World in the Grip of an Idea: 17. Sweden: Tightening the Screws
MAY 01, 1978 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
In this series, Dr. Carson examines the connection between ideology and the revolutions of our time and traces the Impact on several major countries and the spread of the ideas and practices around the world.
The loss of liberty is quite often subtle under evolutionary socialism. So also is the loss of private property, or control over it. Under revolutionary socialism only the purblind can fail to grasp the assault on property and the onset of confinements of the population. The brutality of the attack is too blunt and persistent to escape detection by any except those who resolutely will to ignore it. By contrast, evolutionary socialism is intruded in such a way, particularly under long-established parliamentary governments, that its restraints, confinements, and erosions of the ground of liberty and property are not so readily seen.
This is so in part because as the paternal state takes shape the focus is upon benefits to be conferred rather than the price to be paid, both monetary and in individual rights. There is a broader reason than this, however. It is that the population, or a considerable portion of it, has been induced in advance of the measures to accept certain underlying ideas, which make the intrusions appear plausible and, perhaps, even inevitable.
One of the leading ideas is that of the desirability of distributive equality. This is joined, of course, with the notion that all should work together in collective harmony for the general good. When these ideas are linked to the belief that government is the instrument by which this should be achieved the way has been prepared for the introduction step by step of socialism.
The mechanism by which evolutionary socialism has been advanced is democracy. Herein lies a paradox. As popular control over government has increased the control by people over their own lives and affairs has declined. The paradox is more apparent than real. That anyone should find it strange that people’s control over their lives declines as their participation in government increases is the result of one of the most impressive selling jobs in all of history. In the latter part of the nineteenth and in the twentieth century a tremendous selling of democracy took place. Democracy was advanced as the great cure for the ills of the world: if all peoples of the world would only adopt and practice it, a worldwide prosperity, harmony, and peace would ensue. The massive bloodletting which is now known as World War I was even described as a war to make the world safe for democracy. Democracy would then, it was claimed, make the world safe from wars.
These ideas gained plausibility from the fact that the development of democracy occurred more or less simultaneously with other developments in the nineteenth century. Such causal connection as the spread of democracy had with these other developments was almost certainly accidental, but it did not appear so at the time. The other nineteenth-century developments to which I allude were constitutionalism, the establishment of individual liberty, the casting off of feudal restrictions and the securing of private property, and the tendency to negotiate agreements among nations rather than going to war to settle disputes. Under these conditions trade expanded greatly, industries developed on an unprecedented scale, population increased dramatically, and prosperity began to become more general than ever before. It was under these conditions that Sweden became an industrial and prosperous country, as noted earlier.
In retrospect, there appears to be little enough reason to connect these developments with the spread of democracy. True, these developments occurred first generally in countries which had representative or popular government, that is, in Western Europe and America. And, there was undoubtedly a temporal connection between representative government and the other developments. It was this. The thrust to remove feudal and mercantile restrictions, to extend liberty, and to restrain and limit government was generally expressed through parliaments (legislatures, congresses, or whatever they might be called). This was especially so of the elective branches of parliaments. As a result of this, representative government began to be thought of as the champion of liberty.
The connection was temporal, as I have said. For the historical moment, as it were, representative governments curtailed the power of kings and limited government. The foundation of liberty was in constitutionalism which was itself based on the natural law philosophy. The practical defense of liberty lay in the separation of powers within government, a separation that would have the tendency to restrain and limit government. Popular or representative government can, at best, only reflect the prevailing mood among the populace, whatever that may be. If that mood is libertarian, representative government may act upon it; if it is totalitarian, representative government can do little more than be its agent.
Even so, the thrust toward democracy got a tremendous boost from this temporal, and temporary, connection. Champions of democracy pressed to have governments more and more representative, to extend the franchise ever more broadly, and to having all political decisions made on the basis of popular support. The practical effect of this was to concentrate all power in the legislatures and to negate the restraints upon government that rested upon a separation of powers. In limited monarchies, such as Sweden and England, the monarch became more and more limited, as did the hereditary nobility generally, and the representative portions of parliaments triumphed.
Democracy Is Mob Rule
The champions of democracy ignored the fundamental nature of democracy, a wealth of historical experience with it, and a two thousand-year-old reasoned argument against it. They made it an unquestioned good and a thing to be desired above all else.
Whatever the merits of representative government, they do not extend to a thoroughgoing democracy. It is an ancient insight that democracy is mob rule. True, the mob-rule feature is moderated so long as the populace acts through representatives; but representation is an inhibition on democracy, not a part of its essential character. It was Greek democracy which sentenced Socrates to exile or death. It was the mob which shouted to Pontius Pilate that Christ should be crucified. It was the Roman mobs who turned their fickle support from one conquering general to another that aided and abetted the horrors of the Roman Empire. "Democratic" New England was the most intolerant locale in the American colonies.
Democratic socialism has attempted to legitimize a modified mob rule. It has done so by attributing to democracy virtues it does not possess and ignoring its implicit vices. If democracy were not modified by representation and rules which hold it in check it would be tyrannical. As it is, it is a compelled conformity, a conformity which takes away individual liberty and intrudes upon private property.
It is ironic that so many intellectuals should have championed social democracy (or democratic socialism or collectivized democracy, whatever describes it best). Modern intellectuals developed an early distaste for social conformity. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that society is at war with every one of its members. His meaning was that society is trying to settle us into a groove—make us conform—that is contrary to what each of us as an individual would wish to be. Society became and remains the villain for many intellectuals. It operates upon the basis of tradition and bids those within its ranks, so to speak, to conform or suffer rebuke, ostracism, or whatever punishments are within its power. And conformity has been the bete noire of intellectuals.
Yet many of the same intellectuals who have condemned conformity to society have been vigorous promoters of democracy, even democratic socialism. They have promoted a compelled conformity by the use of government power over the conformity induced by influence of society. They avoided the onus of this by attributing goodness to democracy and claiming to identify society with government by way of democracy. If conformity were the evil, it might be supposed that compulsory conformity would be worse than elective conformity.
Conformity to Their View
Actually, most intellectuals are no more opposed to conformity than are the generality of people. Each of us harbors in his breast the desire to have others conform to his will. What has troubled most intellectuals has not been conformity but rather kinds of conformity to which they are opposed and over which they have no control. Conformity to society, its norms and prescriptions, has been, in their view, irrational and backward. By their lights, they would substitute for conformity to tradition a conformity to reason, a reason that by their conceit they are uniquely equipped to divulge. The idea that has the world in its grip is a vision of just such a conformity.
The role of democracy in this needs also to be grasped. The theory of democracy holds that democratic government would actuate the will of the people. If this were the case, it is difficult to see how government action would be brought under the control of intellectuals. What is more likely, however, is that there is no such thing as a "will of the people." True, majorities can often be obtained, either for men, or on one side or another of issues, especially if there is only one choice to be made. But the getting of a majority depends on how the issues are stated and the personal appeal of candidates. In short, the statement of issues and the formulation of the candidate’s opinions are crucial. These are pressure points for manipulating decisions in democracies. They are the points occupied by intellectuals. Democracy, then, is the means by which intellectuals would exercise control over and produce the kinds of conformity they desire.
It has been made to appear that, by voting, the individual increases his control over his affairs. This is only the case, however, if he successfully votes to reduce government involvement in his affairs. If he votes to increase government action, as he does if he votes for the programs of gradualist socialism, he votes to diminish his own control over his life and affairs. He may be induced to do this by the promise of benefits, benefits which will free him from many of his individual responsibilities. But when he does this he is only voting himself greater responsibility for others and less control over how it will be exercised.
Democracy in Sweden
Sweden is one of the most democratic countries in the world. Not only is there universal suffrage but also a great variety of consultative and mediative mechanisms by and through which people may express themselves. There is even an official known as an Ombudsman who has the power to penetrate and hold the bureaucracy to account. No group, at least organized group, is apt to be ignored when some decision is made which would affect its interests. Collective decisions are a la mode in Sweden, and the Swedes have applied their passion for orderliness to see that as little as possible is done without consulting the collectivity. All of which is just another way of saying that the Swedes have lost much of their individual liberty and control over their lives and property. The screws on the individual which make him conform to the collective will are continually being tightened.
One of the most obvious ways in which Swedes individually have lost much of their control over their affairs is by way of taxation. On the average, Swedish workers work over forty hours per week. According to reports, they work hard when they work; and pay in much of industry is on a piece work basis, which is certainly conducive to productivity. Local and national income taxes take away about a third of their pay on the average. Taxes rise sharply on those with higher incomes and go to as much as 71 per cent. The well-to-do also pay a "wealth" tax on top of the regular income, but there is, mercifully, a ceiling of 80 per cent on the combined national and local taxes on income.
A general sales tax of 10 per cent on the cost of items bought prevails. In addition, unusually high taxes are levied on gasoline, liquor, beer, cigarettes, and chocolates, among other things. Technically, the pension fund is financed by employer contributions. In fact, of course, this payment is a wage cost and is a reduction of employee wages or employer income or both. This last aside, however, it is not uncommon for a workman to lose 50 per cent of his pay to direct taxes. Then there is the ubiquitous and invisible tax gatherer—inflation–and Swedes have been hard hit by it as have most other peoples. Of course corporation profits are taxed, taxed, that is, if they are not placed in an investment fund, taxed at a rate of up to about 53 per cent of combined national and local levies.
It should be clear that the individual loses personal control over all his money taken by taxation, whether direct or indirect. According to social democratic theory, the control over that portion lost by the individual passes over to the collectivity. The matter is not so simple, however, for so long as there is a choice people are by no means united as to how or whether the money should be taken and spent. For example, in the late 1950′s, a major controversy developed in Sweden over the proposal by the Social Democrats for a supplementary pension program. Following a national election in which the program was a major issue, the legislature passed the measure by a vote of 115 to 114. This was surely not the expression of a collective will but the imposition of a measure on the whole populace by the narrowest of majorities.
The Housing Shortage
Probably the best known infelicity of Social Democratic Sweden is its housing shortage. It is a good example, too, of how the Swedes have lost effective control over their affairs and are thwarted in their aims by government policy. There are two aspects to the housing shortage. One is that there is a shortage of housing in places where it is wanted. The other is that the dwellings available are remarkably small. The majority of city dwellers live in apartments, and these generally run to 2½ rooms each. One-fourth of urban dwellings have but one to two rooms.
Both kinds of shortage are a result of government practice and policy. Rent controls over many years have kept rents below what they would be in a free market. Hence, private builders have seen little advantage to be gained from building places for rent. A remoter reason for the shortage of houses has been the rapid industrialization in the twentieth century. As a result more than 75 per cent of Swedes now live in towns and cities. There is reason to believe that this industrialization and urbanization has been accelerated by government policy which favors capital expenditure.
It looks, too, as if the government were deliberately going about creating a housing shortage. Much urban housing has been demolished, under the claim that slums were being cleared away, but a goodly amount of this housing was quite habitable and much more commodious than the housing built to replace it. In any case, government determines what housing is provided. As one writer says, "The government and local authorities erect a third of all new dwellings, and almost all housing projects are backed by government loans. It is the government that decides on the number of housing starts each year, enforces building standards, and subsidizes pensioners and low-income families to about 25 per cent of their rent."’
It is a result of government policy that apartments are so small. One aim of this policy is egalitarian, to see that every Swede has a "quality" dwelling. To put it another way, if everyone cannot have a large house, then no one should have one. But the matter goes deeper than that. The government has, after painstaking calculation and consideration, decided what sort of housing people need. It has decided what size and what components a kitchen should have. It has decided that central heat, double glazed windows, and garbage disposal chutes are needed rather than more space for rooms. It has set the kind of limitations on what is to be included so as to make it expensive to build very small accommodations. Large families are almost unthinkable in the postage-stamp houses, and Swedes must long for summer when they can get out of the stifling atmosphere of their houses into the open spaces.
Sweden is in a squeeze from the make-up of the population, and no relief is in sight. The basic problem is that a larger and larger percentage of the population is reaching retirement age. The low birth rate is not replenishing the population. In consequence, a smaller and smaller work force is having to carry the burden of feeding and caring for that portion of the population that is retired. The increase of productivity per worker might make it possible to continue for a while, but it should be noted that this could only be accomplished by denying to the workers any benefits from the increased productivity.
Moreover, if earlier analysis is correct, government policies already encourage much wasteful capital spending, spending which may indeed increase the productivity of workmen but which requires much more work to replace the equipment being retired. About the only area in which the Swedes could move to enhance their productivity would be to use all the time that goes into social planning, consultation, negotiation, and other such activities for productive purposes. But if they were to do so it would be to abandon democratic socialism.
The Swedes have invested a great deal of intelligence, ingenuity, and determination into making their variety of socialism work. Of this, there should be no doubt. They have done so under as near optimum conditions as are likely to be found on this planet. They have avoided participation in wars that would have cost so much and returned so little of a material character. They had a homogenous population which should be ideal for collectivism. They have benefited much from international peace. They have avoided internal revolution, or anything approaching it. They have modernized with great vigor, taken advantage of specialization of labor, and promoted capital accumulation and investment with a will.
A Mechanical System
The result of this effort and ingenuity is this: The Swedes have probably come as close to creating a materialistic and mechanical system as it would be possible to do. Does it work? It works as well, and as ill, as a materialistic and mechanical system is likely to do. It works to inhibit the able and adventuresome and to reward the less talented and least venturesome. It works to produce a modernistic sameness which may have sweep to it as viewed from a distance but is stifling from inside. Office space is determined by the amount reckoned to be enough to keep the worker from being overcome by claustrophobia. It works to stifle every grain of idealism that ever was raised by socialism.
The Swedes are a proud and stubborn people. They have labored for a lifetime to establish their variety of socialism and to make it work. If they are aware of the loss of liberty, they are not given to admitting it, or that they miss it. If loss of control over their property troubles them, they do not make much over it. Businessmen are acclimated to the manipulations by which it is often possible to operate in a thoroughly politicized economy.
Is the natural progression of gradualist socialism toward tyranny? One way to answer this question is to say that from its outset it is in one sense tyrannical. It is tyrannical in that it makes the individual conform to the majority or collective will. It is tyrannical in that it forces the individual into the mold of experts, social planners, and the lowest common denominator of the popular will. It forces the individual to deny himself and to bow to the will of others. It forces the individual into a life of continual compromise, compromise between the way he would do something and what the law requires, compromises between what he wants done and what others who have managed to get behind them the power of government want done.
Denial of Conscience
The tendency of democratic socialism is to make the individual deny himself in all those ways in which he is unique, different, or peculiar. It may be the worst tyranny of all, for it denies the individual conscience, denies it by not allowing it room for operation in the ordinary warp and woof of life. To be forced to yield to the collective will in the ordinary decisions of life is to deny to the individual a significant portion of his humanity.
The shift from living under the social influence of tradition to living under the compulsions of collectivism may occur so gradually that the individual is hardly aware of it. It is a crucial part of the theory and practice of gradualism that this should be so. This has been especially the case in a country like Sweden where the outworks of tradition have been preserved while their inwards have been eroded away. The church still stands, of course, but it stands for very little. The home has not been outlawed, but many of its functions have been subsumed by the state.
The moral and spiritual dimensions of life have been severed from their roots in social democratic Sweden. This has not been done by outlawing them; Swedes have substantive religious freedom and may spend about as much time as they will contemplating the domain of the spirit. It is rather that an order of priorities has been established—priorities that are material in character—which leaves little room for the development of moral and spiritual beings.
Some of the most sensitive Swedes have given expression to the otherwise stifled longing for a spirituality to life. Dag Hammarskjöld lived an outward life that conformed well to social democratic prescriptions, suppressing, it may be, his deep spirituality. "It was only after his death that it was revealed how much . . . the quietly competent, serenely self-confident diplomat, was really a mystic who had worked out a personal philosophy about the idea of life as a sacrifice." His posthumously published diary, Markings, which became an international best seller, was, by his own account, "a sort of ‘white book’ on my deliberations with myself—and God."2 He left no doubt of what he lacked and longed for when he said, "I ask the impossible that life shall have a meaning. I fight the impossible that life shall have a meaning."3
Good vs. Evil
Ingmar Bergman is surely the best known of Swedish film makers. He enjoys an international reputation. But there is a dark and morbid character to his films, depressingly so, it is fair to say. Bergman chooses to bare the souls of his characters, and to have them troubled with the ancient problems, such as those of good and evil. Bergman has attributed these preoccupations to the fact that he grew up as the son of a minister.
"When one is born and reared in the home of a minister," Bergman has said, "one has a chance at an early age to catch a glimpse behind the scenes of life and death. Father conducts a funeral, father officiates at a wedding, father performs a baptism, acts as a mediator, writes a sermon. The devil became an early acquaintance, and, in the way of a child, it was necessary to render him concrete.. ."
Probably it was Bergman’s childhood background that acquainted him with his themes, but his near obsession with them as an adult almost certainly stems from the spiritually deprived character of Swedish life.
In any case, he has given us a hint in his account of his youth of what social democratic Sweden has very nearly smothered. Birth, baptism, marriage, and death, these are great events of life which ancient religious ritual celebrated in their spiritual dimensions. It is most difficult to know God for those who have not known a human father in all his dimensions. It is difficult to know love for those who have not experienced the sacrificing love of a mother. It is difficult to separate the sacred from the profane for those who have not actively participated in the communion of a religious congregation. It is difficult to know concern and care if one has not witnessed it evinced in the help extended from neighbor to neighbor. It is difficult to develop morally if one is denied individual choices and saved from responsibility for such as he makes. It is these things that the paternal state eviscerates or deactivates.
The paternal state tends to mechanize and diffuse basic human relationships. It is doubtful that the baptism of a newborn infant can compete with a check from the state awarded to the mother. Marriage is an inessential relationship to the Swedish state, for if there is no registered father of the child the state will make special provision to take care of it. The paternal state becomes a kind of surrogate father of all children. So far as the state can do so, it removes the element of sacrifice, if not love, from motherhood. Neighborhood and community lose meaning by being nationalized and administered by a bureaucracy. State appropriated money replaces compassion and concern. Morality and spirituality survive in a virtual vacuum; their functions have been taken over by the omnipresent state.
Socialism diffuses concern so broadly, so far from the natural relationships of kinship and proximity as in neighborhoods, that the benefits the state hands out take on the abstract character of rights rather than being suffused with warm human concern. Care for aged parents may indeed be a burden for children, but it is not less so for being nationalized. It is only that when it is nationalized it is bereft of much meaning as it had. The birth of every child is a cost to the taxpayer. The retirement of any person is a burden to the working population. All this without benefit of being warmed by a baby’s smile or recalling the tender moments of childhood with one’s own parents. It is cold, mechanical and devoid of any but the relics of humanity.
But let us return to the question of tyranny. Will gradualist socialism proceed to other and more easily recognized forms of tyranny? Although there is little enough historical evidence on which to base a conclusion, there is reason to believe that it may, though how it will come is still a matter of contingency. One way it may come is by way of the onset of barbarism to which socialism tends. Liberty, in practice, depends upon an underlying respect for the rights and private realm of others. It is just this that collectivized democracy is continually assaulting. Barbarity is a logical result of the dehumanized relationships discussed above.
A Displaced Concern
Care in equal measure for all the people of a nation posits a godlike concern which is beyond most mortals. When parents cease to care for their own children, and children for their aged parents, they do not extend that displaced concern to all children and to all aged parents. Much more plausibly, they are not much concerned about any children or old people. The trend toward barbarity is already apparent in loss of concern for unborn babies and in the shunting of old people into special "homes." Neither life, liberty, nor property are apt to be much protected when concern and respect are sufficiently and widely lost.
There is another way in which democratic socialism may prepare the way for a broader tyranny. Social democrats know how to deal in a variety of ways with recalcitrant individuals. They can arrest them, levy penalties against them, deny them favors, send them to prison, or even put them in mental institutions. But they have only one approved way of dealing with groups or collectives, whether these be nations, labor unions, youth organizations, or retirees. That approved way is negotiation. The gradualist state does not negotiate with individuals. It makes them conform or suppresses them. But groups are not to be suppressed; concessions are to be made to them, and they are to be brought somehow into amiable accord with other collectives.
Sweden is the example, par excellence, of this penchant of socialism to negotiate peace among groups. The country enjoys an unusual amount of labor peace. Despite the fact that unionization is widespread, and that employers are organized as well, strikes are rare. (All these organizations are so closely regulated, however, that there should be doubt as to the extent to which they are free.) In international relations, the Swedes have both promoted international negotiations and maintained a posture of neutrality. Swedish diplomats have long been famous for serving as mediators.
Revolutionary socialism, particularly communism, poses a continual threat to evolutionary socialism. While communists do sometimes negotiate, their methods in general are not such as are conducive to mediation. Far from professing to mediate differences among classes, they seek to suppress most classes. They accept warfare among classes as the norm until such time as all "exploiting" classes are put down. Moreover, revolutionary socialists stand ready at all times to build upon the inevitable frustrations of evolutionary socialism.
It has been noted already that idealism can hardly survive socialism. The reason for this is that once socialism is in power it bogs down in compromises and in the continual pressures of groups for economic advantage. Revolution holds out the prospect of a quite different scenario, of an end to the struggle, of a final victory of the righteous, and of an eventual perfect justice. The social democratic bent to mediate and negotiate among groups unfits it for dealing with revolutionaries. It does not will to suppress them, and given this weakness the time arrives, or may arrive, when it cannot.
In any case, the love of liberty is a diffuse thing. There is much evidence to support the view that people are as readily enamored of freedom from responsibility as they are of individual liberty joined to personal responsibility. They can be and have been enticed to support measures which reduce everyman’s liberty by collectivizing responsibility. That way lies tyranny, of one sort or another, perhaps all sorts.
Sweden represents but one variety of evolutionary socialism. It is time now to examine another, one much nearer home.
¹Donald S. Connery, The Scandinavians (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), p. 296.
²Ibid., p. 290.
4lbid., p. 436.
To Do Good for the People
When a person gains power over other persons—the political power to force other persons to do his bidding when they do not believe it right to do so—it seems inevitable that a moral weakness develops in the person who exercises that power. It may take time for this weakness to become visible. In fact, its full extent is frequently left to the historians to record, but we eventually learn of it. It was Lord Acton, the British historian, who said: "All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Please do not misunderstand me. These persons who are corrupted by the process of ruling over their fellow men are not innately evil. They begin as honest men. Their motives for wanting to direct the actions of others may be purely patriotic and altruistic. Indeed, they may wish only "to do good for the people." But, apparently, the only way they can think of to do this "good" is to impose more restrictive laws.
BEN MOREELL, "Power Corrupts"