If you understand basic math, you can understand a social democracy

Typical Swedish vacation home (wikimedia)

Having grown up in Sweden and then lived a big chunk of my professional life in the United States, I’ve had some interesting conversations over the years. A few years ago, everyone asked me about Stieg Larsson, the novelist, and his books. Is Sweden really like that? I don’t know — I didn’t read the books yet.

Other things seem to come up with regularity. Sweden is famous for being a “social democracy,” or a “socialist country” as some would call it. And nudity, although I wasn’t going to bring that up. Anyhow, people who don’t live in Sweden are usually appalled at the taxes, which are probably twice as high compared to the US. Knowing what I get in return from those taxes, they never bothered me, but it does seem to bother Americans. I’ve noticed that what people like the least is change. Going from US taxes to Swedish taxes would be quite a shock, probably.

So I’ve been thinking about why social democracy is so misunderstood. It sounds awfully close to “socialism,” does it not? That might have something to do with it. Let’s look at the definition of socialism, according to Merriam Webster

  1. any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
  2. a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
    or: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
  3. a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

It’s all pretty bad. Really bad. Either everything is state-owned, or headed that way. We already know that’s a disaster. This is not Sweden.

Let’s look at the definition of social democracy, then. Again according to Merriam Webster

  1. a political movement advocating a gradual and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism by democratic means
  2. a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices

Well, that still sounds pretty bad. The second definition says it is democratic, but remember “socialist” according to almost all the other definitions sound like it’s something from Russia. “Welfare” is another word that is loaded with badness.

The first time this was brought up to me, I didn’t even understand the question. Capitalism vs. social democracy? We can’t say either-or. That’s apples and oranges. But I’m now getting that if you talk with someone who associates socialism with overthrowing democracy, it might be a hard sell.

A social democracy, as practiced in Sweden, is simply a democratic capitalist country with a social contract between the government and the people

In the US, you would know it as Social Security, schools, fire departments, or public roads. It’s just really a lot more important to Swedes. Will Sweden ever become a socialist country? Remember the two definitions, where socialist=Russia, and social democratic=Sweden. Let’s just say Swedes would rather dive into a swimming pool filled with double-edged razor blades than give up capitalism or democracy. (Hat tip to Weird Al.)

Skånes universitetssjukhus i Lund (wikimedia)

What about liberties in Sweden? Freedom of speech? Check. Freedom of the press? Check. Being obscenely wealthy if you care to do that? Check. Owning guns? Check. Walking across land without having to worry about crazy people with shotguns? Check.

So there you have it. In Sweden, you pay more tax, but you also get things like free healthcare, paid sick leave, free child care, free college and higher education, and over a year of paid parental leave, including paternal leave. All this is covered with tax revenue, hence the taxes are higher.

Is it worth it? You decide — you do the math. That’s all it is. Math.

So, the next logical question is why Swedes decided on this particular balance between taxes and social programs. That’s a good question, and the answer is that it’s always a bit of give and take. In the last few decades, the social programs have actually eroded a bit.

Would this scale to the US? There is no reason it would not. All of Europe, Canada, and Australia are one flavor or another of a social democracy. Truthfully, the US is already a social democracy, but it’s just a very pale version.

What does it take to make it happen successfully? Strong involvement by the people, and competent leadership at both the local and national level. Deciding that every child deserves a quality education. Deciding that healthcare is a right, not a privilege. And some good marketing.

Stockholm Djurgårdsfärja (wikimedia)