How the Welfare State Corrupted Sweden

First Published: 2006-06-10

Old people in Sweden say that to be Swedish means to supply for your own, to take care of your self, and never be a burden on anyone else's shoulders. Independence and hard work was the common perception of a decent life, and the common perception of morality. That was less than one hundred years ago.

My late grandmother used to say something had gone wrong with the world. She was proud to never have asked for help, to have always been able to rely on herself and her husband, proud that they could throughout their lives care for their family. I'm happy that when she passed away at the respectable age of 85, she did so with that dignity still intact. She was never a burden.

My grandmother, born in 1920, was of the last generation to have that special personal pride, of having a firm and deeply rooted morality, of being a sovereign in life no matter what – to be the sole master of one's fate. The people of her generation experienced and endured one or two world wars (though Sweden never took part) and were raised by poor Swedish farmers and industrial workers. They witnessed and were the driving force behind the Swedish "wonder."

Their morality assured they could survive any condition. If they found themselves not being able to live off their wages, they would only work harder and longer. They were the architects and construction workers in building their own lives, even though it often meant hard work and enduring seemingly hopeless situations.

They would gladly offer to help those in need even if they only had little, but were not likely to accept anyone's help if offered. They felt pride in being competent to take care of themselves; they cherished independence of others, of never having to ask for help. They figured, if they couldn't make it themselves, they had no right to ask for help.

Yet somehow they fell for the promises of politicians to supply for "the weak," a category of people non-existent back then: Who would admit they were unable to take care of themselves? They were good-hearted, hard-working people and probably thought a small contribution to supply for those much worse off would be a Good Samaritan-style deed.

Theoretically, it is perhaps understandable and even enviable. They and their parents were already voluntarily partaking in local private networks arranging financial support for those in need of health care or who had just lost their jobs. In bad times such as recessions or rapid social change this was a burden, however voluntary and in their own interest. A large-scale version of the same kind of mutual help arrangements probably sounded like a good idea, even though it was to be financed coercively through taxation.

The problem is that the welfare state was created and it would dramatically change people's lives and affect their morality in a fundamental way. The welfare state might have been a successful project if people had continued to have the pride and morality to supply for themselves and only seek support if really in need. That is, adding a welfare state could possibly work in a ceteris paribus world, which is what the welfare state really presumes. But the world is ever-changing, and the welfare state therefore requires people to be stronger and morally superior to people in societies lacking a welfare state.

This knowledge, however, was not yet acquired – and still isn't. Instead, they took the state of things, such as their personal pride in work and family, as natural; from that perspective it must have looked like a good deal. All they had to do, they were told, was leave the politics (and a little power) to the politicians. This argument, I'm sorry to report, still seems valid to the Swedish populace; Swedes generally welcome proposals to hand over more power to politicians and they even tend to ask for higher taxes.

Decent morality is long gone. It was completely destroyed in little more than two generations – through public welfare benefits and the concept of welfare rights.

The Children of the Welfare State

The children of my grandparents' generation, my parents among them, quickly learned and embraced a new morality based on the welfare "rights" offered by the social security system. While the older generation would not accept dependence on others (including state welfare benefits) they did not object to sending the younger generation to public schools to get educated. I am certain they never thought in terms of having a "right" to have their children educated. Rather, they accepted and appreciated the opportunity for their children to have a chance they themselves had never had – through "free" education.

So my parents' generation went to public schools where they were taught mathematics and languages as well as the superiority of welfare and the morality of the state. They learned the workings of the machinery of the welfare state and gained a totally new (mis)conception of rights: all citizens enjoy a right – only through being citizens – to education, health care, unemployment, and social security.

Being an individual, they were taught, means having a right to support for your individual needs. Everybody has a right to all the resources necessary to pursue one's own and society's happiness, they were told. And everybody should enjoy the right to put their children in state daycare centers while working, making it possible for every family to earn two salaries (but not enough time to raise their children). The opportunities for "the good life," at least financially, must have seemed enormous to the older generations.

This new morality permeated the populace and became the "natural" state of things, at least in their minds. This generation, born during the two or three decades following World War II, became considerably different from their parents' generation morally and philosophically. They got used to the enormous post-war economic growth (thanks to Sweden never entering the war) and the ever-increasing welfare rights of the rapidly growing state. (To sustain the growth of the welfare state and satisfy the popular demand for benefits, the Swedish government devaluated the currency a number of times during the 1970s and 1980s.)

The effects upon society of this generation growing up and entering the labor market were principally two: increased public pressure for more progressive politics; and large-scale, society-wide failure to raise independent and moral children able to be their own masters in life.

At this time, the moral and philosophical change in society became apparent. While in the early 20th century the Social Democrats, a hegemonic power in Swedish politics throughout that century (and beyond), had demanded tax cuts to liberate workers from unnecessary burden, it now swiftly changed into a tax-raising, welfare-embracing party calling for more "liberating" social reform. The voting masses, children of the welfare state dependent on its system of logic, supported the tax hikes, which quickly climbed to 50% and higher. And they demanded social benefits at taxpayers' expense to cover for and exceed these higher taxes.

The political change as the children of the welfare state grew up and started taking part in politics was massive. The rather communist student revolts of 1968 were probably the peak of this radical generation demanding more for themselves through state redistribution; they claimed no personal responsibility for their lives, nor ever thought of having to pitch in themselves. "I'm in need," they argued, and from that claim they directly inferred a right to satisfy that need – be it food, shelter, or a new car.

Whereas my parents mysteriously seem to have inherited much of the "older" form of morality, most people of their age, and especially those younger, are paradigmatically different from their parents' generation. They are children of the welfare state and are fully aware of the social security benefits to which they have a "right." They don't reflect on where these benefits come from, but are skeptical towards politicians whom they believe might take them away. "Change" quickly became a bad word, since it necessarily implies a change to the system on which people are parasitically dependent.

With this generation, the formerly held truth that production precedes consumption is replaced by a belief in having an inviolate and natural "human right" to welfare services supplied by the state. Through the powerful labor unions, wage-earning Swedes were awarded raises every year regardless of real productivity, and in time annual raises of salaries became normality. People who didn't get a raise started considering themselves "punished" by their evil employer, and there were increasing demands for legal help in the struggle against employers. One has a "right" to a better salary next year just as the current salary must be better than last year's; so the thinking goes.

This change in perception was, as we have seen, preceded by a change in values. The societal change also changed the conditions for philosophy, and new strange and destructive theories emerged. The children of this generation, born in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s commonly had a "free" upbringing (based on the ideals of 1968), essentially meaning a childhood "free from rules" and "free of responsibility." For this generation there is no causality whatsoever in social life; whatever you do is not your responsibility – even having children. These are the current younger adults in Swedish society.

The Grandchildren of the Welfare State

I am myself part of this second generation of people raised with and by the welfare state. A significant difference between my generation and the preceding one is that most of us were not raised by our parents at all. We were raised by the authorities in state daycare centers from the time of infancy; then pushed on to public schools, public high schools, and public universities; and later to employment in the public sector and more education via the powerful labor unions and their educational associations. The state is ever-present and is to many the only means of survival – and its welfare benefits the only possible way to gain independence.

The difference to the older generations is obvious. My grandparents lived in a totally different world philosophically and morally, and my parents still wear remnants of their parents' "old" sense of justice and their perception of right and wrong. While my generations' parents are only "partly tainted" (which is bad enough), my generation is totally screwed up. Not having grown up with the sound values of our grandparents, but instead with those propagandized by the nanny state, the grandchildren of the welfare state have no understanding whatsoever of economics.

A common perception of justice among the "grandchildren" is that individuals have an everlasting claim on society to supply one with whatever one finds necessary (or enjoyable). In a recently televised discussion on state television, the children and grandchildren of the welfare state met to discuss unemployment and the common problems facing young people growing up and entering the labor market. The demand of the "grandchildren" was literally that the "old people" (born in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s) should step aside (i.e., stop working) because their working "steals" jobs from the young!

The "welfare logic" vindicating such preposterous demands goes something like this. The premise is that every individual has a right to a good life. It can be concluded that a good life is made through not having to worry about material wealth, and thus having welfare benefits and gaining financial "independence" is essential. Financial independence, in turn, requires a high-status, high-salary, and not-too-demanding job; a good job is thus an inferred human right. The people who currently have the jobs literally occupy the positions and are therefore in the way – each and every one of them violates my right to that job. This makes anyone who has a good job a rights-violator and therefore criminal.

We all know what to think of criminals: they should be locked up. Such a sentence is also what a still very limited but rapidly growing number of young people in Sweden demand – for owners of businesses who do not wish to hire them, or for older people occupying positions they themselves desire. There is a "need" for more progressive law-making.

But this is not an idea supported only by ignorant youth. On May 14, the national trade workers' union demanded the state "redistribute" jobs through offering people in their 60s state pensions if they step down and their employers employ young, unemployed people in their stead. In the labor union's calculations, such a stunt would "create" 55,000 jobs.

What this shows is that the only perceivable way of finding jobs for the young seems to be to "relieve" older people of theirs; job positions are scarce and unemployment is increasing even as demand for goods and services is going up – thanks to heavy state regulation in the marketplace. The welfare state creates problems and conflicts on many levels, forcing people to compete for shares of continuously decreasing wealth. The solution: more regulation and even less prosperity. This is what happens when need and want replaces merit and experience in both public and personal morality.

Demanding Social Responsibility

This degenerated morality and lack of understanding for the real and natural order of things is also evident in areas requiring personal responsibility and respect for fellow men and women. The elderly are now treated as ballast rather than human beings and relatives. The younger generations feel they have a "right" to not take responsibility for their parents and grandparents, and therefore demand the state relieve them of this burden.

Consequently, most elderly in Sweden either live depressed and alone in their homes, waiting for death to come their way, or they have been institutionalized in public elderly collective living facilities with 24/7 surveillance so as to alleviate the burden on the younger working generations. Some of them get to see their grandchildren and relatives only for an hour or two at Christmas, when the families make an effort to visit their "problems."

But the elderly aren't the only one's finding themselves in the periphery of welfare society while the state is looking after its working population. The same goes for the youngest who are also delivered to the state for public care rather than being brought up and educated by their parents.

My mother, a middle school teacher, has had to face her pupils' parents demanding she do "something" about their stressful family situation. They demand "society" take responsibility for their children's upbringing since they have already spent "too many years" caring for them. ("Caring" usually means dropping them off at the public daycare center at 7 am and picking them up again at 6 pm.)

They loudly stress their "right" to be relieved from this burden. The problems caused at home by disobedient, out-of-control children are to be solved in the classrooms by school personnel and at daycare centers by kindergarten staff. Children should be seen but not heard, and they should absolutely not intrude on their parents' right to a career, long holidays abroad, and attending social events.

In order to have the adult generation working and creating wealth that can be taxed (current tax rates for low income earners are at approximately 65% of earnings), the Swedish welfare state continuously launches progressive programs to protect them from incidents and problems. Welfarist freedom is a trouble-free, responsibility-free, and benefits-rich existence created by the welfare state.

What we are now seeing in Sweden is the perfectly logical consequence of the welfare state: when handing out benefits and thereby taking away the individual's responsibility for his or her own life, a new kind of individual is created – the immature, irresponsible, and dependent. In effect, what the welfare state has created is a population of psychological and moral children – just as parents who never let their children face problems, take responsibility, and come up with solutions themselves, make their offspring needy, spoiled, and utterly demanding.

The spoiled-children analogy is proving true in the everyday lives of people working in the public sector, facing the populations' demands. I've learned it is not uncommon for young parents to reprimand teachers because homework is an "unnecessary" pressure on the young. The children have a right to knowledge, but apparently they should not be exposed to education since it requires study and effort. The role of teachers is obviously to supply children with knowledge they can consume without having to reflect on it or think about it (or even study). Having to do something yourself is "oppressive." A "must," even if an effect of the laws of nature, is utterly unfair and a violation to one's right to a trouble-free life. Nature itself, along with its laws, becomes a "burden."

Dependence Economics

Perhaps this mentality explains the increasing popularity of anti-reality theories such as skepticism and post-modernism, where nothing can be taken for granted. Logic, it is claimed, is only a social construction which has no relation whatsoever with reality or the world (if it exists at all). These theories are magnificent in that they can never be proved – or disproved. Whatever you say, you never need to take responsibility for your statement – no one can verify your thesis, no one can criticize it, or even use it. It is yours and exists only for you – and it is true only for you.

The uselessness of such a theory should be obvious. It should also be obvious that these theories' proponents take certain things, such as existence, for granted – they never live their lives based only on doubt and the "knowledge" that there is nothing one can know, that nothing is what it seems. But that, it seems, must be the beauty of it.

In a way, the Austrian premise that "values are subjective" has been taken too literally. In these "modern" theories, subjectivity is the principle underlying reality, not the way reality is assessed or perceived. This "understanding" is inferred directly from the relative morality and relative logic of the welfare state's children and grandchildren. There is no need for someone to produce in order for another to consume – and there is not necessarily a burden on someone else to supply the benefits I need in order to live the "good" life. After all, living a good life is a human right; the right being the only fixed point in an ever-changing and subjectively founded universe.

From the perspective of a bystander (as I consider myself) this madness all makes sense – teaching people they do not need to worry about the consequences of their actions makes willingly dependent subjects. The welfare state has created the egotistical monsters it claims to save us from – through handing out privileges and benefits to everybody at "nobody's" expense.

The social engineers of the welfare state obviously never considered a possible change in morality and perception – they simply wanted a system guaranteeing security for everybody; a system where the able could and should work to support themselves, but where the unable too could live dignified lives. Who would have thought the progressive reforms to secure workers' rights and prosperity for all in the early 20th century would backfire philosophically and morally?

It should be obvious that nothing came to be as expected – society simply wasn't as predictable as was predicted.

This new morality is the obvious opposite of that of my grandparents' generation. It is a morality claiming independence can only be achieved through handing over responsibility to others, and that freedom can only be attained through enslaving others (and oneself). The result of this degenerated morality on a social or societal level is a disaster economically, socially, psychologically, and philosophically.

But this is also a personal tragedy for many thousands of Swedes. People seem unable to enjoy life without responsibility for one's actions and choices, and it is impossible to feel pride and independence without having the means to control one's life. The welfare state has created a dependent people utterly incapable of finding value in life; instead, they find themselves incapable of typical human feelings such as pride, honor, and empathy. These feelings, along with the means to create meaning to life, have been taken over by the welfare state.

Perhaps this explains why such a large part of the young population now consumes antidepressant medication, without which they are unable to function normally in social situations. And presumably it explains why the number of suicides among very young people who never really knew their parents is increasing dramatically (the total number of suicides remaining about the same). Still people are totally unable to see the problem or find a solution. Like spoiled children, they call for "help" through the state.

This, my grandmother could never understand. May she rest in peace.

First published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute at

Reprinted with the kind permission of Mr. Per Bylund. See his web site at

The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.

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