One of the poorest countries in Europe at the start of the 20th century, Sweden had just a few decades later become one of the richest in the world. It is a remarkable success story which has been explained by a variety of factors, including valuable natural resources, avoidance of war, and a lengthy period of peaceful labour relations.
Sweden began to receive widespread international attention in the 1930s, when it became the first country to systematically apply-- or anticipate-- Keynesian economic theory, emphasizing the central role of government in maintaining economic demand, full employment and low inflation. It proved to be an effective formula that was instrumental in generating the economic resources for another object of international attention, Sweden's general-welfare state.
The driving force behind the steady expansion of general welfare has been the labour movement and its political instrument, the Social Democratic Party which has dominated national politics for the past sixty years. That dominance has been used to implement a series of measures designed to redistribute the nation's wealth as equitably as possible, with a particular emphasis on efforts to provide every child with genuinely equal opportunity in terms of housing, education, medical care, etc.
Other traditionally disadvantaged categories-- including women, the elderly and the handicapped-- have also benefited. By the mid-1980s, Sweden's income distribution had become the most equitable ever recorded and, among other benefits, it was impossible to infer a child's social background from its medical history.
Contributions of public sector
Of special significance in this regard is the well-developed public sector which, while efficiently providing a wide range of medical and social services to the entire population, makes a crucial contribution to gender equality by paying Swedish women for the kinds of caring and household tasks that women in most other countries are still expected to perform free-of-charge.
By providing such essential services, the public sector also makes it possible for many other women to work within the private sector. Consequently, Sweden and the other Nordic countries have the highest rates of gainful female employment in the world, with corresponding implications for the economic independence of women.
Another key element of the Nordic model is a general labour market policy which, at least until recently, has guaranteed a comparatively high level of job security and worker influence.
The equitable distribution of economic resources and the empowerment of disadvantaged citizens have also been guiding principles for Swedish foreign policy. Especially since the end of World War II, Sweden has earned a reputation as a leading spokesman for peaceful international relations and global economic justice-- themes that reached their fullest expression in the person and politics of Olof Palme. He was assassinated in 1986.
With some variations, the other Nordic countries operate according to much the same logic and principles as does Sweden. The main differences have to do with foreign policy, due to historical factors such as the direct impact of World War II on Denmark and Norway, and the delicate relationship of Finland to Russia and the Soviet Union.
But, otherwise, it is appropriate to speak of a Nordic model of society which is based on a fairly common approach to labour market and family policies, gender equality, education and other components of the general-welfare state.
For a variety of reasons, however, Sweden has attracted a disproportionate amount of international attention during the past half-century. To progressives everywhere who are engaged in such issues as social justice, north-south relations, nuclear disarmament and women's rights, Sweden has long served as an inspiration and a model to be emulated. For precisely the same reasons, it has been an object of scorn and a source of intense irritation to the more conservatively inclined.
As for the Swedes, themselves, most appear to have little or no awareness of their country's international significance or its extraordinary record of social progress.