Bernie Sanders has single-handedly brought the term “democratic socialism” into the contemporary American political lexicon and shaken millions of Millennials out of their apathy towards politics. Even if he does not win the Democratic nomination, his impact on American politics will be evident for years to come.
Sanders has convinced a great number of people that things have been going very badly for the great majority of people in the United States, for a very long time. His solution? America must embrace “democratic socialism,” a socioeconomic system that seemingly works very well in the Scandinavian countries, like Sweden, which are, by some measures, better off than the United States.
Democratic socialism purports to combine majority rule with state control of the means of production. However, the Scandinavian countries are not good examples of democratic socialism in action because they aren’t socialist.
In the Scandinavian countries, like all other developed nations, the means of production are primarily owned by private individuals, not the community or the government, and resources are allocated to their respective uses by the market, not government or community planning.
While it is true that the Scandinavian countries provide things like a generous social safety net and universal healthcare, an extensive welfare state is not the same thing as socialism. What Sanders and his supporters confuse as socialism is actually social democracy, a system in which the government aims to promote the public welfare through heavy taxation and spending, within the framework of a capitalist economy. This is what the Scandinavians practice.
In response to Americans frequently referring to his country as socialist, the prime minister of Denmark recently remarked in a lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government,
I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.
The Scandinavians embrace a brand of free-market capitalism that exists in conjunction with a large welfare state, known as the “Nordic Model,” which includes many policies that democratic socialists would likely abhor.
For example, democratic socialists are generally opponents of global capitalism and free trade, but the Scandinavian countries have fully embraced these things. The Economist magazine describes the Scandinavian countries as “stout free-traders who resist the temptation to intervene even to protect iconic companies.” Perhaps this is why Denmark, Norway, and Sweden rank among the most globalized countries in the entire world. These countries all also rank in the top 10 easiest countries to do business in.
How do supporters of Bernie Sanders feel about the minimum wage? You will find no such government-imposed floors on labor in Sweden, Norway, or Denmark. Instead, minimum wages are decided by collective-bargaining agreements between unions and employers; they typically vary on an occupational or industrial basis. Union-imposed wages lock out the least skilled and do their own damage to an economy, but such a decentralized system is still arguably a much better way of doing things than having the central government set a one-size fits all wage policy that covers every occupation nationwide.
In a move that would be considered radically pro-capitalist by young Americans who #FeelTheBern, Sweden adopted a universal school choice system in the 1990s that is nearly identical to the system proposed by libertarian economist Milton Friedman his 1955 essay, “The Role of Government in Education.”
In practice, the Swedish system involves local governments allowing families to use public funds, in the form of vouchers, to finance their child’s education at a private school, including schools run by the dreaded for-profit corporation.
Far from being a failure, as the socialists thought it would be, Sweden's reforms were a considerable success. According to a study published by the Institute for the Study of Labor, the expansion of private schooling and competition brought about by the Swedish free-market educational reforms “improved average educational performance both at the end of compulsory school and in the long run in terms of high school grades, university attendance, and years of schooling.”
Overall, it is clear that the Scandinavian countries are not in fact archetypes of successful democratic socialism. Sanders has convinced a great deal of people that socialism is something it is not, and he has used the Scandinavian countries to prove its efficacy, while ignoring the many ways they deviate, sometimes dramatically, from what Sanders himself advocates.