My latest piece on Sweden is out now in the Milken Review. This time I try to say something about how and why Sweden became the country it is today. Previously, I have focused on what happened, when did it happened and what the consequences were. Saying something about why it happened is much more difficult. In short, it is easy to paint a picture of wise intentional planning in retrospect, but that is typically not true when you look closer at what really happened. Serendipity and unintended consequences played important roles.
From the introduction:
The winding road Sweden has taken has made it difficult to say whether being more like Sweden involves increasing taxes and government intervention in the economy – or whether it means liberalization, deregulation and welfare-state retrenchment. So, before other countries try too hard to become more like Sweden, it is wise to look back at how Sweden came to be Sweden.
An example, based on the research of Thor Berger:
Historians point to the early introduction of mass public education, with the adoption of the 1842 Elementary School Act. The law, which stipulated that every parish must have at least one school, is often mentioned by contemporary politicians as a shining example of Sweden's long commitment to investment in human capital. The policy implication is seemingly clear: political decisions promoted growth early on by mandating public education. That may well be the case. But before jumping to that conclusion it is worth considering the analysis offered by the economic historian Thor Berger of Lund University. [...]
In short, education promoted economic development in Sweden, but democracy at the time did not promote education. Knowing more about what actually happened in Sweden hardly leads to clearer recommendations for other countries.