Bryan Caplan  

Denmark and Sweden: What I'm Expecting

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Today I start my trip to Denmark and Sweden.  I'll be lecturing at CEPOS in Copenhagen, and the Research Institute of Industrial Economics and Mont Pelerin Society meetings in Stockholm. 

Since I've never visited either of these paragons of the Third Way, it's a good chance to test the rationality of my expectations.  My plan: I'm write down my expectations before I go, then see how they compare to my observations when I return.  Here goes:

1. Denmark and Sweden will be more aesthetically pleasing than most of the U.S., but markedly less so than Alpine Switzerland.

2. Middle-class Danes and Swedes will be noticeably poorer than middle-class Americans, especially on the vital dimensions of living space, car ownership, and meat consumption.

3. There will be 75% fewer beggars per block than in major U.S. cities, but somehow even in "the People's Home," they'll be there.

4. I will perceive the Danish and Swedish systems to be extremely oppressive of high-ability and materialistic people.  In fact, all things considered, I will deem Singapore a freer country.

5. However, aside from a few indigenous libertarians, these oppressed classes will suffer from false consciousness - just like the Singaporeans who laughed in unison when I denounced conscription as state slavery.

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COMMENTS (40 to date)
Stephen Smith writes:

Living space, car ownership, and meat consumption - all things that the US government heavily subsidizes over other forms of consumption. And yet you deem them to be the "vital dimensions" of wealth. Sounds like you have the same priorities as US lawmakers...

Damien writes:

Are car ownership and meat consumption good indicators of wealth?

Keep in mind that European countries tend to have a well developed transit system, which makes having several cars less of a necessity. Cars have no value in themselves; they're a cost that you bear in order to
1) go from A to B
2) signal your status relative to other people
Public transit makes 1 less valuable and there might be cultural differences that affect 2.

The same applies to meat consumption. AFAIK, the European middle class could eat meat until they choked if they so desired. The point is that they don't, presumably because they have different preferences.

Robert writes:

From what I understand, those countries have been very successful at providing a social safety net for their people without marching down the road to serfdom. Even Gordon Tullock argued that Hayek's thesis in "The Road to Serfdom" was wrong because of the successes of Sweden:

" offered predictions which turned out to be false. The steady advance of government in places such as Sweden has not led to any loss of non-economic freedoms."

-G. Tullock

[Per discussion below, and with thanks to Ben Hoskin and Robert: Quote is from p. 61 of Freedom, Democracy, and Economic Welfare, Fraser Institute, Symposium Proceedings.--Econlib Ed.]

Marcus writes:

Well, how much does a pound (or kilogram) of ground beef cost in median wage hours in both countries?

Taras writes:

Keep probability and relativity in mind here, just because countries like Sweden and Singapore have democratically elected governments that seem relatively pleasent, does not mean that those are likely outcomes or optimal outcomes.

Carl Jakobsson writes:

"1. Denmark and Sweden will be more aesthetically pleasing than most of the U.S., but markedly less so than Alpine Switzerland."

Why on earth would you believe that?

Here is a picture of what a representative apartment house like:

More pictures of Swedish architecture and city environments can be found here:

David N. Welton writes:

Europeans have less living space? News at 11...

> meat consumption.

Quality counts for something too. Italy, which is certainly poorer on average than the US or the Nordic countries, and isn't a paragon of much of anything in terms of politics or economics, has very good food, and part of the secret is that the raw ingredients that are available to the average Italian at the supermarket are significantly better than what you get in the US (or Nordic countries, I'm guessing), even at fancy supermarkets.

My wife, who has been to (southern) Sweden, says that yeah, it's not as good looking as the Alps (or Oregon, or Spain, or a lot of other places). Hardly surprising, though.

Robert attributes to Gordon Tullock a quote that seems only to be found on Wikipedia: " offered predictions which turned out to be false. The steady advance of government in places such as Sweden has not led to any loss of non-economic freedoms."

Robert: Can you provide a verified source for Gordon Tullock's saying this about Hayek's Road to Serfdom, the date Tullock said it, the article or book, and some broader context in which the quote appears?

This quote has been spread around the web based on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not a reliable source. It would be useful to track down the details before simply perpetuating it. The quote might well be accurate, but it's been unusually sticky to track it down.

To further be clear: Wikipedia gives a footnote a few lines after the quote that possibly suggests it's from a 1998 book edited jointly with Michael Walker; but with a link that leads to a Fraser symposium from 1993 that offers a pdf file in which Tullock has no contributions, and in particular in which that quote does not occur.

Will writes:

I hope you enjoy your trip.

"I denounced conscription as state slavery"

I missed your January 2008 article. I wonder how someone with that libertarian view addresses requiring people aged 16 or 17 or 18 to attend school. Do you support a notional threshold for reaching the age of majority, so that having to go to school in the spring is reasonable and going to the army in the summer is slavery?

Put another way, if people aged 16-18, and their parents, view having to attend school as a civic duty, maybe adding two more years to be trained to ready to defend the realm, staying on the reserve list until your 40s, is a fair call?

Nathan writes:

Will--given Brian's previous posts about how there's too much education, and his anarcho-capitalist leanings, I predict he would oppose all compulsory education laws. (Note that Adam Smith addressed this 200 years ago, also concluding that there's no reason to force children to go to school.)

SydB writes:

"the vital dimensions of living space, car ownership, and meat consumption."

A bit self-serving if you ask me. I'm sure they have other "vital dimensions" and are quite happy with the allotment of those versus an automobile.

"I will perceive the Danish and Swedish systems to be extremely oppressive of high-ability and materialistic people."

I've worked with or interacted with people from Sweden and France (with skills in genetics and computer science). They are in the US because because France didn't have the appropriate jobs, and Sweden was oppressive to individuals--consensus ruled. They find the environment here much more creative--though also brutal in a different sense.

Good arguments for the US system. But they both hated the US health care system--in particular access to insurance. I agree (having gone through the process of finding health care for a wife who once had breast cancer).

"these oppressed classes will suffer from false consciousness"

I don't understand this but it seems to suffer from a circular fallacy that be used to prove anything. Care for a "util?"

Fredrik writes:

One important thing you should ask people in Sweden (and Denmark) is how much money they at the bank (cash,stock,bonds etc)

In Sweden
1/3 has less then 10000 sek in savings.
2/3 has less then 35000 sek in savings
1 sek = 0.139528 U.S. dollars

The saving numbers in Italy witch is a poorer country is 6 times as high.

This us of course due to our tax system witch taxes the poorest income group about 60% per year (all taxes included).

About cars, At least I (and I think many people here in Sweden agree with me) do not want to have (or need ) a car. In ideal circumstances I would like to be able to walk to work from my home, i.e. live and work in central part of town.

If it would have been as cheep to own a care here as in the US I might be thinking differently. Here the politiians clearly wont to discourage people fom owning a car. it is a) expensive to own a car. b) it is hard to get a licence

Kurbla writes:

1. If you like mountains, it is right. But you might conclude that girls are prettier ...

2. Yap. Middle class Americans consume nearly twice more goods individually.

3. Much fewer than 75% beggars and homeless.

4. Uh ... Even using libertarian criteria, wealthy Scandinavians probably live better than 99% of the world population, and according to your very last post, comparing 2000s and 1950's mortality due to diseases and accidents, you should conclude that they are closer to deliver "paradise" than USA. So, you'll find the reasons for grumble, but "extremely oppressive" is too defensive.

5. Well, you'll find few libertarians, so your opinions on "false" and "true" will differ. I think you might be perceived as mild fascist there.

6. When you're there, ask how many prisoners they have, do they practice torture, and is it true that their prisoners are not routinely raped. It is important for balance from libertarian point of view.

Max writes:

@Robert: That is not true. Here are just some civil liberty losses that Europe's population had to endure:

- No general right to bear arms
- No right to do as you please on your property
- State Education
- Almost no individual contracts to work
- Forbidden to smoke indoors
- The right to peacefully assemble is very limited
- Taxes on beer and such "control" behaviour

All in all, most "risky" behaviour is forbidden or discouraged and as such though the majority doesn't concern itself with such measures, these are losses of liberty.

It is not clear that this is better in the US, but alas the US is closer to Sweden in economic terms than 30 years ago, so perhaps this point doesn't count anymore.


Not true, car ownership is high than ever, because despite the vast railroad network (which is deemed for the POOR), trains are the worst possible transit option if you have very specific needs (small town to small town transit etc.).
So, no, if europeans had the means to afford 2 or 3 cars easily, they would do it!
Heck, if petrol and car taxes weren't as high as they are, I'd buy a car myself (or 2).

JPIrving writes:

Funny, I'm moving to Sweden on the 20th for grad school...

Denmark and Sweden are, on the whole, fantastic countries in my anarchocapitalist opinion. Sure there are some ugly buildings from the 70's, but most cities are filled with magnificent architecture from Sweden's long free market period. Imagine how rich they would be had they listened to Hayek instead of Myrdal...

Worth noting: aside from taxation, Denmark is the freest economy in the world on the Heritage Foundation's index. Even Sweden has pretty solid economic freedom when compared to other European countries. The bureaucracy is also less lazy and rude than in the U.S.

Fredrik writes:

The conference in Stockholm looks really interesting,

But 8100 sek (1 130 USD) is almost 8000 more than I am willing to pay (Not including dinners etc)

Colin K writes:

About ten years ago I took a job with a German company and was sent to Wuerzburg for training. They put me up in a company apartment and I was rather surprised to discover that the building had a washing machine but no dryer.

When visiting co-workers homes, I was struck by the relative spareness of the decor and furnishing. Also, nearly everyone in my age group (25-35) rented; the one exception had inherited their house from parents. Back in the US, at least 50% of my peers owned, and this was in a high-cost urban area. On the other hand, my German peers got a lot more vacation.

As for quality of food, traditional German food seemed underappreciated and excellent, even coarse everyday stuff from the supermarket. OTOH, I have never gotten a glass of really good fresh orange juice anywhere on the continent, and there is a conspicuous lack of good Chinese restaurants. But there were a lot of very good Italian ones, so that might be a wash.

Neil D writes:


All my preconceived notions of libertarianism, conservatism, and American exceptionalism will be reinforced by whatever I see since I do not process new information that might change my mind.

Just stay home, Mr Caplan.

Stephen Smith writes:

Why is homeownership a sign of wealth/freedom? Also, France and the UK have some great Chinese food restaurants. As for Mexican, though, unless they have some good ones in Spain, you're out of luck.

Slugger writes:

I have a totally crazy idea. How about going to one of these countries without any preformed ideas? Then, when you get there make some independently verifiable observations. Collect a lot of these observations. Publish them in a way that others can criticize your observed data. Finally, after having digested the data, make a hypothesis about the systems in those nations that contain falsifiable predictions.

Daublin writes:

Several posters object that the "vital dimensions" might not be universally desirable, but instead a reflection of culture. I expect the contrary, that people who are better off in Denmark also consume more of those vital dimensions you list.

I expect yes. I bet the wealthier all eat meat, get bigger houses, and drive cars.

Ben Hoskin writes:

Lauren- I've amended Wikipedia.

Slugger- Bryan's already done all of that, he's given us his admirably falsifiable predictions, and now he's going to test them.

Robert writes:

Lauren: Yes, the quote is from a discussion in 1986 in Napa Valley, CA that was "managed" by the Fraser Institute. Visit this pdf for broader context:

Here is the direct quote from page 61 of discussion transcript.

"Fortunately, as the Friedmans will no doubt be happy to hear, my criticisms are the same as for The Road to Serfdom, another book which had a major intellectual impact on me. The authors of both of these books, I now think, had cloudy crystal balls. The basic problem with The Road to Serfdom was that it offered predictions which turned out to be false. The steady advance of government in places such as Sweden has not led to any loss of non-economic freedoms. This is particularly impressive because I doubt that any government before 1917 had obtained control of anything even close to the 65 percent of GNP now flowing through the Swedish government. I know many Swedes (and also Norse, Danes, Dutch and English) who are very upset with the sacrifice of control over so much of their earnings, but none who regard themselves as unfree in any other sense."

Damien writes:

You're aware that the Danes eat almost twice as much meat (145.9 kg/capita) as do the Swedes (76.1), right? In fact, they eat *more* meat than Americans do. Maybe it's only the rich who eat of lot of meat (but keep in mind that Denmark has one of the highest levels of income equality).

And people in Sweden must be miserable. They all want to eat meat but can't afford to. Or maybe there *might* just be a cultural factor at play?

I've lived in Europe. Of all the middle class people I've met, not a single one couldn't have afforded to eat only meat if they had wanted, and that without any impact on their standards of living. It's Europe, not the third world. Once you reach a certain level of income, any obvious difference in meat consumption patterns is more likely to be due to cultural factors than to financial constraints.

Note: I'm not denying that the middle class is wealthier in the United States or that their standards of living are higher. I'm just criticizing the choice of these metrics, which reflects a US-centric view of what constitutes "vital dimensions".

Steve O writes:

Kurbla wrote:

is it true that their prisoners are not routinely raped.

OT, but I think that this is one of the most shameful aspects of the US (assuming that everything you hear is true). Does anyone know if there are any studies that show how common this is versus, say, living in a college dormitory?


J writes:

3. There will be 75% fewer beggars per block than in major U.S. cities, but somehow even in "the People's Home," they'll be there.

Yes, but they are Romanian "professional" beggars, not natives. So don't be fooled.

Paavo Ojala writes:

i wanted to make the same point as J. did. The beggars in Sweden are due to free movement in the EU. And New EU member states like Romania have so poor people that begging in Sweden is a good deal.

Beggars are not a failure of swedish social security.

phineas writes:

Since when did McMansions become a "vital dimension"?

When Bryan says "I will perceive the Danish and Swedish systems to be extremely oppressive of high-ability and materialistic people", I interpret him to mean oppressive of people who are both high earning and materialistic, with the oppression due solely to the higher taxrate. He couldn't be intending to mean oppressive of ability as such, could he?

Kurbla writes:

Steve O, Wikipedia has few estimations.

BTW, it appears that Bryan will again attack the straw man argument that rational = without systemic bias.

Chris writes:

Glad to hear that this economics professor pursues activities with an open mind. Could it be that as we age, we become so convinced of our experiences that we simply become closed minded? Let us know how your preconceived judgments turn out. Going to be difficult to measure some of those preliminary observations though. Test away "scientist."

Jeremy H. writes:

Tullock misreads Hayek the same way Sachs does. TRtS was about economic planning, not the size of government.

Joshua Lyle writes:

I have to chuckle at the commentators prejudging Bryan for prejudgment. How about you wait until the guy gets back and gives us his report before you demonize him?

Dan Weber writes:
especially on the vital dimensions of living space, car ownership, and meat consumption.
I just have to pile on. This seems pretty artificial. Someone from the 18th century would think we were poor for our low horse ownership.

Car ownership is important both for transportation as well as freedom. One thing is to figure out how many households own zero cars. If my family had reliable public transportation, we could probably do just fine with only one car. But we would still have the freedom to break from the public transportation system when we wish to.

Instead of meat consumption, look at the nutrition of the quality of food. Unless people there suffer from health conditions specific to not eating meat, why bring that up?

I'm less sure about living space. If you toss out the extremes, are there any correlations between living space and mental health? (I know I would probably be happier if I didn't have to mow the lawn.)

But I give you props for attempting to figure out your biases ahead of time so you can test them. Most people (of all ideologies) never even get that far.

Thomas Lindgren writes:

That conference program sounds great; I'd have loved to attend (though I'm afraid I value that love at less than $1000). Though I'd probably be a pest by diffidently make books appear for you and Buchanan to sign, "if it would be at all possible?" Ah well.

Anyway, while you're here, do take the opportunity to ask about our mostly-socialized health care.

Illuminatus? writes:

Sweden was up until 1992 fast approaching the realities of F.A. Hayeks predictions in A Road to Serfdom personal freedom was curbed by extreme paternalist legislation and entrepreneurship was eradicated in favor of corporatism, Big Government, Big Corporation and Big Labor in a very happy and cozy marriage.

I grew up during the devastating quarter century from 1968 till 1992. All Swedish entrepreneurs had left the country run out by either the extreme tax hikes, a marginal taxation of 105 %, or by physical hounding of the IRS, the IRS arrested Ingmar Bergman for tax fraud on the stage of Dramaten, the Royal Swedish Theater.

Since 1950 not a single new job has been created in the private sector. Sweden has the least small and medium sized businesses of all OECD countries.

In 1992 during the banking crisis Sweden reversed the Road to Serfdom by basically adapting pure Hayek/Friedman policies. The highest tax rate was cut from 75 % to 50 %, inheritance tax cut by 2/3 and the wealth tax by 3/4. The planned socializing of companies through Löntagarfonder (Workers funds), a special tax on profits to fund super sized government owned mutual funds that would have socialized Swedish business life within 25 years were abolished.

Nearly all Swedish utilities companies were privatized, school vouchers was implemented, privatized and fully funded social security i.e. Sweden went from being as close to socialist a country can be to being a libertarian economic system but with a large welfare state.

Personal freedom when I grew up in Sweden during the 70s and 80s was restricted but in a very informal way. As long as you did not openly criticized socialism you were allowed to run your business or were promoted within the state bureaucracies and courts. If you criticized your were ostracized and often hounded by the IRS and most certainly would not get promoted to higher positions in the state bureaucracy.

Sander writes:

I am somewhat startled at what you define as vital dimensions, since to me it seems like you strongly derive them from your own preferences which might be culturally influenced and thus might lead you to have a lower utility from the things on offer in European countries than the average European who will have preferences for other things than those you define as vital. In particular defining meat consumption as vital is a bit unnerving, since it is so clearly correlated to worse health and lower life expectancy (once you hold other things such as hygiene conditions in countries etc. constant). In addition to that every Dane and Swede pretty much has the wealth to eat as much steaks per day as they want. Actually consumption of meat and dairy products in Northern Countries is much higher than in mediteranean ones which is probably one of the main reasons why life expectancy is lower in these countries (and in the US) despite them being much richer on average.

Bon appetit.

anders bagge writes:

no expectations on the differences in the abundance of people so obese they need mechanical assistance just to get around?

i find it interresting that an economics professor, and a libertarian at that(!), uses the term false conciousness in 2009. in a libertarian view, shouldn't everyone's conciousness be their own business? isn't the use of that term oppressive? or perhaps this is a meta study on your own preconceived notions, in which case it sounds almost like modern art.

my tip: instead of preaching to the choir at a politically run "research institue", have some crawfish (do they count as meat?) and snaps in the sunset at a nice spot on a lake. they're in season. get some late summer evening air and look at the sunset and the moon rising. talk to some people about expectations and dreams and about what matters to them in their life. compare that to your own life, and witness how you end up with even more questions and even less answers. marvel at the enigma of human life and civilisation. then go back to the states and plan your next trip. i suggest buenos aires. a fascinating place.

have a nice trip!

Patri Friedman writes:

CEPOS was one of the best audiences I've had for a seasteading talk yet. That's probably due to the nautical traditions of Denmark, not just the local libertarian / anarchist sentiment, but there was definitely plenty of the later. Definitely get a tour of Christiania from a local while you are there, if you haven't seen it before.

Marcus writes:

"However, aside from a few indigenous libertarians, these oppressed classes will suffer from false consciousness"

Skovgaard writes:

Sander wrote:
"In addition to that every Dane and Swede pretty much has the wealth to eat as much steaks per day as they want."

Not quality steaks, unless something else must give in the budget. A quality steak is around 50 kr a piece at least. Thats 200 kr for a family with two children per day. So that's 6000 kr each month for steaks and no accesories. Don't think many danes could afford that. We use around 6000 kr per month for all our food and plus things like soap, shampoo, dishwasher tabs etc.

@Patri Friedman
Just don't take any photographs or the local thugs will beat you up.

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