Is Trust the Key to Sweden’s Success?

Sweden has long been hailed for its near-utopian balance between prosperity, progressive civil liberties, and economic competitiveness. Indeed, it’s one of the few countries in the world that manages to provide a generous, tax-funded welfare system while nonetheless promoting high economic growth and business freedom (a combination of policies that are seen as impossible to many Americans).

Like every society, Sweden certainly has its problems, but by global standards – and in every possible ranking of international performance – the country seems positively idyllic. How do the Swedes (and other Scandinavians) do this when most countries cannot? What’s their secret?

Well, according to a report by the BBC, it come down to something that is perhaps as elusive as the Swedish model: trust.

The fact is, there is mutual trust between Swedish unions and employers and Scandinavian countries rank highest in the world when it comes to social trust – 70% of Swedes say they trust one another; just 35% of Brits feel the same way.

The trust between Swedish citizens ranks among the highest in the world

That trust allows Swedish governments to make bold decisions that would be met with apprehension or cynicism in Britain.

It stems from a unique relationship between the individual and the state established back when most of Europe was operating a feudal system.

Swedish peasants were unusual in owning their land says Lars Tragardh, professor of history at Ersta Skondal University College in Stockholm.

When the nobles wanted to subjugate them, the peasants united with the king to defend their freedom.

“So, there has been this long-standing positive view of the state as the vehicle for liberating individuals from these ties of dependency,” says Prof Tragardh, “this has been the critical dynamic in the building of the welfare state.”

If a woman depends on a man for income and wealth, how does either party really know that they are together because they love each other rather than that they need each other?””

Prof Lars TragardhErsta Skondal University College

The welfare state was designed to do away with dependency of all kinds: whether on charity – or even on family members.

Professor Tragardh calls it a “Swedish theory of love”. It says that love can exist only when neither party is dependent on the other.

“If a woman depends on a man for income and wealth, how does either party really know that they are together because they love each other rather than that they need each other?” says Prof Tragardh.

The state is seen as the vehicle for achieving this autonomy, hence the Swedish model aims to get women into the workforce, provide a good education to equip children to fend for themselves, and take on the burden of caring for elderly people.

In other words, according to Lars Tragardh, “the state is there to provide fundamental resources that allow individuals to operate freely and competitively in the free society, including the market society.”

Not so much the land of free love, as of the free market.

This makes a great deal of intuitive sense. If you feel like you’re part of a community, you’re more inclined to do what it takes for the greater good, while conversely feeling less inclined to do anything that will harm your tight-knit group. This in turn leads to a positive feedback loop – if almost everyone is doing their part to look after one another, then they will subsequently experience the positive results and continue to maintain the social contract.

Now of course there are many caveats to this sort of arrangement, namely with respect to how those outside the group – such as immigrants or minorities – fit into the picture. Too much communitarianism can also lead to conformity and group think, stifling creativity and individualism. But to my knowledge, racism isn’t any worse (or for that matter better) in countries like Sweden than elsewhere in the world. A lot of these countries also tend to produce a fair amount of music, literature, and art, so they’re hardly ant colonies either.

Ultimately, though, it does seem to be a difficult balancing act, one which stems from specific – and sometimes unique – cultural, social, and historical characteristics. So can any society achieve the Swedish model, or other like? Or is it too intertwined with certain characteristics inherent only in those nations?

Numerous studies and reports cited in the book The Spirit Level, consistently find that societies with high levels of public trust – between citizens and their government, and between people in general – tend to have less crime and corruption, less socioeconomic inequality, and be more prosperous overall. Indeed, there seems to be a correlation between inequality and trust, and from there, between trust and prosperity. However, this presents a causal dilemma: is it that people (such as Swedes) trust one another first, and thus come together to help each other out? Or is it that certain governments and communities prove themselves worthy of trust? Discuss.

2 comments on “Is Trust the Key to Sweden’s Success?

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