August 18, 2009 12:17PM

Do You Like Swedish Models?

No, not these kind. Instead, I'm in Stockholm for a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, and this gathering of classical liberals (i.e., the Adam Smith types that believe in freedom, not the modern liberals that favor collectivism) has featured some discussion of the Scandinavian social welfare state - often referred to as the Swedish Model.

What is particularly interesting is that Sweden is not the left-wing paradise that some imagine. Yes, government is far too big, consuming about 50 percent of economic output. But Sweden also has an extensive system of school choice. Equally remarkable, Sweden has a system of personal retirement accounts. Indeed, if one removed fiscal policy variables from the ratings, Sweden would be more free market than the United States in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But even in the area of fiscal policy, Sweden is making progress. In recent years, policy makers have abolished both the death tax and the wealth tax. And the corporate tax rate has been reduced significantly below the U.S. level.

Sweden often is cited as an example of a nation that proves a big welfare state is not an obstacle to being a rich society. But as I wrote in my study comparing the United States and the Nordic nations:

Many prosperous nations in Western Europe have large welfare states. This leads unsophisticated observers to sometimes assume that high tax rates and high levels of government spending do not hinder growth. Indeed, they sometimes even conclude that bigger government somehow facilitates growth. ...This analysis puts the cart before the horse. It is possible for a nation to become rich and then adopt a welfare state. ...A poor nation that adopts the welfare state, however, is unlikely to ever become rich. Before the 1960s, Nordic nations had modest levels of taxation and spending. They also enjoyed—and still enjoy—laissez-faire policies and open markets in other areas. These are the policies that enabled Nordic nations to prosper for much of the 20th century. Once their countries became rich, politicians in Nordic nations focused on how to redistribute the wealth that was generated by private-sector activity. This sequence is important. Nordic nations became rich, and then government expanded. This expansion of government has slowed growth, but slow growth for a rich nation is much less of a burden than slow growth in a poor nation.