Swedish stereotypes, true & false

Sweden Says No to Saving Saab:

Which makes it all the more wrenching that the Swedish government has responded to Saab's desperate financial situation by saying, essentially, tough luck. Or, as the enterprise minister, Maud Olofsson, put it recently, "The Swedish state is not prepared to own car factories."

Such a view might seem jarring, coming as it does from a country with a reputation for a paternalistic view of workers and companies. The "Swedish model" for dealing with a banking crisis -- nationalizing the banks, recapitalizing them and selling them -- has been much debated lately in the United States, with free-market defenders warning of a slippery slope of Nordic socialism.

As Matt Yglesias notes this is stupid and bespeaks the ignorance of the media and the public. The Swedish model is not so much one where the "Commanding Heights" are controlled by the state, but a cradle-to-grave welfare state + strong unions which operate in the context of a private economy. Nationalization of key industries was a goal of Post-World II British Labor, or the pre-Stalin Soviet system, or the current Chinese system in reverse (where public companies remain as a holdover from the old system, with their liquidation being prevented for fear of the social instability which might ensue due to masses of newly unemployed workers).

Consider that Germany's Social Market Economy was to some extent implemented by individuals with strong a Ordoliberal orientation. Ordoliberalism was of coursed influenced by Friedrich Hayek, who exhibited a much greater animus toward nationalization of the means of production than the welfare state. The modern welfare state famously emerged in large part out of a compromise brokered by a Prussian conservative. And so forth. American liberals and conservatives often elide the differences between these two variants of socialism,* but I think there are important to keep in mind for the reasons which Hayek elucidated and the Ordoliberals appreciated.

Now, to the true, A Quandary in Sweden: Criminals in Med School:

A year ago, Sweden's most prestigious medical school found itself in an international uproar after it unknowingly admitted a student who was a Nazi sympathizer and a convicted murderer, then scrambled to find a way to expel him.

It is hard to imagine how the case could get any more bizarre. But it has.

The 33-year-old student, Karl Helge Hampus Svensson, having been banished from the medical school of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on the ground that he falsified his high school records, has now been admitted to a second well-known medical school -- Uppsala, Sweden's oldest university.


And in still another case, a 24-year-old medical student at Lund University was convicted last April of raping a 14-year-old boy while he slept. A district court sentenced the student to two years in prison, but a higher court reduced the sentence to two years' probation and medical therapy.

When the dean at Lund sought to expel the student, a national board that reviews expulsions blocked the action, saying that although the man had committed a serious crime, he was not considered a threat to people or property. The decision was then reversed by an administrative court, which upheld the expulsion; the student did not appeal.

In contrast with the United States, Swedish laws and customs are sympathetic to released offenders, saying that once they have served their time they should be treated like ordinary citizens. But the cases raise questions about protecting the rights of patients and fellow medical students and health care workers.


Mr. Svensson, who has not responded to numerous attempts to reach him over the last year, was convicted in the 1999 hate murder of a trade union worker and was paroled after serving 6 ½ years of an 11-year sentence -- a typical penalty for murder in Sweden. He entered Karolinska in fall 2007 while still on probation; he had earned credits for medical school while in prison.


But another Uppsala student, Karl-Wilhelm Olsson, 23, said that "the important factor is whether a person is a risk to another human being, and it's hard to draw a line."

He added that while there is no law requiring a university to bar prospective students because of a criminal past, "a student should be expelled if he or she is viewed as unfit."

But Gustav Stalhammar, 25, said Mr. Svensson should be allowed to become a doctor. "Who is to say that he might not become a great doctor, even if it in some ways would feel wrong or awkward to have a murderer for a colleague?" he asked. "It is not fair to have preconceptions about his character."

One shouldn't make too much out of one article. After all the Swedish version of the National Front won 3% in the last election, and Norway and Denmark both have nationalist parties which would shock in the United States. But the last comment is exactly the sort of thing which American Left-liberals would avoid saying like the plague in the wake of the crime wave which started in the late 1960s.

* To be fair, conservatives like Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam, and liberals such as Ezra Klein, have brought up this distinction as being important. And Cato Institute fellow Will Wilkinson also points out the particular nature of Nordic socialism.

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"After all the Swedish version of the National Front won 3% in the last election"

Personally I think that Sweden democrats are really quite different from National Front or even BNP. In Sweden the party closest to the National Front is probably the National Democrats.


By pun the librarian (not verified) on 23 Mar 2009 #permalink

Writing as a Swede, and a left-wing one at that, good post. I've long since stopped banging my head at the table each time a foreign journalist completely misrepresents the Swedish model. Never mind the fact that the current government is a conservative one, and not the social democrats who have the traditionally strong bonds with labour. Nationalization has historically been pushed for common services such as water, electricity and telephone services, but never for ordinary commercial companies.

As for the horrendous cases of the doctor students, a lot of us tore out chunks of our hair at the typically bureaucratic response. I strongly support the notion that those that have served their time should be given a second chance, but to think that the slate is wiped clean is plain stupid. Sexual predators should simply have to accept the fact that there are some jobs they should never be allowed to practice, and people who plan out a politically motivated murder on a husband and father should at the most have the rest of their life to prove that they have changed, and be forgiven on their deathbed.

But Swedes hate conflicts - we will often go to absurd lengths to avoid them. On the good side we rarely believe in a personal moral/religious highground, so divorced, single parent or gay politicians aren't much of a problem for us. On the bad side we let some people get away with atrocities after a slap on the wrist.

Whenever British Labour supporters praise Sweden, I point out that the Swedes, as you say, have never gone in for large-scale nationalisation of manufacturing industry. They treat such sallies as they treat most facts, with what one of their leaders once called "a complete ignoral".

P.S The age of Uppsala University is a delicate topic - it had a bit of a hiatus at one point.

By bioIgnoramus (not verified) on 24 Mar 2009 #permalink

There's some logic behind the idea that punishment for a crime should be as prescribed by law, and not otherwise.

Then the law should be designed as much as possible based on studies of recidivism and so on.

E.g., if a murderer shouldn't be allowed to enter certain professions, that should be worked into the law, not decided by medical school... perhaps people who've committed a murder are far less likely to commit other crimes if they're in a profession that directly helps sustain life? It's possible, though a bit weird.

If overly lax or overly "supportive" penalties for crimes result in increased crime, there should also be pointers to that (and the penalties can be changed). Though I suppose I probably expect too much from what science can tell us about society....

i was actually shocked by the low sentences for some rather heinous crimes. raping teenagers when you are an adult isn't a crime due to poverty or want.

If overly lax or overly "supportive" penalties for crimes result in increased crime, there should also be pointers to that (and the penalties can be changed). Though I suppose I probably expect too much from what science can tell us about society....

that's too simple. but the swedes over-generalize from the relatively sedate nature of their own society. now that you have non-swedes in large numbers from societies with a lot less social capital (more murder and rape) you might want to reevaluate the utility of punitive laws, or those which actually keep criminals and the pathological away from the society as a whole. some finns have observed in the comments that some immigrants in finland, somalis, have taken to rape fests thanks to the assumption to the agnosticism about recidivism. but i guess all civilized societies have to revert to barbarism at some point....