Whitewashing the Swedish Nightmare

Sometimes libertarianism is the enemy of liberty.

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the author of While Europe Slept and Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom, among others.

Poking around YouTube the other day, I stumbled across a 2018 documentary that was written and hosted by Johan Norberg, a 46-year-old Swedish economist who is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank in Washington, and who is one of his country’s leading boosters of free trade and free markets. This was hardly Norberg’s first venture into the documentary form: in 2003, Britain’s Channel 4 aired Globalisation is Good, in which Norberg celebrated the prosperity created in Taiwan and Vietnam through the outsourcing of factory jobs from the U.S. – but neglected to breathe a word about the catastrophic impact of that outsourcing on millions of American workers.

Norberg’s 2018 documentary is entitled Sweden: Lessons for America? In it, he traces Sweden’s economic ups and downs over the last couple of centuries: once a dirt-poor land in the grip of guilds and regulations, Sweden embraced the free market and low taxes – resulting in a century of burgeoning prosperity – only to “screw it up” in the 1960s by introducing a big-government welfare state that charged Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren a 102% income rate and Ingmar Bergman 139%. (He fled to Germany.) From 1976 to 1995, Sweden went downhill; interest rates hit 500%; IKEA moved its headquarters abroad. But the story, as Norberg tells it, has a happy ending: the 1990s brought reforms – deregulation, lower taxes, school vouchers, widespread privatization of public services, no minimum wage – that resulted in a first-rate climate for entrepreneurship and innovation and a “very productive private economy” that yields enough wealth to fund generous welfare benefits and pensions. America, we’re urged in Norberg’s conclusion, should look to Sweden as a model.

Some observers would contest Norberg’s explanation of how Sweden attained economic success. “It got to be one of the richest countries in the world,” Swedish comedian Aron Flam said on a 2017 podcast, ”by staying out of two world wars and selling arms to both sides” and, during the Cold War, relying on NATO (which it never joined) for free defense. But let’s put history aside for now and focus on the present. At the outset of his documentary, Norberg promises to show us “what it’s like to live in Sweden today.” When it comes to this topic, his show is a masterpiece of evasion – one that echoes much of the nonsense one often encounters in glowing libertarian accounts of the “Swedish model.” Libertarians, when they talk about Sweden, like to deny that Sweden is socialist, even though the country was ruled for decades by a party that identified as socialist; in any event, the fact remains that Swedes are, by nature, collectivist, statist, consensus-oriented, and anti-individualistic – scared to challenge received opinion and eager to join in ostracizing those who do.

They’re also, thanks to years of suicidal immigration policies, living in a social, economic, and cultural nightmare – to quote Flam, “a slow, simmering war zone.” In the cities, violent crime, shootings, gang rapes, car burnings, massive explosions, and even grenade-throwing have become routine. Just in the last couple of weeks, the chief of the National Police, Anders Thonberg, has put in an urgent request for backup from the military, and Ulf Kristersson, head of the Moderate Party, has charged the government with losing “control of what is happening in Sweden.” A few weeks ago, after a gang of armed thugs raided a Christmas party at a private home in the city of Västerås, robbing and brutalizing twenty or so guests, a neighbor commented: “It’s the Wild West here in Sweden.” (Not true: Wild West crime rates were almost surely lower, and settlers had guns to defend themselves.)

In a January 13 blog post, a cleric named Helena Edlund observed that in her hometown of Malmö it became normal some time ago “to wake up to bombs and bullets”; now, she laments, the same is the case in the most exclusive parts of central Stockholm, where she lives now. “I have lost count of the friends whose family members have been robbed, beaten, raped, or had their cars burned or stairs blown up,” she wrote. “For those who have lived in relative security in the country's more privileged areas, this is something new, but those who live in vulnerable areas have had it this way for many years.” The same politicians whom Norberg extols unreservedly for making today’s Sweden wealthy and dynamic are accused by Edlund of having “destroyed” the country with their open-border policy and their readiness to roll out the welcome mat for “terrorists.” Addressing those pols, Edlund asks: “What advice do you have for those of us who loved Sweden’s peace and security? Where should we go to seek asylum?”   

The perpetrators of all this mayhem, of course, are Muslims, either immigrants or the children of immigrants – people to whom Sweden provided refuge and whom it has rewarded lavishly for not working. Most of them reside in no-go sharia enclaves where even the cops fear to tread. In 2016, a 60 Minutes Australia film crew was beaten by Somali migrants in Rinkeby, a no-go zone in Stockholm that is also known as “Little Mogadishu.” (“This,” said host Liz Hayes, “is a country that’s barely coping”; in an interview, an activist told her that Sweden is “on the brink of an economic and cultural disaster.”) Last September, a news team for Sweden’s SVT was targeted by stone throwers at the construction site for a new mosque in Stenhagen (“stone grove”), a no-go zone in Uppsala.

Then, last December 12, journalist Joakim Lamotte ventured, video camera in hand, into the town square of another no-go zone, Kronogården in the city of Trollhätten, thereby attracting the attention of several dozen young Muslim men, most of them masked, who (as can be seen here and here) gradually closed in on him, verbally harassed him, demanded that he leave “their” turf, and finally struck him repeatedly and stole his video equipment. Several police officers were present, but did nothing to protect Lamotte and made no arrests, even though a couple of them were also physically assaulted by the thugs. How did Lamotte’s fellow Swedish journalists respond to this horror show? By mocking him and expressing support for his attackers. Robert Aschberg, a prominent Aftonbladet columnist, accused Lamotte of being a profiteering, self-dramatizing attention-seeker; Mathias Ståhle of Svenska Dagbladet tweeted that Lamotte’s account of being beaten and robbed made him “giggle.” The Swedish media’s take on this story was so egregious that even the BBC ran a report calling them out and treating Lamotte sympathetically.   

Fortunately, after decades of polite PC silence, more and more Swedes are finally admitting that they’re in deep trouble – hence the fast-rising support for the upstart Sweden Democrats, who call for serious immigration controls. Yet too many mainstream politicians and journalists remain in denial. Legislator Isabella Lövin asserted in 2016 that Sweden, with “the world’s first feminist government,” is nothing less than a beacon of hope for the Western world; as of last November, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven was still sticking to the line that the underlying cause of all this lawlessness is high unemployment in certain neighborhoods; the felons’ cultural and religious backgrounds, he insisted, are irrelevant. In Sweden: Lessons for America?, Norberg lauds the newspaper Aftonbladet; in a bracingly blunt 2019 op-ed about elite Swedish views on immigration, Norwegian author Kjetil Rolness accused that paper (the flagship publication of the Swedish elite) of “almost pathological denial of realities, in favor of wishful thinking and virtue signaling.”

In 2016, the Spectator ran an unusually frank article by Tove Lifvendahl, the political editor of Svenska Dagbladet, about Sweden’s immigration challenges; but its subtitle was telling: “We’ve taken in far too many people and we’re letting them down badly – especially the children.” This is the Swedish establishment mentality in a nutshell: even when they’re being honest about the problem, they reflexively feel obliged to express more concern for immigrants than for native Swedes – more concern for evildoers, indeed, than for their victims. Note the comment made by Stockholm police chief Jan Evensson a couple of years ago: “It’s hard to be a criminal. We want to help them get out of it.”

The anarchy in the streets is only part of the big scary picture. Norberg’s documentary portrays a Sweden where retirement homes, pensions, schools, and health care are just plain terrific. On the contrary: the immense cost of providing for immigrants (Muslims make up over 8% of Sweden’s population, the second highest figure in Europe, and the yearly bill for housing, feeding, and clothing the huge percentage of them who are on the dole is colossal) – has drained more and more money from basic services and benefits for hard-working native Swedes (this, moreover, in a country where people with jobs are so heavily taxed, supposedly to cover those basic services and benefits, that a citizen with a purportedly decent income has to struggle to get by). In recent years, while the national mainstream media have all but ignored this mass redirection of taxpayer funds, alternative news sites and local papers have told one horror story after another about retired Swedes who’ve been unceremoniously tossed out of their residences to make room for newly arrived Muslims.

Mass immigration, Swedish businessman Henrik Jönsson told Dave Rubin on a January 17 podcast, is causing Sweden to go broke “because we have the most expensive welfare system in the world.” And yet last year the Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, voted to increase the annual number of immigrants. Rolness, again, had it right when he wrote that too many Swedes prefer foreign refugees to Swedish babies; similarly, Swedish journalist Kajsa Norman assailed police and media for downplaying assaults on Swedish girls by Muslim men, maintaining that "sympathy for the refugees trumps sympathy for the girls." 

What did Sweden: Lessons for America? have to say about this crisis that seems destined to drag Sweden into anarchy, civil war, and/or sharia? Nothing whatsoever. About forty minutes into his paean to contemporary Sweden, Norberg visits a private school, and the camera pans quickly past a girl in a hijab, a potent symbol of female subordination: that’s the closest Norberg’s program comes to acknowledging the grim truth about the cultural challenges facing Sweden today. Does Norberg comment on the hijab? No. For that matter, does he mention that Jews are leaving Sweden in droves because of Muslim harassment (and worse)? No. For that matter, while touting Sweden as an economic success story, Norberg omits to mention its dramatic decline in GDP, GDP per capita, and current account balance during the last few years (a trend that was already clear when he made his documentary).

None of which should surprise anybody. Norberg is one of those libertarians who, for all their repeatedly professed love of liberty, refuse to oppose the disastrous immigration policies that have already done serious damage to individual freedom throughout the West – witness, for example, the prosecution in Britain, Austria, Denmark, Canada, and elsewhere of citizens accused of offending Muslims. Watching Norberg’s documentary on Sweden, one can’t help thinking of an observation by Aron Flam: “Swedes don’t really understand the concept of liberty.” For people like Norberg, regrettably, the totally unhindered movement of people and goods across borders is a veritable religious doctrine to which they cling in the name of freedom but to which they’ll brook no exception at all, no matter what the actual consequences to individual freedom. That a citizen of Sweden, where at present the perils of this kind of thinking are perhaps more clearly in evidence than in anywhere else on earth, can so lustily sing the praises of his country’s cockeyed policies shows just how delusionary – and dangerous – certain strands of libertarianism can be in the face of manifest threats to human liberty. 

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