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.