Sweden’s “socialist” success story is closely examined, only to reveal that it’s actually a capitalist success story. [ Sweden: Lessons for America credits: Dir: James Tusty, Maureen Castle Tusty / Narrator: Johan Norberg/ 60 min/ Documentary/ Econ 101, Anti-Socialism, Pro-Capitalism/ 2018]
What if Sweden isn’t an argument for socialism – but an argument for capitalism? That’s the question Cato’s Johan Norberg asks in this persuasive Free to Choose documentary.
Socialists love to point to the “Nordic model” as a working example of the socialist ideal. Yes, socialism failed in Russia, China, East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania, Afghanistan, Angola, Benin, the Congo, Ethiopia, Grenada, Kampuchea, Mongolia, Mozambique, Somalia, Vietnam, North Korea, Laos, Cuba, Venezuela, and so on (of course, that wasn’t real socialism), but it has succeeded in Scandinavia. And if it has even that one win, then it’s clearly a go!
Norberg, a native of Sweden, has a different spin on the country’s success. As he explains in this film, Sweden isn’t really socialist at all, at least by the dictionary definition, in which “the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.” It was socialist for a time in the 1970s and 1980s, but state ownership and heavy regulation abjectly failed there as it has everywhere else and was completely abandoned. Sweden today ranks #15 in economic freedom, ahead of the United States.
In a way, Sweden has returned to its intellectual roots, according to Norberg. Ever hear of Anders Chydenius (1729-1803)? I hadn’t either, but you learn about him in this film. It seems he was not just one of the first advocates of economic liberty but one of the first libertarians — advocating social liberties such as freedom of speech as well — and his writings on economic liberty preceded even those of Adam Smith. He was very influential in Sweden in his time and helped to create free market government policies that transformed the country from one of the poorest in Europe to one of the richest.
Norberg concedes that Sweden does have a large welfare state but points out that it’s not quite the redistributionist dream that socialists typically advocate – even the poor pay very high taxes. Also, Sweden’s welfare state is surprisingly privatized, with the State mostly just funding operations rather than running them.
All of which brings up a definitional issue in this that is worth noting: socialism, as it was originally defined and envisioned, with the state owning and operating the means of production, abjectly and repeatedly failed over the last century, as anyone with the slightest intellectual integrity will concede. The main reason it’s still taken seriously is that it was rebranded as “social democracy,” a fallback position in which socialists still call themselves socialists but without the baggage of gulags and destitution.
This “new socialism” is essentially advocacy of a welfare state, and not necessarily state ownership; but even then, it generously defines itself not really according to those things but according to outcome. For instance, the US government spends as much per capita on healthcare as Sweden but because it does so without much success, it’s not socialism; Sweden’s (privatized) government healthcare operates more efficiently, so it is socialism. This definitional shell-game has a lot to do with why there is so much popular confusion on the subject, and why the latest generation is embracing actual socialist ideas.
And that, in turn, is why this documentary is so important: it helps to clarify what socialism is and what it isn’t. Cato’s Norberg is the perfect spokesperson to explain all this — his Swedish roots give him the “boots on the ground” credibility that a non-native would lack, and his cheery, reasonable style are intellectually disarming. In the current political debate, this film is not just a breath of fresh air but a valuable counter-argument to those who mistakenly think Sweden’s “socialist” success story justifies the implementation of real socialism elsewhere.
“Debunks outdated myths about the Scandinavian nation.”
“Those interested in Sweden as it actually exists — as opposed to the Rorschach Sweden of our popular political discourse — should give this film a view, and some serious thought.”
How to See It
“It’s been suggested that Americans would be better off if the United States was more like Sweden. Do the Swedes know something that we don’t? Sweden: Lessons for America? A Personal Exploration by Johan Norberg delves into the economic and social landscape of the Swedish scholar’s homeland. Join him to see that the lessons to be learned from Sweden may not be the ones you expect. The one-hour documentary follows Norberg on a journey through the history of Sweden’s economic rise, from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the most prosperous. The program illuminates key ideas and enterprises that sparked the reform and continue to help Sweden maintain its lofty economic position, including freedom of the press, free trade, new technology companies, crazy jobs and even an old Swedish superhero.”
–Free to Choose Media