The underpinnings of Sweden’s permissive COVID regime

Nils Karlson, Charlotta Stern, Daniel Klein 20 April 2020

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Sweden has largely bucked the lockdown trend, leaving much to the discretion of individual Swedes. In contrast to France, Germany and the US, for example, Swedes practice social distancing chiefly of their own accord, without harsh controls, fines, or policemen. Their behavioural changes have been profound, but less extreme than in most other nations. In day-to-day experience, we see about one in ten with masks or scarves in the supermarket or on the streets of downtown Stockholm. Many restaurants are open, though lightly trafficked and children up to high school still go to school. Sweden is not alone in steering a relatively permissive course; others include Iceland, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Still, Sweden has been exceptional among Western democracies. 

Impressions about Sweden are reflected in the remarks of the American conservative mega-YouTuber, Dennis Prager: “I am stunned, by the way, I am just stunned, I was sure Sweden would go the way of every other Western nation in this regard. But they didn’t.”1

We have not been stunned. In this column, we offer an account of some of the institutional and cultural underpinnings of Sweden’s relatively permissive COVID regime, which we expect to hold for now. We try to explain why Sweden has opted for a relatively permissive approach to the pandemic.

High trust – horizontal and vertical

Within Swedish culture, people trust one another to behave in a responsible way and respect others. Moreover, they usually trust their authorities, not only politicians but also the public administration. ‘Recommendations’ are taken seriously. Rarely do the authorities cry wolf, and so when they do, people respond. 

Long tradition of administrative independence

Since the 17th century, Sweden has had an administrative system where the central governmental agencies such as the National Health Agency are independent. It is a quite unique system of separation of authority, where legislation is brief and general, and implementation is entrusted to the bureaucracies. The administrative authorities are, again, trusted and deferred to, even by the politicians. Their recommendation has been to not close down the whole society, but to avoid social contact and to refrain from interacting with people older than 70 years. Some lockdown has occurred (no gatherings of more than 50 people, no bar service, distance learning in high schools, and so on), but much less than elsewhere. 

A constitutional constraint and a respect for that constraint

While the Swedish government enjoys great deference, it is important to realise that its hands were tied as COVID broke out. The Swedish constitution does not allow for a state of emergency in peacetime. For the administration to be able to make urgent decisions faster, first a new law had to be written and passed in the parliament, enabling it to take such actions if deemed necessary.  Under the new law (Regeringen 2020), passed with across-the-board support, the parliament can still rescind any such action. The constitution made the government disposed against emergency action from the outset.

No ‘Crisis Team’, thank you. 

From the tradition of administrative independence and constitutional constraints, Sweden has a tradition of sticking with the regular team, even in a crisis. The government cannot develop a separate crisis team to swoop in and override the usual lines of authority and decision making. Once again, we see trust in the regular people on the job, with their wealth of experience and institutional knowledge. It is the Public Health Agency of Sweden that delivers daily updates on COVID, not the prime minister. And the confidence in the regular team extends downward within the administrative agency. 

Keep the economy going

The present government is a coalition led by the Social Democrats, but all eight parties in parliament generally favour the approach taken to COVID. The Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, formerly head of the metal-workers union and now with high approval ratings (Novus 2020), is proving himself to be on the more pragmatic side of the Social Democrats. There is wide consensus in Sweden on the value and moral significance of working. Sweden is also sensitive to its dependence on exports and needs to maintain its service to the world economy. The crisis of the early 1990s is important here: Sweden responded by liberalising, and the reforms have succeeded. The bumblebee has continued to fly despite the heavy tax load. 

Aiming for herd immunity? 

There have not been official pronouncements about herd immunity, but it is likely part of the broader strategy. Swedish experts have primarily considered the risk groups and have looked to targeted action, with mixed results. Deaths have been especially high among those in elderly care homes despite strict restrictions on visiting.2 Immigrant neighbourhoods have been especially vulnerable as well. However, there has been more success in maintaining intensive-care capacity. The ambition is to have hospital staff on the job; hence, childcare and schools for children up to high schools continue to operate. 

A functional ‘central zone’ 

Many social gatherings and events have been cancelled because of COVID. One was Almedalen, the week-long gathering of the nations’ politicos and political junkies, in Visby on the island of Gotland, where all sides talk issues by day and enemies fraternise over rosé wine by night. It has been emulated by the Danes since 2011 (Folkemødet) and by the Norwegians since 2012 (Arendalsuka), but otherwise we know of nothing like it any other country. It is emblematic of the political culture in Sweden, where political enemies still feel like distant cousins and do less to demonise one another.

The American sociologist Edward Shils developed the concept of the ‘central zone’ (Shils 1982),3 by which he meant the sociological centre of the social networks of influential players in politics and cultural institutions. A functional and beneficial central zone is one in which the players feel that they have a long-term part to play and that their part is common knowledge. They therefore will feel a responsibility to do their part beneficially. We daresay that Sweden is blessed with a relatively functional and effective central zone, made up of the political-party leaders, the administrators, leading media figures, the unions and the employers association, major companies, important family networks, and so on. From an American point of view, the central zone is still more like ‘the good old days’, not so polarized. The Swedish central-zone players, extending out to the public at large, regard the major newspapers as the nation’s coffeehouse, not as pure partisanship or fake news. 

The willingness to follow voluntary recommendations may seem paradoxical in light of Sweden’s individualist culture.4 But the Swedish collectivist individual believes she is to be trusted and entitled to her own opinion. She is active on Facebook discussing the latest reports from the public health authorities, but respects experts and defers to authority, feeling it the sensible thing to do. Hans Zetterberg (1984) called Swedes ‘rational humanitarians’, and the strong individualist streak rests on liberal values of individual rights.

Liberal heritage

Sweden is often misunderstood. Its deeper heritage has been rather liberal, including past figures such as Anders Chydenius, Hans Järta, Erik Gustaf Geijer, Lars Johan Hierta, Fredrika Bremer, and Johan August Gripenstedt (Norberg 2020). The country enjoyed rapid development under highly liberal arrangements, from about 1850 to 1970 (Bergh 2016). In the era of rising socialism, Sweden had titan economists who kept their compatriots from extremes, titans like Knut Wicksell, Gustav Cassel, and Eli Heckscher. They were not only world-renowned economists, they were leading public intellectuals within Sweden and they helped to establish and maintain a sensible coordination between scholarship, public discourse, and policymaking (Carlson and Jonung 2006). In the later 20th century economists like Ingmar Ståhl, Assar Lindbeck, and others tempered the interventionist state. They were significant central-zone players. Sweden has a large welfare state and inflexible labour markets, but the central zone shows great respect for private enterprise, entrepreneurship and market liberalism, and Sweden’s economy is relatively free. It is not surprising that a relatively liberal attitude is conspicuous in Sweden’s approach to the COVID pandemic.

In videos here on Vox, Lore Vandewalle https://voxeu.org/content/covid-19-lives-vs-lives and Debraj Raj https://voxeu.org/content/covid-19-politics-visibility both emphasised that responses to COVID face severe trade-offs. Rather than over-reacting based on the conspicuous and symbolic, governments should weigh these trade-offs calmly and carefully. For the reasons suggested here, we think that Sweden is doing rather well on that score.

References

Bergh, A (2016), Sweden and the Revival of the Capitalist Welfare State, Edward Elgar. 

Carlson, B and L Jonung (2006), “Knut Wicksell, Gustav Cassel, Eli Heckscher, Bertil Ohlin and Gunnar Myrdal on the Role of the Economist in Public Debate,” Econ Journal Watch 3(3): 511-550. Link 

Norberg, J (2020), Den Svenska Liberalismens Historia, Timbro Förlag.

Novus (2020), Partiledarförtroende.

Raj, D (2020), “The Politics of Visibility”, Video Vox, 16 April.

Shils, E (1982), The Constitution of Society, University of Chicago Press.

Vandewalle, L (2020), “Lives vs. Lives,” Video Vox, 16 April.

Regeringen (2020), Tillfälliga bemyndiganden i smittskyddslagen från den 18 april.

Zetterberg, H (1984), “The Rational Humanitarians”, Daedalus 113(1): 75-92.

Endnotes

1 See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vebkwr_kQ2k&t=792s

2 See https://unherd.com/thepost/coming-up-epidemiologist-prof-johan-giesecke-shares-lessons-from-sweden/?=frpo&fbclid=IwAR2kpIJb-4gtN2g__DiuccvjFSjnTa8X0keiEfqqNuPGzxE85QYoVVZNfcI

3 See https://readingtheperiphery.org/shils/

4 See https://www.iffs.se/world-values-survey/

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Topics:  Covid-19 Europe's nations and regions

Tags:  COVID-19, coronavirus, lockdown, containment, Sweden

Founding President and CEO, Ratio Institute; Professor, Linköping University

Professor of Sociology, Stockholm University; Deputy CEO, Ratio institute

Professor of Economics, George Mason University

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