When you hear “competition,” “privatization,” and “individual responsibility,” you probably don’t think “Scandinavia.” That’s because conservatives use the region as a punching bag, while liberals hold it up as a model for social democracy. Everyone’s got it wrong.
In 1991 Sweden suffered a familiar financial crisis: A credit squeeze, housing bubble, and heavy regulations begat an era of high taxes, low productivity, and negative growth. Then came a set of reforms right out of the playbook now being used by Republican governors across the U.S.:
A centre-right coalition opened up the universal welfare state to choice and competition, using private companies and people power to improve quality and efficiency. State funding for education was reformed to follow the pupil, rather than the service, meaning that schools had to compete for custom for the first time. In healthcare, the private sector was invited to set up hospitals, GP clinics and even ambulances. [...]
Competition has delivered better services. At Kunskapsskolan, a private free school chain, children take greater responsibility for their own learning; setting their own goals, class schedules and recording progress online. The 10,000 pupils taught in its 33 schools consistently outperform the national average. Private healthcare companies have helped the Swedish healthcare system keep up with rapid change.
The reforms have made believers out of everyone. Sweden’s powerful Municipal Workers’ Union declared in 2001, “Competition between the various providers can promote and promulgate improvements in both productivity and quality.” We can picture both Democratic and Republican heads spinning right about now.
Sweden isn’t a model for social democracy but for something else: market friendly provision of government services along lines that some in the U.S. would consider evil right wing ideas. High productivity, higher growth in recent years than much of Europe, and a budget surplus are proof that it’s working.
Those are results that we in the U.S. would like to see.