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Paradise Lost in Sweden

To many on the American Left, Sweden sets a gold standard for public policy. That its strong economic performance is coupled with liberal social programs, government-run healthcare and a “welfare-driven economic model” is often touted as evidence that blue policies can still be successful in the modern era.

Yet news from the country’s third-largest city, Malmö, suggests that the blue idyll rests on a shaky foundation. The city recently attracted attention for the anti-Semitic rage voiced by its deplorable mayor. Now the FT has exposed the city’s messy dealings with its immigrant population, in this case following an outburst of violence on New Year’s Eve:

Of the 22,000 inhabitants of the towering concrete estate, built in the 1960s four kilometres outside the city centre, about 90 per cent are first- or second-generation immigrants, increasingly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. Unemployment is close to 40 per cent – five times the figure for the country as a whole. Two-thirds of its children live in relative poverty, defined as an income 60 per cent less than the national average. . . .

The violence in areas such as this, only a 20-minute walk from the richest areas of Malmö, has also prompted a debate about growing inequality in Sweden. Sweden has seen the steepest increase in inequality during the past 15 years among the 34 OECD nations, with disparities rising at four times the pace of the US.

This is hardly the portrait of a standard-bearer for social justice. Despite a strong tradition of welfare-based economics that the FT calls “a major pillar of Swedish identity,” Sweden is doing a poor job of providing for its newest and neediest residents.

Unfortunately, these problems are not limited to Sweden; other European welfare states are grappling with unprecedented immigration patterns. But the Malmö situation shows how liberal good intentions, when divorced from common sense, can lead to violence and social breakdown in even the most prosperous societies.

Another point worth taking on board: an increase in diversity often reduces public support for generous welfare programs. It’s one thing to offer generous benefits for “people like us”, but when more of the beneficiaries are different—a different religion, different language, different customs—then voters worldwide often want to cut back. The Scandinavian social democratic utopias were once among the most homogenous populations on earth; when that was the case, they built protective social welfare states. Now, as immigrants come on the scene, some Scandinavians are taking another look at their social programs.

It isn’t pretty, but it’s human, and as social problems rise in Europe’s north, voter support for generous, long-term social benefits is being tested as never before.

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  • thibaud

    “The violence … has also prompted a debate about growing inequality in Sweden. Sweden has seen the steepest increase in inequality during the past 15 years among the 34 OECD nations, with disparities rising at four times the pace of the US.”

    Wow – talk about selective use of data to make a point!

    It might be helpful to add that this horrific increase in inequality in Sweden means that the top 40% there now have an astonishing 44% of national wealth – as opposed to the top two quintiles in the US controlling 95% of the nation’s wealth. The top 20% in Sweden control 18% of the wealth; for the US, the top 20% control 84% of the wealth.

    Scroll to slide 11 of this recent Harvard-Duke psychology study where the pie charts for Sweden, US and a hypothetical even income distribution across quintiles were shown to US citizens. Guess which pie chart – ours or Sweden’s – was preferred by 92% of a balanced sample of Americans.–(Rev-2011)

    Ah, but this can’t be true. We all know that Sweden has shocking inequality and this inequality is the cause of its colossal failure to take care of people on the bottom. Right.

    Again, the issue here is not economics – we should be moving a _bit_ more in Sweden’s direction, not making our own chart look even more like Brazil’s – but of immigration policy and cultural assimilation.

    The lesson from Malmo, as from California, is that swamping your low-end labor market with an imported underclass that rejects your core cultural values is a really bad idea.

    Too bad we can’t apply this lesson to our own foolish and self-destructive immigration policy.

  • vanderleun

    Will all those Americans who really care for one nanosecond what happens in or two Sweden please stand up?

    Okay, Sven, you can sit down now.

  • Robert

    “…for the US, the top 20% control 84% of the wealth.”
    My question: How much of the wealth does each quintile produce?
    Talk about selective…

  • Brett

    To many on the American Left, Sweden sets a gold standard for public policy.

    Denmark, not Sweden.

  • KFJ

    Why should any society accept an obligation to take in and support the world’s needy? How can anyone expect such a policy to work? Even the most successful society is bound to be ruined by the effort.

  • thibaud

    @KFJ – two reasons:

    1) self-interest: immigration is a safety valve for most of the world’s corrupt and inept political elites, who’d otherwise be facing revolutions or other upheavals.

    As is the case in Mexico, the elites find it easier (and much more lucrative re. balance of payments issues) to export their miserable, uneducated and underemployed problem populations than to institute the economic and political reforms that would give these poor people some dignity, economic security and political influence. Part of the reason, we’re told, that we tolerate this cynical bargain is that it prevents Mexico from having another revolution.

    2) in Europe anyway, many Europeans recognize an obligation to take in a certain (manageable) number of immigrants from their former colonies. As the saying goes, “They’re here because we were over there.” That seems fair and just. But what it is the Swedes owe to Turks and arabs, I have no idea.

  • thibaud

    correction to above: “self-interest: _emigration_ is a safety valve…”

  • JasonM

    Of course, a simple response would be to not let in large numbers of culturally hostile aliens who are unlikely to succeed or assimilate to Northern European cultural norms.

    It’s funny how we never hear about the massive social problems caused by generations of Greek, Polish, etc., immigrants to NW Europe. Or the newest generation of Koreans and Hindus.

    NW European countries have a lot of good reasons to discriminate in favor of Poles, Koreans and Hindus, and discriminate against Africans, Arabs and Muslims, when deciding who among the 6 billion people on earth will be rewarded with the hugely valuable prize of residency in a peaceful, prosperous society.

    But for some reason, they won’t take this obvious step.

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