Poverty Under Democratic Socialism — Part III: Is the U.S. Denmark?

The Americans who call themselves “socialists,” do not, by and large, think in terms of government ownership of the means of production. Their frequent muted and truncated references to Sweden and Denmark indicate instead that they long for a high guarantees, high services state, with correspondingly high taxation (at least, for the more realistic among them).

When I try to understand the quasi-programmatics of the American left today, I find several axes: End Time-ism, a penchant for demanding that one’s collective guilt be dramatically exhibited; old-style pacifism (to an extent), a furious envy and resentment of the successful; indifference to hard facts, a requirement to be taken care of in all phases of life; a belief in the virtuousness and efficacy of government that is immune to all proof, demonstration, and experience. All this is often backed by a vigorous hatred of “corporations,” though I guess that not one in ten “progressives” could explain what a corporation is (except those with a law degree and they often misuse the term in their public utterances).

I am concerned that the last three features – nonchalance about facts, the wish to be cared for, and belief in government – are being woven together by the American left (vaguely defined) into what looks like a feasible project. I think that’s what they mean when they mention “democratic socialism.” The proponents seem to know no history. They are quick to dismiss the Soviet Union, currently foundering Venezuela, and even scrawny Cuba, as utterly irrelevant (though they retain a soft spot for the latter). And truly, those are not good examples of the fusion of socialism and democracy (because the latter ingredient was and is lacking). When challenged, again, American proponents of socialism refer vaguely to Sweden and to Denmark, about which they also seem to know little. (Incidentally, I personally think both countries are good societies.)

The wrong models of democratic socialism

Neither Sweden nor Denmark, however, is a good model for an eventual American democratic socialism. For one thing, the vituperative hatred of corporations on the American left blocks the path of economic growth plus re-distribution that has been theirs. In those two countries, capitalism is, in fact, thriving. (Think Ikea and Legos). Accordingly, both Sweden and Denmark have moderate corporate tax rates of 22% (same as the new Trump rate), higher than the German rate of only 16%, but much lower than the French rate of 34%.

The two countries pay for their generous welfare state in two intimately related ways. First, their populace agrees to high personal income taxes. The highest marginal rates are 60+% in Denmark and 57+% in Sweden. (It’s 46% currently in the US.) The Danes and the Swedes agree to such high rates for two reasons. For one thing, these rates are applied in a comparatively flat manner. Everyone pays high taxes; the rich are not publicly victimized. This is perceived as fair (though possibly destructive to economic growth). For another thing, their governments deliver superb social services in return for the high taxes paid.

This is the second way in which Danes and Swedes pay for their so-called “socialism” (actually welfare for all): They trust their government and the associated civil services. They generally don’t think of either as corrupt, or incompetent, as many, or at least a large minority of Americans do. As an American, I think of this trust as a price to pay. (I am not thinking of gross or bloody dictatorship here but more of routine time-wasting, exasperating visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles.) The Danes and the Swedes, with a different modern experience, do not share this revulsion or this skepticism.

Denmark and Sweden are both small countries, with populations of fewer than six million and about ten million, respectively. This means that the average citizen is not much separated from government. This short power distance works both ways. It’s one reason why government is trusted. It makes it relatively easy for citizens’ concerns to reach the upper levels of government without being distorted or abstracted. (5) The closeness also must make it difficult for government broadly defined to ignore citizens’ preoccupations. Both counties are, or were until recently, quite homogeneous. I used to be personally skeptical of the relevance of this matter, but Social-Democrat Danes have told me that sharing with those who look and sound less and less like your cousins becomes increasingly objectionable over time.

In summary, it seems to me that if the American left – with its hatred of corporations – tries to construct a Denmark in the US, it’s likely to end up instead with a version of its dream more appropriate for a large, heterogeneous county, where government moreover carries a significant defense burden and drains ever more of the resources of society. The French government’s 55% take of GDP is worth remembering here because it’s a measure of the slow strangling of civil society, including in its tiny embodiments such as frequenting cafés. In other words, American democratic socialists will likely end up with a version of economically stuck, rigid, disappointing France. It will be a poor version of France because a “socialist” USA would not have a ready-made, honest, elite corps of administrators largely sharing their view of the good society, such as ENA, that made the unworkable work for a good many years. And, of course, the quality of American restaurant fare would remain the same. The superior French gourmet experience came about and is nurtured precisely by sectors of the economy that stayed out of the reach of statism.

Poverty under democratic socialism is not like the old condition of shivering naked under rain, snow, and hail; it’s more like wearing clothes that are three sizes too small. It smothers you slowly until it’s too late to do anything.


(5) When there are multiple levels of separation between the rulers and the ruled, the latter’s infinitely variegated needs and desires have to be gathered into a limited number of categories before being sent up to the rulers for an eventual response. That is, a process of generalization, of abstraction intervenes which does not exist when, for example, the apprentice tells his master, “I am hungry.”

[Editor’s note: Part I can be found here, Part II here, and the entire, longform essay can be read in its entirety here.]

Socialism(s) – Part Two

Sweden’s Imaginary Socialism as a Non-Model

Part One of this essay was posted a couple of days ago. In it, I reviewed some of the avatars and zombies of the vague words “socialist” and “socialism.” I arrived at the inescapable conclusion that Sen. Sanders “democratic socialism” means only Scandinavian and, specifically, Swedish “socialism.” I look at that social and fiscal arrangement below.

First, let me say that Sweden is a good place to live; it’s a very civilized country. I just don’t know in what sense it’s “socialist.” Center-left parties took part in governing the country for most of the 20th century, true. Yet, little of Swedish commerce or industry is nationalized, or in any way public property. The Swedish government tends not to be invasive with regulations or direct intervention. Sweden even ranks a little higher than the US in “business freedom” on the 2016 (international) Index of Economic Freedom. Swedish companies are thriving, at home and abroad. Swedish capitalism is obviously alive and well.

I suspect that what confused Sen. Sanders and those of his supporters who have even thought about it is that the Swedish government offers extensive and high quality services to its citizens, many of which services that would belong to the private sector in other advanced societies. Let me say it again because this is an important point: The Swedish government is a quality service provider. But Swedes pay for these services with very high taxes. Swedish workers, on the average receive less than 50 of the income they earn. Careful: micro aggression coming. This is to me an unbearable negation of personal freedom, no matter how high the quality of services Swedish citizens receive “in return.”

Thus, even in moderate, impeccably democratic Sweden, “socialism” proves to be liberticide, it blocks on a massive scale and routinely the realization of individual wishes, the pursuit of happiness, in other words. To take an example: Those Swedes who would rather earn less money and spend more time reading philosophy, for example, practically are prevented by high taxes from even trying lest they starve. Incidentally, the share of GDP taken by Swedish taxes has been declining since the 90s. It would make sense for socialist Sen. Sanders to ask why. Hint: This decline was accompanied by a strong rise in GDP growth.

Sweden is a well managed capitalist welfare state. It would have been more ingenuous for Sen. Sanders to say this clearly rather than drag out the soiled word “socialism.” This assumes that he knows the difference, of course. His followers evidently do not.

I want to make a detour here about Swedish income inequality because inequality is a topic dear to Sen. Sanders’ supporters. As you would expect, and as is intended, Sweden has one of the lowest income inequality on Earth (Gini Index: 0.25 vs the US about 0.44). However, its wealth inequality is very high (Gini Index: 0.85). This curious divergence is compatible with several scenarios including this alluring possibility: Socialist-inspired schemes designed to procure income equality had the effect – probably unintended – of freezing wealth disparities to where they were before “socialism.” It’s almost impossible to get ahead from near the bottom of the economic ladder when your income is seized before you even see it. For one thing, high taxes make it difficult or impossible to accumulate capital to create a new small business and therefore, new jobs. In other words, in many years of Swedish socialism, the restaurant waiter remained a restaurant waiter, the local Rockefeller remained Rockefeller, while the former was earning $12/hour and the latter only $24 (figures made up). As I said, other scenarios can account for divergence between income inequality and wealth inequality. Play at imagining them. Good luck.

Whether or not one considers the objectives of Swedish-style “democratic socialism” desirable, there are considerable obstacles in the path of realizing it in America. Sen. Sanders and his followers semi-consciously assume that given the right legislation – not to forget far-reaching executive orders since the path has been open by President Obama – the United States could be turned into a kind of Sweden. There are three-plus things about American society that make this dream unrealistic.

First, until right now, Sweden was a thoroughly middle-class society. I mean by this that nearly everyone, except for a few skinheads, shared an understanding of the good life, and the same ethical system. We, in the USA, by contrast have a whole Third World inside our boundaries. I refer, of course, to all of Louisiana, to Chicago and its suburbs, to some parts of Texas and New Mexico, and to nearly all black inner-city ghettos. (Read carefully: I did not say “predominantly black areas.”) Third World conditions breed predatory behavior. That makes the job of civil servants difficult. It also sucks up public resources for policing.

Second, and at the risk of breaching the etiquette of political correctness, Swedish society if fairly restrained as compared to most others, certainly as compared to American society. It’s a collective trait. It does not mean that most Swedes are restrained but that many Swedes are. I mean by this, for example, that on the average Swedish drunks are more polite, less noisy and less dangerous than American drunks. Collective restraint makes all government functions easier to perform obviously.

Third, Sen. Sanders assumes implicitly that given a victory, his administration would easily generate the first-class federal civil service that makes the Swedish welfare state function effectively and smoothly. That is an unrealistic assumption. Think the IRS, of course, and TSA (that’s never caught a terrorist ever, or ever stopped a terrorist action). Think of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives that generously donated hundred of firearms to Mexican drug cartels. Think of the Environmental Protection Agency that declared CO2 – the main plant food – a noxious gas subject to its regulation. I could go on.

Good civil services are rooted in a broad social  tradition whereas smart, well-educated people chose careers in government in preference to a business career. There is no such American tradition. It would take many years of bad private employment before preferences of such individuals would shift away from business. Here is the question: can so-called “socialist” policies be implemented so quickly in America that private employment will worsen soon enough to serve the requirements of a quality civil service necessary to the implementation of the same-self “socialism”?

I must add a fourth obstacle to the success of Swedish style welfare state in the US, one that I don’t necessarily believe in myself. Swedes and also Danes keep telling me the following: Their form of welfare “socialism” involves a high degree of forced sharing. The acceptance of such taking from Peter to give to Paul is well served by the fact that Paul is a lot like Peter and even looks a lot like him. According to this view, the high population homogeneity of Sweden until now is a necessary condition to the confiscatory taxes imposed on ordinary wage earners that is at the heart of its “socialism.” Needless to say, the US population is low on homogeneity (a fact I celebrate myself).

So, a gifted, honest, competent civil service is central to the welfare capitalist supposedly “socialist” Swedish model (which the Swedes themselves explicitly do not propose as a model). My unavoidably subjective judgment is that a United States Sanderista civil service would, with some effort, with much reform, place somewhere between the French and the Brazilian. To think otherwise is the height of ignorant wishful thinking bordering on hubris.

I am not hugely alarmed at the prospect of a new American capitalist welfarism though, for the simple reason that we are already half-way there. Sen. Sanders’ more-of-the-same would not be Armageddon. It only promises an accelerated decline of this vibrant, inventive, culturally brilliant society accompanied by more short-term equality, less equity, and more poverty- and therefore less freedom – for all.

PS Incidentally, I am not much opposed to Sen. Sanders’ proposal to make state universities and college tuition-free. I think the proposal has the same justification as publicly supported elementary and secondary schooling. I would be willing to bet such a measure would have the same overall beneficial economic results as the GI Bill did right after WWII. Finally, there is just a chance that government management would put a brake on the unconscionable rise in the cost of tertiary schooling, of what universities charge without restraints. It’s not as if the current system that largely separates the decision makers from the payers, from the beneficiaries, has worked really well!