Sweden turns the page and Scandinavian noir explains why

EVERYONE knows that Sweden is a social-democratic paradise, where taxes are high, the welfare state is big and everyone enjoys the benefits. That doesn’t mean it’s true. In recent years, research like that compiled in Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level has painted Sweden and its Scandinavian neighbours as political role models. The reality, as always, is more complicated. Thanks to a new publication from the Institute of Economic Affairs, the other side of the story is harder than ever to ignore.

The Surprising Ingredients of Swedish Success, written by Nima Sanandaji, dissects the beneficial impact of Sweden’s recent free market reforms, such as its system of school vouchers, still, tragically, a step too far for the UK. It also traces back Sweden’s cultural strengths – its strong work ethic and high levels of interpersonal trust – to before its welfarist heyday.

Indeed, Sanandaji finds that those decades of the twentieth century when Sweden aggressively expanded the size of its state – the late 1960s and 1970s – were followed by economic decline. In 1975, Sweden was the fourth richest industrialised nation measured on GDP per capita. By 1993, it had fallen to 14th.

Perhaps commentators would find this less surprising if they had paid more attention to the undercurrents in the country’s recent cultural output. Swedish authors like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson have become household names in the UK, but few stop to consider the context of their stories: a universally corrupt social underbelly, where crooked officials abuse their power and structures built with visions of centrally-managed harmony act only to conceal monstrous cruelty.

In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander is raped by her state-appointed guardian. John Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire novel Let The Right One In turns a state-planned housing estate into a concrete maze of horrors. Mankell’s Kurt Wallander investigates crimes only to uncover ragged holes in the social fabric.

These books are fiction, and they exaggerate Sweden’s shadows for effect. But they also reflect real concerns, and to the attentive reader offer their own counterpoint to the idea of Sweden as a paradise of paternalism. The first book of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which in Swedish is literally titled “Men Who Hate Women”, is peppered with statistics on the rate of violent crime against women in Sweden. Sweden’s failure to integrate its immigrant population haunts Mankell’s first Wallander book, Faceless Killers.

Ironically, despite peering into the darkness, many of these authors would resist the very solutions and explanations that the IEA’s new research report advocates. Seeing the Swedish dream in decay, it is tempting to try to shore up its failing timbers, rather than to confront, for example, the connection between a rigid labour market and the difficulty of integrating recent immigrants, or the contrast to Sweden’s more successful integration record in the first half of the twentieth century. Easier to demonise the corruption in an ageing family business than to consider how punitive taxation has prevented new entrants to the marketplace from shining light on the darkness for half a century.

The Victorian art critic John Ruskin once wrote that the only trustworthy autobiography of a great nation is its art. Sweden’s novelists show there is far more to its recent history than the triumph of the big state, just as its politicians are now demonstrating the power of free market reforms. Hopefully Sweden’s next chapter can uphold market liberalism without losing the bleak brilliance of its fiction.

First published: City A.M., 28/8/12

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Filed under Economics, Human nature, Literature, Politics

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