Free or equal

Johan Norberg is Sweden’s only internationally successful political author. He is a libertarian in the tradition of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand.

He more or less singe-handedly stopped the anti-globalization movement with his book (and BBC documentary) In Defence of Global Capitalism (Timbro, 2001). He has also effectively questioned claims made by the Canadian leftist icon Naomi Klein.

He has recently (September 2011) aired a film in the U.S. The title of this film is “Free or equal”. Among other things he discusses Sweden’s earlier record with regards to sick-leave.

This is interesting since one of the main themes in the debate about Sweden since the 1930s has been the potential conflict between “freedom and welfare”. A milestone was a 1953 book jointly published by the social authorities of several Nordic countries, with the exact title:

“Freedom and Welfare: Social patterns in the northern countries of Europe” (Nelson, George R. ed.)

Johan Norberg’s film shows that this theme is equally valid half a century later.

Unfortunately, Norberg’s description of sick-leave in Sweden has no basis in existing research. Instead, it is highly propagandistic and ideological.

Existing research shows that moral hazard cannot explain Sweden’s earlier world record in sick-leave and early retirement.

Instead, the main reason was that attempts to rehabilitate ceased during the Swedish 1990s financial crisis. This is proven by the fact that 85% of the increase was caused by prolonged sick-leave, not new recruitment.

Existing research has also shown that Sweden has a worse working environment in health care and municipal services than other countries. The main reason for this seems to be deficiencies in leadership and organization.

In other words, the standard case has been a women in her 50s who suffered from a bad psycho-social working environment in public, and especially municipal, employment during the financial crisis in the 1990s. When she became sick she was not given any active rehabilitation.

If there is a connection to the Swedish model, it is not through systems that have ensured equality of outcome, as Norberg claims, it is through a lack of flexibility in the labour market and the political role of the labour unions.

1. Before recent reforms, swedes were allowed to maintain the same job until they became fit to work again. In other words, you were deemed as sick in relation to your current job, even if you could perhaps perform other jobs.

2. The main priority of the Swedish unions during the 1990s was to save face for the Swedish model, instead of ensuring a good working environment in public employment in Sweden. This left ordinary swedes with no redress.

This has little or nothing to do with general issues about welfare policies and freedom versus equality.

Instead, the main explanations have to do with more or less unique features of Swedish mentality, social structure and organizaton of labour. And, of course, the more general failure for the Swedish model, which became apparent during the 1990s.

It is also the case that Norberg in his film (according to the trailer) does not really discuss political freedom in Sweden. He sticks to social and economical issues.

We would like to know more about if and how the Swedish model has violated or impared constitutionalism, civic rights and the rule of law. After all, this must be the most relevant meaning of freedom, not just economic freedom.

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