Johan Norberg: Bernie Sanders’ Vision of Sweden is a 1970s ‘Pipedream’

Michael Chapman

When Senator Bernie Sanders (I‑VT) talks about Sweden as a socialist paradise, he is promoting a tax‐​the‐​rich “pipedream” from the 1970s that never really existed, said Johan Norberg, a Swedish author, historian of ideas, and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Norberg added that Sweden today is a “much better and much freer place” than it was in the 1970s.

“So today, if Bernie Sanders wants to imitate Sweden, he would have to reform Social Security, partially privatize it,” said Norberg in an interview with ReasonTV, a division of Rea​son​.com. “He would have to … abolish property taxes and inheritance taxes, and stuff like that, implementing national school voucher systems…. So, Sweden today is not what he remembers from the 1970s. It’s a much better and freer place than it was back then.”

Norberg, also a documentary filmmaker, earned his M.A. in the History of Ideas at Stockholm University. His latest book is The Capitalist Manifesto, which was praised by Elon Musk on X. During the ReasonTV interview, Norberg was asked to respond to some of Sanders’ glowing comments about Sweden, which the self‐​described socialist had made during his 2015 presidential campaign.

In an inserted news clip, Sanders said, “In countries in Scandinavia, like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, they are very democratic countries obviously. Their voter turnout is a lot higher than it is in the United States. In those countries, health care is a right of all people. In those countries, college education, graduate school is free. In those countries, retirement benefits, child care are stronger than in the United States of America. And in those countries, by and large, government works for ordinary people and the middle class rather than, as is the case right now, in our country, for the billionaire class.”

Senator Bernie Sanders (I‑VT).

When news host George Stephanopoulos then said that Republicans would run an attack ad accusing Sanders of wanting to make America more like Scandinavia, the senator replied, “That’s right, that’s right.” 

ReasonTV host Zach Weissmuller then asked Norberg to comment on Sanders’ remarks.

Norberg replied, “This is why Sweden is not a libertarian paradise. We might have free markets, but we do have a very generous welfare state. It’s true that many of these things are handed out by the government – it’s funded by the government at least through private providers. But the thing is we pay for these things ourselves. That’s an incredibly important point to make. Because there is this pipedream of Bernie Sanders and others that this will somehow be paid for somehow by the rich.”

Norberg continued:

“But Sweden learned in the 1970s. You can pick one: a big generous welfare state or you can make the rich pay for it all. You can’t have both. If you have a universal generous welfare state, and make the rich pay for it all, they will stop being rich. They will move. They will stop starting those businesses, the Ikeas of the future, and will move. Instead, you have to get most of the taxes from low‐ and middle‐​income households. That’s the dirty little secret of the Swedish welfare state.

“The socialists love the poor taxpayers because they are reliable, loyal taxpayers. They don’t dodge. They don’t move to Monaco. They don’t have tax attorneys. So we have the bulk of our government revenue coming from regional and local income taxes, which are flat. Income taxes are not progressive…. Also, things like a value‐​added tax at 25%, in general, on most goods. It’s obviously regressive. The poor pay as much as the rich when they buy food, in taxes.

“This means that when the OECD club of mostly rich countries look at different tax systems around the world, they say that the Swedish system is one of the least progressive tax systems of all. Much less progressive than the United States because America’s welfare state is so small, so you can rely more on the rich. Whereas here, we all have to pay for it.

“The Swedish welfare state mostly just redistributes over an individual’s life cycle. We get lots of stuff when we’re young, in preschool and school, and then we work hard and pay for it all, and then we get much of it back in health care and retirement benefits. Which mostly means, yes, we get lots of stuff but we pay for it all….

“It’s so interesting that socialists keep coming back to Sweden and I think that’s because all their favorite countries constantly fail. Every Cuba and Venezuela ends up with bread lines, millions trying to escape from that horror show. But they always have Sweden. It seems so friendly and successful and yet socialist.

“We have been socialist in Sweden and we have been successful but never at the same time. That’s what Sanders and the others fail to realize. We had that period in the 1970s and 1980s when Sweden was doubling the size of public consumption, raising taxes, regulating everything – price controls, what have you. This is the moment when Bernie Sanders and all those who are sort of stuck in the 1970s, this is what they still remember: ‘Look at Sweden! They’re socialist! But they’re also one of the richest countries on the planet! It seems to be working in Sweden.’

“The problem, of course, is that it’s like that old joke, how do you end up with a small fortune? Well, you start with a large fortune and then you waste most of it. That’s what Sweden did in the 70s and 80s. We were one of the richest countries on the planet before this experiment. And this was based on a 100‐​year period of limited government, free markets, free trade, as late as 1960. We had lower taxes than the United States and most European countries. This brought us all the wealth and all those successful international companies, the Ikeas and stuff, that brought us so much wealth that politicians thought they could just redistribute everything and begin to just jack up spending and taxes.

“Well, they couldn’t. Because the 70s and 80s, that’s the one period in modern Swedish economic history when we lagged behind other countries. This is the moment when we didn’t create a single net job in the private sector, and when entrepreneurs and businesses left Sweden. Ikea left Sweden. Tetra Pak left Sweden. Most successful entrepreneurs left because it was impossible to do business in Sweden. This all ended in a terrible financial crash in the early 1990s.

“So that was a brief period of time and it’s one that we don’t want to go back to in Sweden. Not even Swedish socialists – even they say, okay, we went too far. The Social Democrat finance minister at the time said it was actually absurd and perverse in many ways, what we were trying to do. Since then, Sweden has again become successful. But that’s based on a new period of liberalization and of economic reform.”

Perhaps that is the Swedish model policymakers should try to emulate.

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