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What's the point of protesting?

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15:36 CEST+02:00
When Sweden's labour movements take to the streets on May 1st this year, they will for once have something other than a socialist government to protest against. But, argues Captus's Nima Sanandaji, they overestimate the influence of ideology on politics.

This year, for the first time in a long time, the Swedish left has something other than a socialist government to protest against on May 1st. Harsh criticism of all aspects of centre-right policies is to be expected, mixed in with traditional Marxism, feminism and left-leaning environmentalism.

May Day demonstrations are perhaps the most predictable events in Swedish politics. The same message is repeated year after year: the US is bad, as are the Moderates, businessmen and oil companies. Socialism is good, civilization is a threat to the environment and gender is a social construction.

If it were possible to communicate a message to the May Day demonstrators, it would be that government policies are on the whole not so different under the centre-right than under the Social Democrats. The left is not willing to abolish capitalism and hurl Sweden into poverty; the right is not going to implement large scale welfare reforms – millions of people have become dependent on government jobs and handouts.

Politics is not so much determined by ideologies as the interplay of interest organizations. The unions that organize large parts of the May 1st demonstrations are themselves the strongest interest organizations in Sweden. Their support for the Social Democratic Party is equivalent to hundred of millions of kronor during each election year.

When it comes to expressing solidarity with workers around the world, the unions are good at painting signs to brandish during demonstrations, but they are no less good at shutting foreign workers out of the Swedish labor market (remember Waxholm?). The reason is simply that it is in the interest of unions to monopolize the working market, and that interest comes before socialist ideology.

The hundreds of government agencies and the thousands of bureaucrats that work in each one of them themselves form interest groups, typically wholeheartedly supporting big-government policies regardless of the cost. This might go against the political views of some government employees, but makes perfect sense - a government bureaucrat who criticized public spending would simply be biting the hand that was feeding him.

Even the centre-right parties are interest groups. Ideology plays a role in their organizations, but is often less important than the interest to gain and stay in power. This explains why the Moderates have embraced a view of the labour market in which regulations and union power are regarded as something positive, or at the very least tolerable. An interest organization that wants to stay in power is reluctant to get into conflict with the strongest interest organizations in the country.

When May 1st demonstrators are protesting against massive unemployment, they should remember that the unions who are arranging many of the demonstrations are themselves part of the problem. When they are expressing discontent with failing welfare programs, they ought to remember that bureaucracy is an integral part of all large organizations, particularly those that like the government face little or no competition.

There are a lot of ways to make Sweden a better country. But the black and white ideological viewpoints expressed during May Day rallies are of limited relevance to the public policy debate. The simplest truth in politics is that policies are never perfect, typically leading to unintentional negative consequences. Demonstrators who see socialism as the answer to every imaginable problem easily miss this point.

Nima Sanandaji

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