The Swedish Nanny State Rolls On
The Swedish government recently announced plans to fund parental leave (at 90 percent of lost income) for eighteen months after the birth of a child. The 1989-90 budget now before the Swedish parliament includes hefty increases for family support, raising the total spending on that item to $7.9 billion (compared to $5.7 billion for defence).
Does this support for families with children signify that policy makers in Sweden are showing more respect for the task and integrity of the family? Have the Swedes discovered that natural parents are still the best caregivers for their own children? (Eighty-five per cent of Swedish women with preschool children work outside of their homes.)
In one sense the answer seems to be yes. In another sense, however, the fact that the state assumes the responsibility for the cost of raising children, whether through universal childcare or direct payment to families (at least to the extent now contemplated in Sweden), is itself a major concession to an essentially statist (or collectivism view of society. No doubt direct support of families is preferable to state-subsidized and operated childcare. But in both instances the state injects itself into an area of life where it can, and quite likely will, do much damage to the health and integrity of families.
It is well known that state intrusion in the Swedish family has advanced very far. Katarina Runske, chairman of the Family Campaign Foundation of Sweden, observed that "the basic principle of the Swedish socialist tax system is that no person should be dependent on anybody else and that all children should be cared for by the state."
The ideal of individual independence behind the tax system (and by implication the wage system) has made the working family not only an ideal but a necessity in Sweden. The damage inflicted on the Swedish family has been immense. The new move towards a generous government payment to parents to stay at home still places the family in an extreme kind of dependency vis-a-vis the state. There are many horror stories about state intervention into the lives of Swedish families, and one need not stretch the imagination far to guess that the new generous state payments directly to parents for home childcare will give added incentive for further state monitoring and regulation of families. For example, would the size of family become a matter of state concern? Or how parents discharge the duties for which they are receiving state money?
Once the boundary line between the societal institutions of the family and state has eroded, as it has in Sweden, what appears to be a move in defence of families may in reality be another step towards state control. When the family becomes incorporated into the public realm, its institutional integrity is destroyed—with disastrous consequences for all its members, but especially for children because they are the most vulnerable.
There is a strong tendency in Canada to follow the Swedish example, and to model our family policies after the Swedish ideal. Before we do, let's discuss the norms for family life and for the state as well as the manner in which the state should be related to the rest of society. There is currently a dearth of vigorous public discussion about such fundamental issues in Canada. Important questions of public policy are simply reduced to discussions about technical and organizational details. Perhaps a good way to stimulate that debate is to take a close look at what is happening in Sweden. And to realize that once the road towards the collectivist state is taken, even what may appear to be a step in the right direction is actually only a minor detour.
Alexander Szemberg has closely observed the Swedish situation and offers this evaluation of what is really happening there in his recent contribution to The Idler (a most un-Swedish publication):
What is amazing about Sweden is how much can be achieved by perpetrating an obvious lie. A society is not like a family and never will be. The Swedes have developed a real liking for fairy-tales of reconciliation: between State and individual, security and freedom, men and women, society and community. Their aspiration is to live by the principle of coziness. By envisioning society as a single family residence, the folkhem, and by setting as the goal of this society the provision of shelter and security to its members, the Swedes have confused the distinction between public and private. Again, there is nothing uniquely Swedish about this. The history of the West is an ongoing unfolding of different divisions between the domains of life. Every dream has relevance, and some dreams can become reality, but the idea of a complex society that feels like a family is not one of them. (The Idler, September/October 1988, p.13)
Is anybody listening to this voice of sanity, or is Canada slipping down the same slope on which the Swedes are now sliding?