Liberty and the Swedish Example

Liberty and the Swedish Example

By Duncan Whitmore

“Many are irresistibly attracted to liberty as an intellectual system or as an aesthetic goal, but liberty remains for them a purely intellectual parlor game, totally divorced from what they consider the ‘real’ activities of their daily lives. Others are motivated to remain libertarians solely from their anticipation of their own personal financial profit […] The consequence of the narrow and myopic vision of both the gamester and the would-be profit maker is that neither group has the slightest interest in the work of building a libertarian movement. And yet it is only through building such a movement that liberty may ultimately be achieved.”

                  –  Murray N Rothbard1

In the five decades or so since these words were written, we have been able to come to a more precise conception of what the “libertarian movement” should be and what it should do. As we have explained before, efforts to bring about a world in which a greater degree of freedom prevails are unlikely to be successful if we rely solely on the promotion of abstract concepts (such as “non-aggression”) – indeed, it is difficult to think of a more insipid rallying cry than “leave people alone”. Although there are particular moral propositions and personal qualities that are likely requirements for the sustenance of any free society, freedom is synonymous with self-determination – that different individuals, families, communities and nations will pursue their own goals based upon their own values. It is these varying pursuits themselves (embedded in the culture, custom and traditions of differing peoples throughout the world) which are likely to be the motivating factor, with liberty being the vehicle for their achievement rather than the end itself. Indeed, when we look to the inspirations that motivated some of the greatest authors, poets, artists and composers, they often chose to capture the essence of their homelands in their works: the “Sceptred Isle” speech of John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II; Blake’s Jerusalem; Monet’s Sunrise; Smetana’s Má Vlast; Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, to name but a few. In contrast, we might be waiting a very long time for “A Non-Aggression Symphony” or the “Ballad of Private Property”. Or, to give a sporting metaphor, we can look upon liberty as the pitch, but not the game. The turf needs to be laid and the grass watered and mown, but the motivation to do these things is the thrill of the match that will be played.

Such sentiments seem to have found recognition in a recent article by Freddie Sayers, in which he addresses an apparently puzzling question: why, when Sweden is “not a libertarian society […] they are sticklers for the rules” has the Swedish approach to the COVID-19 “pandemic” been so much more “laissez-faire” and seemingly in accordance with the “defence of individual freedom and self-governance” than responses in the US and UK? Sayers’ answer is that the Swedes are instilled with a pride for a common culture and a shared way of life that has created an impetus to value their preservation, thus enabling them to assess the COVID threat in a more proportional manner:

It is precisely because the Swedes want to preserve the common good and are proud of their shared way of life that they have been reluctant to infringe it.


The fragmented and highly individualistic culture of the UK and US, without much by way of universally shared values to fall back on, is a big part of why the response in those countries has been so uncertain and the debate so poisonous. Without habits and values that are commonly deemed morally good and too precious to give up, what remains when a new threat such as Covid-19 arrives? If the only unassailable moral good is saving lives, the “precautionary principle” becomes almost impossible to argue against. Well-meaning people find they have surrendered their whole way of life to its dubious authority.

Sayers’ admits that his explanation may not be the whole story. He does, for example, acknowledge Sweden’s “more independent health agency [and] the personality of state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell”. Moreover, I would emphasise the division of values as a more convincing explanation for the situations in the UK and the US rather than their absence. Across the pond, it is difficult to imagine that the leftist-orientated state, corporate and media establishment would have so willingly trashed the economy if there was a Democrat President (or anyone other than Trump, for that matter) seeking re-election in November. Over here in Britain, we are the one country that has voted to leave the European Union so as to govern ourselves, with the “silent majority” reaffirming that decision in consecutive elections in spite of years of attacks on British independence and identity that have dominated mainstream media and political channels. So it isn’t necessarily true that us Brits are lacking in the qualities that Sayers recognises in the Swedes – merely that there are so many others who adhere to different values, many of whom, unfortunately, have bedded themselves into the major positions of power and influence.

In fact, as a brief tangent, I suspect one reason for the neutering of any significant opposition to the British government’s COVID-19 response is that we are now led by a Prime Minister whose populist and anti-establishment credentials were still enjoying a honeymoon period when the virus emerged. Thus, in the same way that only Nixon could go to China, such credentials have probably lent the judgment of Boris Johnson an additional layer of trust that would be lacking in another leader. Certainly, positive investment in Johnson back in the December election could explain why there are seemingly so many on the pro-Brexit right, such as Talk Radio’s Julia Hartley-Brewer, who – in spite of their resilient resistance to the Remainers’ “Project Fear” – have been much less sceptical when it comes to COVID-19. At the very least, it would have been interesting to see if we would have been so universally obedient had we still been saddled with Theresa May or any perceived London-centric, leftist, liberal Remainer.

Nevertheless, if Sayers is correct in assessing the popularity of the “laissez-faire” approach amongst the Swedish population, then this provides further evidence for a notion that has been growing in clarity these past few years: that libertarian theory and libertarian political action are really two separate endeavours, and that the latter does not consist merely of repeating the former. It was not an explicit acknowledgment of “non-aggression” and “private property” that preserved the relative freedom of Swedes; rather it was their passion for their way of life – for their “game” – that caused them to preserve the pitch of relative freedom on which it is played.

Perhaps, therefore, the time has come for us to pursue this division to its logical conclusion. That, rather than conceiving of libertarianism as a unitary intellectual and political movement, it seems far more realistic to regard it as a theory that should inform a multitude of political movements, each with their own unique aims and values that could be oppressed and stifled by the globalising, unifying, homogenising state – in much the same way the Swedes’ way of life could have been so stamped out by the reaction to COVID-19.

To belay any misunderstanding, this doesn’t mean that either task is more important than the other, although different people may, of course, have a particular affinity for one or the other. Nor does it necessarily mean that liberty cannot be valued in its own right. It is surely no accident that libertarianism has, at least up until now, found its greatest intellectual and political success in the United States, a country whose foundation explicitly celebrated the notion of freedom. Rather, the difference between theory and action is simply one of defining and justifying liberty on the one hand and motivating people towards it on the other.

The practitioner of the first endeavour, the libertarian theorist, is the person who tells us what liberty is and why it is a good thing. Indeed, pretty much all of the scholarly and popular literature that attempts to apply libertarian principles to specific problems – whether these are obvious cases such as murder and theft or more difficult issues such as abortion or a theory of contract – are simply extended definitions of liberty, i.e. clarifying and describing the conditions which are required for a situation of liberty to prevail. These explicit conceptions of justice that the theorist provides are essential if freedom is to reign in the long run. Only by laying the turf of freedom and cultivating the pitch of liberty can the game be played.

The task of the libertarian activist, however, is to stop this pitch from being concreted over by the state. To do this, he must find ways to motivate his family, friends, and community towards a game – a collection of shared values, ideas, aspirations, customs, culture and traditions – that will, indirectly, create a demand to preserve and protect the pitch of freedom. In many ways this may be a far more difficult endeavour, as it will require not only the knowledge of moral and philosophical ideas beyond the “narrow” limits of libertarianism, but also the judicious selection of imperfect political channels and movements, the concrete aims of which may be dependent upon the precise circumstances of time and place.

Such a reorientation or redefinition of the libertarian movement may be quite a challenge, not least because of pre-existing ideas about what libertarianism actually is. Sayers himself seems to view the “cultural strength” of the Swedish people as being the opposite of libertarianism – that “there’s really nothing ‘libertarian’ about it.”  Indeed, his article’s title refers to “the Swedish paradox” – that a people apparently uncommitted to the notion of freedom have, nevertheless, managed to preserve it better than anyone else. The reason for this misunderstanding is that Sayers – like many of those who comment on libertarianism – seems to view the latter as a particular way of life, characterised by hyper-individualism, atomisation and pleasure-seeking. Note, for instance, his references to such qualities when commenting on Sweden’s coastline, which he describes as:

the polar opposite of, say, the pleasure coasts of Florida, where sprawling mansions butt up against each other without reference to any communal style: ionic columns next to modernist glass boxes, each shouting its own taste and values in a cacophony of individualism.

This, however, mistakes libertarianism for libertinism. The individualism of libertarianism is formal, rather than substantive: it concerns only the right of each individual to be left free from the application of force by any other person. It does not mean that every person should be able to expect his hedonistic idiosyncrasies to be welcomed with open arms by everyone else. It is well within the libertarian understanding of the world that, if you wish to live as part of a community, then you must be prepared to adhere to its non-violently enforced and tacitly accepted customs, conventions, morals, manners and traditions, and people are quite within their rights to refuse to deal with you if you do not. Thus, given that almost everyone needs to engage in social co-operation in order to thrive, it is more likely that liberty will beget relative cultural conservatism and homogeneity within particular communities, with major differences observable only between communities and at a distance.

But we can, however, go further than this and say that these elements are not merely compatible with liberty – instead, they may be the very thing that ensures its survival. For if people are united by a common culture, language, customs, conventions and traditions, the resulting bonds of trust, affection and camaraderie make it more likely that people will embrace social co-operation rather than seeking ways in which to plunder each other.

In contrast to Sayers I would say, therefore, that there is nothing paradoxical about the Swedish example and, if true, it is a good demonstration of how to preserve freedom in practice. In fact, hyper-individualism and cultural splintering are more likely to emerge as a quality of welfare statism in a milieu where the level of prosperity is still relatively high. This is because the state has usurped families and communities from having to provide care and security in times of need, thus diminishing the importance of those social bonds and leaving people free to pursue their own flights of fancy. This is in contrast not only to free societies where such state interference is absent, but also to impoverished socialist societies such as the Soviet Union which, ironically, can actually see a resurgence of private, societal bonds so as to open up unofficial channels of providing basic needs. Thus, given that Sweden is often held up as an example of successful welfare statism, I would say that this would be a more plausible reason for describing its COVID-19 response as paradoxical.

None of this means to say that tolerance of other lifestyles is not a virtue. Indeed, we could quite easily imagine a society where respect for individualistic experimentation, or “daring”, is itself a unifying factor. Nor should we assume that bucking the trend is without value. As Gerard Casey has said, “however much something has been done, for however long, and by however many, questions can always be asked — is this right? is this good? is this the best?” Thus, cohesion should not be confused with complacency. However, even the members of the most tolerant and “flexible” societies must share a minimum degree of common interests if social co-operation is to be possible. To take just an obvious example, if you try to speak French in a Swedish shop just because you think it is your “right” to do so as a “free” individual then you shouldn’t be surprised if it makes buying what you want more difficult than it otherwise would be.

We should not also make the mistake of supposing that cultural factors assume a level of importance that is elevated above that of economic factors. In fact, it is probably the other way round. Although, as we have suggested before, the complex interdependence of particular ideas, conditions and aspirations makes it difficult to latch onto any one factor as assuming universal, foundational importance, it is our economic choices that ultimately fertilise the cultural landscape. As I shall argue in a forthcoming essay, one reason why cultural leftism has been in ascendance over the past forty years is precisely because of the economic choices that Britain made during the Cold War era – it hasn’t just inflated in a vacuum.

However, regardless of these nuances, the point we are trying to stress here is that the motivation towards liberty is likely to require something that is concretised or substantive as opposed to something that is abstract or procedural. Such reifications could be in the form of either material needs or the desire to preserve a shared set of values, and will differ depending upon the time and place. Thus, working out what those needs are in each particular instance is a separate endeavour from the theoretical pursuit of defining and justifying liberty.


At around the same time that Rothbard wrote the quotation that opens this essay, his colleague Joseph R Peden penned the following in The Libertarian Forum – their twice monthly periodical for the (then) small circle of libertarians in the US:

The libertarian revolution is not the work of a day – or a decade – or a life-time. It is a continuous process through the ages. The focus of the struggle changes from time to time and place to place. […] There is a tendency among many libertarians to look for an apocalyptic moment when the State will be smashed forever and anarchy prevail. When they realize that the great moment isn’t about to come in their time, if ever, they lose faith in the integrity and plausibility of libertarian philosophy […] [This] should warn us that libertarianism can quite easily become an adolescent fantasy in minds that are immature and unseasoned by a broad humanistic understanding. It should not be an idée fixe or magic formula, but a moral imperative with which once approaches the complexities of social reality.2

It seems as though, fifty years later, we are only just starting to realise precisely what it is that Peden meant: that libertarianism is not a silver bullet that will shoot away all of the world’s ills directly. Rather, it is a conception of justice that we should bring to the table when confronting the myriad of situations that this difficult world throws at us. Only by understanding and engaging with how “the struggle changes from time to time and place to place” will we be able to bring more freedom into the world than there otherwise would be.

*    *     *     *     *


1Murray N Rothbard, Why be Libertarian?, Ch. 15 in Idem., Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, Second Edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2000), 239-45 at 239.

2Joseph R Peden, Liberty: From Rand to Christ, in Joseph R Peden (Pub.), Murray N Rothbard (Ed.), The Libertarian Forum, July – August 1971, Vol. III, nos. 6-7.

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