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P.J. O’Rourke on the "Good Socialism" of Sweden

“Nobody was teaching four-year-olds to smoke in Sweden. Nobody was doing anything bizarre there.” So writes P.J. O’Rourke on Sweden’s seeming perfection in his 1998 book, “Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics”—a romp of a read in which O’Rourke leverages his typical wit and journalistic edge to tell the story of economics through its workings-out in culture. Though the entire book is well worth reading, O’Rourke’s chapter on Sweden highlights a strikingly undersold insight about “good socialism”—that peculiar brand of economic egalitarianism wherein rash redistribution has somehow coincided with prosperity without leaving innocents bloodied in the streets or imprisoned in the tower. Flag of SwedenSweden needn’t be the only place we pick on, of course. Indeed, in recent years, Sweden has enacted several pro-market economic reforms, some of which make the United States look like … well, Sweden. Yet, for whatever reason, Scandinavian Socialism is where the scopes for sparring seem to settle. Whether we’re discussing healthcare, disability benefits, retirement cushions, maternity leave or long-and-lazy summer vacations, Sweden offers as good a case study as any in what socialist success might look like this side of Marxist utopia. Even O’Rourke is stunned to find such a neat-and-tidy realm of politeness and prosperity. “The Swedes, left wing though they may be, are thoroughly bourgeois,” O’Rourke writes. “They drive Saabs like we do, know their California chardonnays, have boats and summer cottages, and vacation in places that are as much like home as possible, which is to say at Disneyland.” If life is all about cutting the pie evenly and outsourcing the “big things,” all while still holding dearly to your washer and dryer and that cute little cabin on the bay, Sweden beckons. Such fantastical rosiness is, however, quickly curbed, as O’Rourke proceeds to offer lengthy critiques about the actual stability of Sweden’s economic success. As Swedish researcher Dr. Carl-Johan Westholm puts it: “Sweden is borrowing its prosperity.” But in addition to the strengths of the more traditional economic arguments, the bulk of O’Rourke’s critique eventually rests on the supposed perfection itself: whether a land wherein “nobody is doing anything bizarre” is one worth pursuing in the first place. Though O’Rourke is at first pleased to find “no visible crazy people” in the public squares, the lifeless humdrumness of it all quickly leads to uneasiness. Analyzing a variety of mundane experiences in Swedish culture, paired with economic analysis that is both hilarious and incisive, O’Rourke concludes that a society that worships “fairness” above all else may find a way to flourish, but only fairly. As the economy goes, so goes the culture (and vice versa). Here’s a quick sampling. On kids and teenagers: “The children I observed were well-behaved despite a Swedish law—this is not a joke—against spanking your kids. ‘Behave or I’ll reason with you,’ however, is, from a Swede, a fairly terrible threat. The teenagers weren’t too rotten acting, either. They had plenty of snot rings and dummkopf haircuts and wore those European sweaters the color and shape of spilled porridge, but actual rebellious behavior seemed limited to looking mopey. I guess when the entire object of your society is to make everything as swell as possible for everybody, the only way you can lash out is by bumming.” On food: “There are many delightful things about Sweden, but almost none of them are meals … Maybe the problem with Swedish food has something to do with the almost obsessive Swedish interest in fairness. Maybe if fairness is a society’s most-esteemed value, then ‘average’ becomes a great compliment. Mmm, honey, that was an average dinner. In fact, this is nearly the case. The word in Swedish is lagom, which translates, more or less as ‘just enough’ or ‘in moderation’ or ‘sufficient.’ And lagom really is used as a compliment.” On doctors: “[Peter Stein] wrote, ‘Swedish doctors work an average of only 1,600 hours a year, compared to 2,800 worked by U.S. doctors. It pays doctors to stay home and paint their own houses rather than spend their time practicing medicine and hire painters.’ A society is only slightly better off with its doctors painting houses than it is with its housepainters performing liver transplants.” On multiculturalism: “The Swedish government pursues a confused—but fair!—policy of multiculturalism, encouraging immigrants to assimilate themselves into Swedish society while also encouraging immigrants to maintain customs they may not want anymore. ‘Kids are doing Turkish folk dances that they never would have done in Turkey,’ said Mr. Gur.” On art: “Swedish subway stations are each decorated by a different prominent contemporary artist and raise the question, ‘Which is worse: vandalism or modern art?’” On tipping at restaurants: “Every time you order a burger, you buy the government fries and a Coke. No, actually just a Coke, since the tax on food and restaurant meals is a mere 12 percent. At least tipping is minimal. The Swedish attitude seems to be that all services, even drink orders, should be provided by the government, and the government’s been tipped already.” On churches: “There are huge, splendid, empty, idle houses of worship everywhere. I went to the Storyrka (Great Church) behind the royal palace … The only indication that the Storkyrka was used, other than by us tourists, was a little red table and six or eight wee plastic chairs. A daycare center had been set up right beneath the place where St. George’s lance was popping dragon slime … But the dragon isn’t real. It isn’t consequential. It isn’t in earnest, and Sweden is an earnest country.” Though initially warmed by the “lack of visible crazy people,” O’Rourke eventually sees in such excessive “earnestness” a subtle but fundamental resistance to the good life. Though talk of bland meatballs, silly modern art, and empty churches is not, by itself, sufficient to make an argument against the Swedish approach to politics and economics, neither are our observations about healthcare access, summer vacation or life expectancy. When the romance of life is replaced by superficial notions of “equality,” culture is summoned toward an unhealthy rush to the middle, and we’d do well to spot it and rush the other way. As O’Rourke humorously concludes:
Secure and lagom though Sweden may be, there is nonetheless something frightening about socialism, something that scared me as much as a close look at capitalism had. And the last time I walked through Gamla Stan, I didn’t wonder where the crazy people were. In Sweden the craziness is redistributed fairly. They’re all a little crazy.
In the past, I’ve labeled such misaligned dreamlands as “robot utopias”—environments that, despite being imagined as comfy and cozy and efficient and equitable, are not particularly suited to human needs or divine dreams. As O’Rourke’s travels confirm, the deeper implications are well worth considering, from the spirit (or lifelessness) of our graffiti to the power (or pettiness) of St. George’s lance.