“This is the Right’s big chance”

Swedish writer Johan Norberg is a champion of free trade and a stern critic of the Swedish welfare state. His book In Defence of Global Capitalism has been translated into over twenty languages. It also formed the basis for a British Channel 4 documentary, Globalisation is Good. He talks to The Local’s Paul O’Mahoney about the elections and Sweden’s future.

Have you ever seen a Swedish election campaign as heated as this one?

No, I haven’t, but I have never seen one as close either. Many people feel that this is the centre-right’s big chance. If they miss it they may not get another opportunity for the next ten to fifteen years.

Do you think the same would be true for the Social Democrats if they were to lose?

It’s very hard to say but they have had serious problems developing a new agenda. A lot of Social Democrats would secretly be quite happy to see a new government. Göran Persson has blocked modernisation in the same way that he has blocked many talented young politicians. His style is old-fashioned and authoritarian; when challenged, he sort of destroys his opponents’ careers. If he wins the election he can more or less choose a successor when he steps down but if he loses the party will be able to get rid of him.

How do you think the Swedish media has handled the election campaign?

Quite miserably, mainly because journalists simply haven’t done their homework. I have written several times about the fact that Persson often makes up statistics on the spot in live debates. The news programme Rapport finally picked up on this a couple of days ago but it really shouldn’t have taken so long.

Journalists have focused too much on analysis of the political game rather than putting in the real hard work of fact-checking the people in power. When the Prime Minister makes up a new statistic he usually does so safe in the knowledge that both Fredrik Reinfeldt and the press will fail to pick up on it.

In a recent article you stated that the Swedish welfare state was “rotting from within”. How do you mean?

I mean that the welfare state was built on specific preconditions: wealth, a strong work ethic, a sense of trust in a homogenous society, and an aversion to living on welfare. All of which made it possible to create a strong social security system. Now that may sound great but with it came a gradual distortion of incentives.

What we now see is that taxpayers are footing the bill for people who choose not to work. Plus we have the strange situation whereby Sweden is one of the healthiest countries in the world but also has the highest level of sick leave. The collapse of the initial preconditions has meant that attitudes have changed to the point that people are no longer sure what is right and what is wrong.

The Economist has a special report about Sweden this week, where it brings up the point that only one of the fifty largest companies in Sweden was founded after 1970. Why do you think this is the case?

It stems from a tax policy that has attacked private capital. There are many enormous Swedish fortunes, such as Tetra Pak and IKEA, which are based outside the country. Talented, innovative Swedes often have to leave the country to succeed. Skype is a good recent example: it does its development work in Estonia, is Luxembourg-owned and has its headquarters in London. A more amusing example is the Swedish tax board, which recently had its TV commercials produced in Estonia because it was too expensive to produce them in the country with the highest taxes in the world.

Finally, what words of advice do you have for whatever government gets voted in on Sunday?

My advice for both blocs would be to break their election promise not to deregulate the labour market. That is the key to solving so many of Sweden’s problems.

Paul O’Mahoney