Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that, in 2010, all government spending in Sweden equaled 53 percent of GDP. The same figure was 55 percent in Finland, 56 percent in France, and 58 percent in Denmark. Sweden’s comparative austerity suggests that vigilance against the “Denmarkation of America” would be more apposite. Federal-, state-, and local-government expenditures in 2010 amounted to 42 percent of America’s GDP, which means that we’re behind Europe, but not that far behind. Moreover, we’re catching up: In 2000, government spending in the U.S. accounted for 34 percent of GDP.
Well, what are a few percentage points of GDP among friends? By this rudimentary measure of government outlays as a proportion of national income, America already differs from Scandinavia in degree rather than in kind. If conservatives want to avert the Swedenization of America, they need to explain, more comprehensively than they have done so far, the deplorability of that outcome, since Western European social democracy appears benign where Eastern European Communism was manifestly grotesque.
That polemical mission can be pursued by way of two arguments — one sweeping, the other restricted. Swedenization could be bad because it’s bad for human beings, or just because it’s bad for Americans. If the former, then America should reject social democracy as a regime that would debilitate any nation. If the latter, then social democracy might work well enough in some countries, but Americans should reject it as irreconcilable with their republic’s distinctive character.
Most of the conservative case to date has inclined to the larger, categorical contention that the growth of government spending, and of government generally, must anywhere lead to insolvency. “To assure every entrepreneur and every job creator that their investments in America will not vanish as have those in Greece, we will cut the deficit and put America on track to a balanced budget,” Mitt Romney said in his speech at the Republican convention. It is at least arguable, however, that the economic calamities in southern Europe tell us more about how cultures of corruption exploited a lunatic experiment in multinational currency than about the essential qualities of social democracy. In 2010, Sweden’s government revenues were 99 percent of government spending, Denmark’s equaled 95 percent, and France’s were 87 percent, meaning that those countries’ big spenders were also big taxers. Politicians win power there by persuading citizens that, while generous government benefits will indeed require high taxes, they’ll be better off with that combination than with the alternative: keeping more of their earnings in exchange for the government’s curtailing benefits.
In America, by contrast, government revenues equaled 75 percent of outlays in 2010, meaning that federal, state, and local governments borrowed one dollar for every three they summoned the language and courage to raise by taxation. Northern Europe, in other words, finances big welfare states with heavy taxes and little borrowing, while the U.S. finances a smaller one with lighter taxes and extensive borrowing. That difference supports the narrower contention that Swedenization is un-American but not necessarily untenable in any polity. Our deeply rooted, don’t-tread-on-me Jeffersonianism means that we cannot be persuaded to buy even a relatively modest welfare state unless a significant portion of the purchase is financed with debt. In this we are unlike the Europeans, who want cradle-to-grave welfare states enough to pay cash for them.
There are good reasons to believe, even after November 2012, that Americans are indeed not Europeans, and will be more receptive to revising existing social-welfare programs and resisting new ones than to massive tax increases. The fact that victorious Democrats still dare not seek even one dollar in additional federal taxes from anyone below the 98th percentile of the income distribution — though everyone understands that big spending cuts will eventually be inescapable without such increases — is the strongest evidence that America remains, in this respect, exceptional.