"Society Is Not a Racetrack"

Lars Engqvist
Swedish Minister of Health & Social Affairs

In this brief introduction, I would like to share some experiences from our efforts to achieve social equality here in Sweden, and to explain why the equitable distribution of resources is a precondition for individual freedom. I will also outline the principles on which the Swedish welfare model is based.

A glance back in time reveals that Swedish politics during the 20th century were characterised by two significant changes in social outlook. The first change took place during the initial decade of the past century. Society was then in the midst of the great industrial modernisation process. New technologies, including electricity and the railways, promised new advances for people and societies.

But the society of that time included great economic and social disparities. It was a society in which a few people prospered from the development of industry, while most lived in poverty. The growth of the labour movement reflected the social consequences of industrializaton and led to sharp criticism of social injustices.

Eventually, there developed a collaboration between the labour movement and political liberals, as a result of which public debate came to focus on the living conditions of the masses. The most important task of politics came to be seen as reducing the differences in circumstances between various segments of society. The labour movement gained support not just for its criticism of unsatisfactory conditions, but also for the way in which it explained them. It was argued that social problems were connected with the structure of society, and not determined by some invisible, abstract force. Society could be changed by the introduction of universal and equal suffrage. Social reforms would make it possible to break down class barriers, bit by bit.

Shift to the rich

The second major change in outlook has taken place during the past two decades. As noted by the U.S. economist John Kenneth Galbraith, the late 20th century was dominated by the notion that the poor had too much wealth and the rich too little. It has been claimed that the struggle for equality counteracts the freedom of the individual.

The great economic crises of the 20th century have been managed in a debate climate shaped by economists and other leading figures who have characterized redistributive policies and social insurance programmes as either important causes of those crises, or as serious obstacles to their solution.

The most important task before us now is to shift the perspective once again-- to take the situation of the least well-off as the point of departure for public debate and political action.

Even though Sweden is a rich country, where many people enjoy a high material standard of living, there remain social disparities which we must work to overcome, for example:
  • Several hundred thousand people are without work even though we are now in a period of relative economic prosperity.
  • There is discrimination against people born in other countries.
  • People with physical or mental disabilities suffer social alienation.

Wasted potential

In a societal perspective, these social disparities represent a great waste of the unrealized potential of those who are shut out. Such disparities also constitute a direct injustice for affected individuals. The uneven distribution of shared resources and opportunities for participation is contrary to the view that all people are equal. Social stratification violates the dignity of the individual. In addition, it is a curtailment of freedom:

  • The unemployed have very little freedom. They are unable to plan for themselves or their families.
  • The homeless have lost most of their freedom. They cannot even plan for the next day. Every step they take is dependent on the support of society, a willing friend or a charitable organization.
  • Those who are denied work or education because of a disability suffer a life-long denial of freedom. To them the paths to freedom and individual development are shut off.

Unemployment, extreme income disparities, discrimination and alienation impede the development of the individual. Social inequities become an obstacle to human freedom. The result is a society divided into 'we' who can join in and 'they' who are kept outside. Political efforts to achieve equality are very important in establishing conditions which allow individuals to enjoy freedom and the opportunity to decide over their lives.

Life is not a race

What, then, is an equitable distribution of resources? For some, fairness means that everyone has the same chance from the outset. Life is seen more or less as a race, where everyone gets to stand on the same starting line and then try to reach the finish as best they can. Someone reaches the finish before everyone else, some never make it at all. This is a very poor analogy. Life is not a race, and society is not a racetrack.

Equality is about creating a society in which all have the same chance to make their own choices at different stages in life. This could mean that an adult has a new opportunity to study, or that a substance abuser is given a fifth chance at rehabilitation even if four previous attempts have failed. This is crucial if people are to dare to have faith in the future.

The Swedish model for efforts to reduce social divisions includes several components, including the following:

  • First, a tax-financed public sector which is sufficiently comprehensive to guarantee that, in principle, everyone has free access to education, and to health and social services.
  • The second component is compulsory and collectively-financed social insurance to provide reasonable economic security during transitional phases of working life, periods of sickness and injury, and old age.
  • The third is the provision of social benefits for everyone, irrespective of income, such as the child allowance and old-age pensions.
  • The fourth consists of various income-related measures, for example rehabilitation services and social allowances.

The basic principle of our model is that everyone contributes via taxation, and everyone gets something back. This strengthens social cohesion. It has also been demonstrated that general welfare systems-- those from which everyone benefits-- provide the greatest advantages to those who are least well-off.

Implicit in this outline of Swedish welfare policy is the principle that the state has a great responsibility for reducing social disparities. This is not, as some have claimed, an attempt to bunch everyone together and present them with very limited choices. The goals of social policy must be to eliminate poverty and alienation, and to provide the opportunity for everyone to participate as an equal in society.