In the Economist, Northern lights The Nordic countries are reinventing their model of capitalism, says Adrian Wooldridge
THIRTY YEARS AGO Margaret Thatcher turned Britain into the world’s leading centre of “thinking the unthinkable”. Today that distinction has passed to Sweden. The streets of Stockholm are awash with the blood of sacred cows. The think-tanks are brimful of new ideas. The erstwhile champion of the “third way” is now pursuing a far more interesting brand of politics.
Sweden has reduced public spending as a proportion of GDP from 67% in 1993 to 49% today. It could soon have a smaller state than Britain. It has also cut the top marginal tax rate by 27 percentage points since 1983, to 57%, and scrapped a mare’s nest of taxes on property, gifts, wealth and inheritance. This year it is cutting the corporate-tax rate from 26.3% to 22%.
Sweden has also donned the golden straitjacket of fiscal orthodoxy with its pledge to produce a fiscal surplus over the economic cycle. Its public debt fell from 70% of GDP in 1993 to 37% in 2010, and its budget moved from an 11% deficit to a surplus of 0.3% over the same period. This allowed a country with a small, open economy to recover quickly from the financial storm of 2007-08. Sweden has also put its pension system on a sound foundation, replacing a defined-benefit system with a defined-contribution one and making automatic adjustments for longer life expectancy.
Most daringly, it has introduced a universal system of school vouchers and invited private schools to compete with public ones. Private companies also vie with each other to provide state-funded health services and care for the elderly.
Why are the Nordic countries doing this? The obvious answer is that they have reached the limits of big government. “The welfare state we have is excellent in most ways,” says Gunnar Viby Mogensen, a Danish historian. “We only have this little problem. We can’t afford it.” The economic storms that shook all the Nordic countries in the early 1990s provided a foretaste of what would happen if they failed to get their affairs in order.
Policy makers would do well to study the Nordic model. Using competition and market forces to improve the delivery of governmental services, the Nordic countries also live within their means. Here at home, we can't even get a President to submit a budge or Senate to pass one, much less to address the very real problems of entitlements and debt.Posted by Jill Fallon at February 4, 2013 11:26 AM | Permalink