STOCKHOLM – With Swedish cities roiled for weeks now by rioting by unemployed immigrants, many observers see a failure of the country’s economic model. They are wrong. The Swedish/Scandinavian model that has emerged over the last 20 years has provided the only viable route to sustained growth that Europe has seen in decades.
Europeans should remember that perceptions of strength and weakness change fast. In the 1980’s, Scandinavian countries stood for chronic budget deficits, high inflation, and repeated devaluations. In 1999, The Economist labeled Germany “the sick man of the euro” – a monument of European sclerosis, with low growth and high unemployment.
Now, however, the specter of devaluation has disappeared from northern European countries. Budgets are close to balance, with less public expenditure and lower tax rates, while economic growth has recovered. The transformation of the old European welfare state started in northern Europe, and it is proceeding to most of the rest of the continent.
Today, it is difficult to imagine the mindset that prevailed before Margaret Thatcher came to power in the United Kingdom in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in the United States in 1981. Thatcher’s greatest achievement was the liberalization of the overregulated British labor market, while Reagan turned the tide with his inaugural address: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The moral superiority of high marginal income taxes suddenly waned. Free-market ideas took hold.