of government were quite limited.
Sweden shifted to radical social democratic policies in the 1960s and 1970s, with a gradual reversal beginning in the mid 1980s. The social democratic period was not successful, as it led to much lower entrepreneurship, the crowding out of private sector job production and an erosion of previously strong work and benefit norms. The move towards high taxes, relatively generous government benefits and a regulated labour market preceded a situation in which Swedish society has had difficulty integrating even highly-educated immigrants, and where a fifth of the population of working age are supported by various forms of government welfare payments.
It is also important to remember that Sweden, like other Scandinavian nations, has compensated for policies of high taxes and welfare benefits by improving economic liberty in other fields. Some reforms, such as the partial privatisation of the mandatory pensions system and voucher systems in schools and healthcare surpass reforms in most developed nations. Since these reforms, and the reduction in taxes from the very-high levels of the 1970s to mid 1980s, Swedish relative economic performance has improved.
Swedish society is not necessarily moving away from the idea of a welfare state, but continual reforms are being implemented that increase economic liberty and incentives for work within the scope of the welfare system. Such trends are also visible in Finland and Denmark, with only oil-rich Norway being an exception.