14 December 2020

Sweden’s bungled Covid response shows the perils of technocratic idealism

By Mark Brolin

In Sweden, it seems a long time since February and March, when government ‘experts’ believed herd immunity was only weeks away. Here was the only nation in the world tackling the coronavirus crisis “scientifically”, without the strict lockdowns hobbling other economies. In doing so, Sweden became an unlikely cause célèbre for libertarians the world over, who saw this apparent success as a damning riposte to heavy-handed statism elsewhere.

When the virus started hitting Sweden much harder than the other Nordic countries, the narrative shifted: those same public sector experts started peddling the politically convenient idea that the high death rate would pay off later on – after summer, as other countries battled a second Covid wave, Swedes would sail through unharmed.

Now, that prophecy has been dramatically punctured too. Sweden does stand out among the Nordic nations, but only because it is doing so much worse than Finland, Norway and Denmark. Nor is there any evidence of an economic dividend, and strategic U-turns are taking place in real time. The approach has belatedly shifted: for several weeks now, Sweden has had stricter policies than its neighbours, including restrictions on public gatherings to a maximum of eight people.

It speaks volumes that the latter decision was made by the government without a recommendation from the Public Health Agency, whose credibility has been shredded by this crisis. Nowhere else in the world does the government impose rules stricter than those recommended by its supposedly leading virus experts. In a matter of weeks the state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has gone from national hero to public scapegoat.

I don’t doubt the Public Health Agency acted in good faith with its original response to the virus, but it was guilty of at least three fundamental errors.

Firstly, it severely underestimated the gravity of the threat and even played down the seriousness rather than recommend the precautionary principle. It is one thing for a government to balance all concerns and decide to play down a threat in order to avoid panic. It should certainly not be the role of a Public Health Agency to do so, especially not when facing a deadly novel disease.

The second big mistake was the agency’s insistence that it was following a scientific approach, when it really amounted to no more than wishful thinking. Disregarding the advice of pretty much every other public health agency in the world, without any clear reason to do so, suggests a stubborn rather than truly scientific mindset.

Thirdly, even if it had been possible to achieve herd immunity in the space of a few months, as the Agency originally thought, there was still a compelling case to lock down early when governments the world over were still grappling with the basics of pandemic management. Indeed, that’s how the other Nordic countries avoided an exponential spread of the virus in their care homes.

The government deserves a hefty chunk of the blame too: by abrogating responsibility for the Covid response to relatively low-ranking bureaucrats, letting them do most of the talking and only changing tack once it was clear where the wind was blowing, they betrayed not only the Swedish public, but the bureaucrats themselves. It is for politicians to make political decisions, not their officials. In a way, then, Mr Tegnell and his colleagues are arguably themselves victims.

A libertarian project?

All the while, libertarians outside Sweden have kept trying to portray the country as a non-interventionist success story. Yet in doing so they have only betrayed a lack of awareness of the peculiarities of the Swedish situation. The truth is that Sweden’s strategy stemmed not from a considered attempt at liberalism, but from the sheer incompetence of its government bureaucracy, the quality of whose decision-making has dropped to levels of feebleness never before experienced – or at least not during the democratic era, when Sweden’s government administration has typically been among the most efficient on the planet.

Whatever the crisis, be it migration, gang crime or coronavirus, precisely the same pattern has played out every time. For a while experts close to power have offered categorical intellectual alibis for a course based on wishful thinking. Critics within the expert community have been faced down through classic bullying tactics. The mood has shifted only after the public has reacted against the discrepancy between the idealist narrative and realities on the ground. U-turns have followed involving government apologists pretending they were never strong supporters of the previous policy. After each and every crisis, key decision-makers have managed to cling on by hiding behind three arguments: “Nobody saw it coming”; “It is hard to say who is to blame” and “We were perhaps a bit naive, but also well-intentioned”.

Sweden’s government is not right-wing, but right-on: a coalition between the milquetoast leftwingers of the Social Democratic Party and the full-on progressives in the Green Party, with the additional backing of the Liberal and Centre parties, both of whom correspond roughly to the UK’s Liberal Democrats. It’s as bang-in-the-middle a government as one could imagine.

This bland assembly is stuffed with ministers well versed in the global lingo of bureaucratic evasiveness but with little practical experience outside the political bubble of Stockholm. They are abetted by a technocratic public sector where the ‘doers’ have been systematically replaced by woolly idealists well versed in the latest theoretical constructs. Indeed, virtue-signalling has turned into more or a less a lifestyle for those intent on building a prestigious career at the heart of government.

This is, however, a relatively recent phenomenon. Where now we see an astonishing lack of practical competence, not long ago Sweden was a model of sensible centrist governance. One of the key reasons for that success was that pragmatists, rather than idealists, tended to dominate the political scene. Today’s generation of politicians is free-riding on a reputation for government competence earned by their predecessors, and too often been given the benefit of the doubt.

This disjunct between present incompetence and past proficiency helps explain why it’s so hard, especially for outsiders, to get Sweden right. A bureaucrat from “corrupt” Italy or Spain might rarely be taken only at his or her word. It used to be a different story if a civil servant from “honest, hard-working” Sweden looked you straight into the eye and declared, vigorously, that no scientific legwork has been spared. Such claims used to almost guarantee that prudent, pragmatic and multidimensional reflection preceded every key policy choice. Again and again over recent years it has sadly been proven that talk of high standards owes more to PR flummery than reality.

The perils of idealism

It’s not so much dishonesty or blindness, that is the real problem here, but an excess of idealism, coupled with the idealists’ tendency to write off their critics as beyond the pale. We see this in the failure to deal with the issues of both migration and crime. The Covid response, meanwhile, owes more to the intellectual sloppiness and complacency that are part and parcel of a bureaucracy soaked in idealism. The bottom line is that thousands have died in Sweden, no doubt unnecessarily, when it would have been easy to save lives by closing down society in those crucial early weeks, when even basic protection gear was still missing – just like the other Nordic countries did.

Yet the evasive bureaucratic gibberish keeps coming: “The situation is complex, too early to tell why Sweden stands out in the Nordics”; “We have managed to save everyone but the elderly.”; “We are sharpening policies now but also previously we did the right thing because we acted on all the available information at the time.” There is something distinctly Orwellian about a bureaucracy which not only so blatantly fails to protect its most vulnerable citizens but continues to insist it was right to do so despite all the available evidence.

If there is one silver lining to this disaster, it’s that the previously meek Swedish public may have finally woken up to the failure of their ruling class. Support for the governing parties is dropping by the day, with the Greens and Liberals barely polling the 4% they would need to remain in Parliament. The Social Democrats, the undisputed governing party for over a century, are struggling to get over 25%, and the Centrists are the only member of the quartet who appear to be holding their own.

Nonetheless, the coalition still appears at a complete loss as to the way forward. Rather than lead, it simply reacts. When problems pile up, the preferred solution is yet another ‘information campaign’ to make the ignorant masses conform to the latest idealist roadmap. The mighty realists of the Social Democratic past, who always took pride in listening respectfully to voters’ concerns, must be spinning in their graves.

Nor have the opposition done much better. When they should have been sounding the alarm about the failed Covid strategy, they sat on the sidelines, only beginning to raise their voice when the public mood had begun to change. If they do not shape up quickly, those parties themselves face being replaced by new challengers. Either way the Swedish political landscape is shapeshifting.

The Swedish experience offers three salutary lessons to the rest of the world about the dangers of letting idealists try to run the show according to synthetic versions of reality, rather than practical experience.

First is about the abiding myth that today’s Labour parties are torn between an idealist left and a realist right: in reality, they are torn between two equally impractical forms of idealism, socialist on the left and progressive on the right. Unfortunately, the true realists on the left have long either abandoned politics altogether after banging their heads against the wall one too many times, or have been completely sidelined.

The second lesson is that a coalition of centre-left and centre-right parties is no guarantee against the perils of misguided idealism. The centrists’ own self-assurance that centrism equates to realism has emerged as a key revitalisation problem. How so? Because many movers and shakers within the centrist parties still seem to look in every other direction – besides in the truly realist direction – to reverse their flagging fortunes.

Finally, Sweden’s multiple crises underline how important it is to keep idealists at arm’s length. High-flown rhetoric may be useful in stirring up a crowd, berating one’s political opponents or inspiring faith in a government’s mission, but a lack of content will soon be exposed. And history should make abundantly clear that idealism is worse than merely childish. Just think of all the times leaders with a grand project for humanity have got into power, only to see their best-laid plans laid to waste. Alarm bells ought to be attached, permanently, to every hint of a moralistic narrative.

So what works?

The answer is not to cleave to a pre-ordained set of maxims, but to cherry-pick the best real-world arguments, regardless of where they come from. When it comes to the pandemic, classical liberals are right that the economy is of the utmost importance. Some left-wingers, as well as Burkean Conservatives, are right that considerable constraints on freedom can be necessary in exceptional circumstances. What is required is not more hoary clichés and soundbites, but a grown-up balancing act. That means keeping the idealists as far away from government as possible, and letting the real pragmatists get on with things.

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Mark Brolin is a political analyst, economist and author who is presently finalising an international Master Mind project 'Responding to Populism: How to Heal Broken Nations'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.