Sweden: Equality, Social Support and Individualism?

Last night we went to a dinner party and the host offered a really interesting causal explanation for Sweden’s comprehensive social welfare.

First, just a bit of background. Sweden tends to rank quite high on lots of social indicators for example, having among the highest labor force participation rates for women, fabulous support for gender equality in the family, among the lowest teen pregnancy rates, lowest economic inequality, high rates of democratic participation, etc.

So, the question that arose last night was, why does Sweden have such a comprehensive system? The answer that one of our friends gave was very interesting. I am going to paraphrase it here.

Sweden didn’t build this system out of a concern for others. Instead, Swedes are very individualistic and independent. We are probably the most individualistic country in the world. When they ask me to pay my 40% or 50% taxes I pay it and I don’t complain because in our system I don’t have to depend on anyone. I don’t need to rely on my parents or my wife. I won’t need my kids to take care of me. I don’t need anyone and I don’t have to worry about anyone else. Our laws and policies are designed to allow each of us to be independent and individuals.

It was so interesting to hear this because the object (a comprehensive social welfare system, limited inequality, etc) is, from my American perspective, what our left (liberals) want, but the rationale for having it more closely resembles American conservatives objections to developing and expanding social supports.

Interesting, perplexing, perhaps a new defense of social welfare? I’ll be mulling over this for a while.

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