Over at the Values & Capitalism blog, I recently shared some of the more memorable quotes from P.J. O’Rourke’s remarkable chapter on Sweden in his 1999 book, Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics.
What’s most notable about O’Rourke’s analysis is that it largely avoids the typical arguments about whether the Swedish system “works” — whether mouths are fed, entitlements are sustainable, healthcare is accessible, etc. — pondering, instead, what kind of spirit bubbles beneath its shiny skin:
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…
…[T]he 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.
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.
Now, with O’Rourke’s 1990s portrait of a rosy-and-reserved Sweden covered in more than a decade’s worth of dust, and as the country brims with the froth of youthy rebellion, an update seems in order.
This week at V&C, Michael Hendrix puts some more meat on the bone:
Sweden is a nation of young Adams cast out of a socialist Eden. Employment protection laws—meant to protect against market travails—represent the original sin, only serving to throw up walls around permanent jobs. The young people that took to the streets of suburban Stockholm this May with covered faces and clenched hands, throwing rocks and shouting curses against the state, have been effectively banished from the garden and left to work where no work can be found.
Official unemployment may be low in Sweden, but the numbers deceive. There’s a vast underclass of youth and immigrants with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Nearly 24% of Sweden’s youth are unemployed, but even that’s too low. Some 77,000 more haven’t studied or worked in the past 3 years. In the mostly immigrant Stockholm suburb of Husby, where the riots first began, official unemployment is pegged at 38% for those under 26.
Such economic discontent, Hendrix argues, is simply a side effect of a society wherein “earned success” is put on the back-burner:
Sweden’s youth are rioting because they lack earned success. Arthur Brooks has worked hard to flesh out this concept of “defining your future as you see fit and achieving that success on the basis of merit and hard work.” To be satisfied with your work requires a certain justification for it, which in turns rests on your own labor. To be denied this opportunity by a protective government only yields a bitter irony.
You can hardly blame poverty for this anger, since it barely exists in Sweden, or inequality, which is markedly lower than elsewhere in Europe…A government can buy away poverty but still not gain happiness.
When O’Rourke toured Sweden over a decade ago, he was struck by how well-behaved all the children were, how “actual rebellious behavior seemed limited to looking mopey.” The reason, he assumed, was that “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.”
But alas, when “making everything as swell as possible for everybody” turns out to be little more than bumming, let the real lashing out begin.