To the American mind there may be nothing more quintessentially Swedish than the leggy, blond supermodel.
But there's another Swedish model that inspires almost as much admiration—the Swedish economic model. With a generous welfare state and high living standards, Sweden seems to prove that socialism works. Much of the hope that swept Barack Obama into the White House rests on the belief that America could reach new heights under a regime of enlightened progressivism, that we could be more like the Swedes.
Not so fast, warns Stockholm University sociologist Charlotta Stern: "If an American told me that the US should be more like Sweden I would say I don't think it's possible." The United States can centralize its health care system and pass other laws that mimic Sweden's welfare state polices, says Stern, but it's impossible to replicate a culture that allows those policies to operate about as smoothly as possible. Swedish bureaucracies inspire trust, but their American counterparts (DMV, TSA, IRS) inspire punch lines, if not outrage.
But America could emulate some of the Swedish policies that don't require extensive bureaucracies. Take school vouchers. Teachers unions in America regard the idea as free-market radicalism, but families in Sweden enjoy universal school choice. Sweden adopted its famously progressive policies during the 1970s, but after years of sluggish economic growth the land of ABBA altered its course in the 1990s, adopting a host of free-market reforms, from deregulation to tax cuts.
Although much of the disco-era welfare state remains, economist Andreas Bergh credits the free market reforms with reviving his nation's economy. "Sweden is moving in the market economic direction," says Bergh, "but that does not mean America should be moving in the socialist direction."
What if the two nations continue on in different directions? Maybe some day when America is looking for a way to rejuvenate its economy, pundits will point to a different kind of Swedish model. One that increases individual choice and competition.
"Sweden—A Supermodel for America?" is produced by Daniel B. Klein, and written and produced by Ted Balaker, who also hosts. Shot by Jonathan Liberman and Henrik Devell, with additional production support by Zach Weissmueller and Sam Corcos and post production by Hawk Jensen and Austin Bragg. Special thanks to Niclas Berggren, Martin Borgs, Nils Karlson, and the Ratio Institute.
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