Bagehot on Pippi Longstocking and Statist Individualism

by Reihan Salam

Last week Bagehot wrote one of the most thought-provoking essays I’ve read in a long time on the subject of “statist individualism” in Scandinavia, and it raised a number of thoughts:

Finally, “The Nordic Way” [an official paper released by a consortium of Nordic governments] cites a paper that compares Sweden to Germany and the United States, when considering the triangle formed by reverence for the Family, the State and the Individual. Americans favour a Family-Individual axis, this suggests, suspecting the state as a threat to liberty. Germans revere an axis connecting the family and the state, with a smaller role for individual autonomy. In the Nordic countries, they argue, the state and the individual form the dominant alliance. The paper cited, by the way, is entitled: “Pippi Longstocking: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State”. It hails Pippi (the strongest girl in the world and an anarchic individualist who lives without parents in her own house, with only a monkey, horse, a bag of gold and a strong moral compass for company) as a Nordic archetype.

The Nordics celebrate the role of the state in setting individuals free from family obligations. Traditional conservatives, in contrast, have seen the discipline of the market as an effective way to deepen and reinforce marital fidelity and intergenerational obligations. In a more affluent society, however, these family bonds almost inevitably fray, and marriages are built on shared consumption preferences rather than the specialization of men in market labor and women in household labor. This helps account for the marked decrease in marriage rates among the poor and near-poor in the U.S., for whom the welfare state and market wages reduce the urgent need for a partner and high incarceration rates reduce the potential supply. The problem, of course, is that marriage and the pooling of resources that it entails appear to be crucial to upward mobility. One possibility is that the hunger for upward mobility will spark a cultural shift in the direction of increased marriage rates. Another is a turn in a statist, Nordic direction, in which marriage rates never return to the norms that prevailed in the midcentury U.S. and the state steps in with more redistribution. 

Then there is what we might call the new Third Way — the Fourth Way, perhaps — identified by Bagehot at the end of his post:

The phrase “statist-individualism” is an ugly one, but it seems a pretty apt description of these societies that Mr Cameron seems to admire sincerely. The British are too grumpy and too mistrustful of their state to buy into anything as intrusive. But is there still a link between the Big Society and the Nordic Big State? Maybe it is this: in the Nordics, the state is the final guarantor of equal access to good things for autonomous individuals. In the Big Society, perhaps the hope is for the state to act as a catalyst for access to good things. There is one final difference, of course; we have already seen that the Nordic model works.

Basically, we’re in uncharted waters, but I’m cautiously optimistic about the Big Society vision.