National Review / Digital
Against Swedenization
The entitlement state imbalances budgets and enervates citizens



In I Am the Change, an analysis of President Obama’s political philosophy, Claremont McKenna government professor Charles Kesler says the “First Law of Big Government” is that “the more power we give government, the more rights it will give us.” The “rights” in that bargain are really wants, such as the “right” to “rest, recreation, and adventure” promised by one New Deal board, or the “right” to “enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits,” one of dozens enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Kesler’s formulation speaks to Americans’ inner Jeffersonianism, challenging them to covetously consolidate those genuine inalienable rights with which they have been endowed by their Creator. Tell a modern European, however, that in exchange for permitting the government to superintend citizens’ lives in ever greater detail it will bestow still more social-welfare rights, and the reaction will not be “Who do you think you are?” but “Where do I sign, and how soon do I get my benefits?”

The case against Swedenization, then, is that it threatens a soft and insidious despotism. Unlike the totalitarianism of the USSR, where the evil flowed from the top down, engulfing every aspect of society, the danger posed by social democracy is of social, political, and economic debilitations’ compounding one another. Progressivism began as, and remains, “an alliance of experts and victims,” according to Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard. It gains strength as the experts assert their expertise more confidently and the victims accept their helplessness more compliantly. The kind of robust mediating structures Tocqueville thought essential to the success of democracy in America will not prevail against that alliance. If the experts determine that employer-provided health insurance must include contraception, the objections of religious organizations opposed to some or all forms of contraception are immaterial. The possibility that the republic’s free citizens could initiate financial or employment arrangements to secure contraceptives, rather than relying completely on government directives to their employers, is also ruled out of order.

Swedenization might work indefinitely in Sweden, a country whose population is 8 percent smaller than Los Angeles County’s and immeasurably less heterogeneous. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently explained, Sweden has “no real linguistic or religious diversity, no experience of chattel slavery or mass immigration . . . and a culture of Lutheran thrift and prudence that endures even though Lutheranism itself is on life support.” The accompanying deference to experts and tax collectors, combined with residual social norms, could, he contends, “demonstrate that it’s possible for a welfare-state society to survive the waning of religion and the decline of traditional marriage without sacrificing middle class prosperity.”

It is also possible that Swedenization won’t work indefinitely, even in Sweden. Europeans’ admirable willingness to pay for the government programs they demand will be inundated by a demographic tide that leaves fewer and fewer workers supporting more and more retirees. Leftist politicians and writers treat this shift as an exogenous variable, an unfortunate contingency that has befallen the welfare state but reveals nothing essential about it. Megan McArdle and Ramesh Ponnuru have argued persuasively, however, that both social science and common sense suggest the welfare state is complicit in its own fiscal peril. Before the welfare state, I relied on my children to take care of me in my dotage, and you relied on yours to take care of you. After it, we rely on all our children to take care of all of us. The welfare state thus creates strong incentives for individuals to have fewer children of their own and rely instead on aggregated financial support from everyone’s children, thereby putting social-security systems under intolerable strain. Ponnuru cites two recent studies showing that the generosity of Europe’s welfare systems explains about half of the difference between the continent’s fertility rates, insufficient in every country to prevent the population from shrinking, and America’s, which remains above the level needed for population growth.

January 28, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 1

  • Too many Republicans wanted us to take the plunge.
  • A lesson learned, unlearned, relearned, painfully.
  • Republicans should reclaim the 37th president.
  • Our mental-health system is failing those most at risk.
  • How Robert H. Bork galvanized a movement.
  • Personal attacks and cultural collapse did not reduce his joie de vivre.
Books, Arts & Manners
  • Daniel Johnson reviews The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675, by Bernard Bailyn.
  • Elizabeth Powers reviews John Keats: A New Life, by Nicholas Roe.
  • Andrew Roberts reviews The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944, by Michael Neiberg.
  • Thomas S. Hibbs reviews The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV, by Paul A. Cantor.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Django Unchained.
  • Richard Brookhiser on the urban pigeon.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .