A Libertarian from Sweden Offers Warnings for America

Editor’s note: The following is a lightly-edited transcription of an interview with Klaus Bernpaintner, a recent immigrant to Utah from Sweden. He is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Sweden, and organizer of the annual FreedomFest in Stockholm.

Libertas Institute: In your perspective as a Swede, what’s it like to live like under that country’s government?

Klaus Bernpaintner: A lot of things have changed recently, even in the last ten years. We got a so-called conservative government, and people thought that a lot of the socialist nonsense would be done away with. Lowering taxes, increasing personal liberties… but that’s not happened. Instead, we have a “conservative” government that’s imposing the same social democratic politics.

They have made some things a little better. Some taxes have lowered slightly. But the personal liberties in Sweden have decreased, I would say. The most obvious case is in 2010 when they outlawed homeschooling. There are two countries in the “civilized western world” where that’s illegal: Germany, since 1938, and now Sweden since 2010.

LI: Similarly, here in America, the (supposedly conservative) Republicans had control of the entire federal government during Bush’s early years. Rather than lowering taxes and restoring personal liberty, they passed things like the PATRIOT Act and Medicare Part D. To what do you attribute the conservative unwillingness to actually reduce government’s power? 

KB: I would attribute it to a lack of ideology. Just pure pragmatism. Also, it’s the consequences of other bad decisions that have been made.

For example, Sweden has taken in something like a million foreigners in the past decade, on top of the population of eight million. I have nothing against immigration at all (as a matter of fact, I’m for open borders), but I’m not for subsidizing immigration using others’ money.

So people come to Sweden from a lot of places around the world, and when people arrive they are told what benefits they can receive, how much money they can get, what kind of apartment, furniture, bus pass, school, free medication, etc. Now there are even special laws for “undocumented” immigrants to give them free medical care, school, and things like that.

This causes a lot of problems in Sweden, for example in the schools. As more of these children are added, many of whom can’t read and write, the overall results of the schools declines. As a consequence of that, the government feels the need to tighten the control of the schools, and to use the schools to create a homogenous people. That’s the reason why the government outlawed homeschooling.

There’s a chain of events and consequences. But also there’s a desire to control people, making sure that people have the right opinions. In Sweden, there’s basically one opinion that is allowed and considered correct, and the government considers it important to ensure that children are getting that opinion.

On questions of religion, immigration, gender, homosexuality, there is one correct opinion, and it’s the school’s job to make sure that children grow up with the correct opinion.

LI: Those who wish to homeschool in Sweden, would you say it is generally for religious, ideological, or philosophical reasons, or something else?

KB: Interestingly, when homeschooling was outlawed, the initial reaction of the Swedes was generally “well, of course! That’s crazy. Why would you homeschool your kids? They won’t be socialized.” But what’s happened over time is that more and more people have become interested in this issue. Whereas it used to be a non-issue, now some people are questioning it in light of the school system being so bad.

There are different reasons for people in Sweden wanting to homeschool. I would say the religious aspect is not a dominant one. I wouldn’t even say that the ideological aspect is very important, either. There aren’t that many liberty-minded people in Sweden anyway. Mostly it’s because of pedagogical reasons, because the schools are getting so bad, and a lot of kids have a bad experience in the government’s schools. They’re being bullied, or constantly behind, and the environment makes them feel bad. Their parents then want to take them out, but now they can’t.

LI: In America, libertarianism seems to be on the rise. There’s a lot of popularity of libertarian ideas compared to recent decades. Being in the minority in Sweden, and with that culture of one approved way of thinking, what’s it like to be a libertarian in that country?

KB: A lot of people just think that you’re a nuisance. “It’s not so bad. We’re free. We get to vote every four years. Taxes are high, sure, but we get a lot back. Stop complaining!” This is what people say and think. But there is a growing movement in Sweden, albeit much smaller than in America. People are starting to wonder where all their pension money went. Why are the schools so bad? Where’s all the violence coming from?

Unfortunately, they tend to make the wrong conclusions as to why the problems exist and what needs to be done. They’re so trained, from a young age, that when there is a problem, there is a government solution. You need to court your politicians, or you need to vote, they are told. Swedes tend to think that more government is needed to solve society’s problems.

LI: With your experience in Sweden, a socialist nanny state, do you see America heading in a similar direction? What warning would you offer us because of what you’ve seen in your own country?

KB: I see that very clearly. One area where the USA is far more progressed in than Sweden is, of course, the police state. We don’t have that quite yet, but we’re getting there… police officers turning from helping citizens to “law enforcement” officers becoming heavily militarized. But where I see America following Sweden is in schools, for example. Common Core is a prime example of that, where the thinking is that there should be one system, one set of standards, one curriculum. I see it in the widespread support for centralized, government solutions, health care being the obvious one.

The problem with socialism is that it seems to offer a solution to a problem. But without the understanding of how it works, you don’t realize that 30 years down the road, there are some serious consequences that will be made obvious, though they may not be as obvious today.

We’ve had Obamacare for 50 years in Sweden, and I can see the consequences. To meet a doctor, unless it’s a serious emergency where you’re profusely bleeding or something, it’s very hard and takes a while. You call your local health care clinic, and they schedule you when they can see you, often two weeks away. Of course, if you’re sick today, that won’t help.

If you get an appointment, and want to see a specialist, you have to move through several slow steps to get referred, then schedule an appointment, then wait. It takes a long time to get anywhere. A lot of doctors have lost interest in their job because it’s so formalized and bureaucratic, filling out forms, finding the right code for your condition, etc. The good people leave. Few open up private practices, because Swedes already pay for their health care through taxes, so very few have any money left to pay for private care on top of the government’s system. There’s no market for it. Some doctors will go into other medical fields like pharmaceuticals.

That’s one of the consequences of this system. It’s hard to get care, hard to get a good doctor. But another thing that people don’t see is that 30 years later, you’re going to have a 70% tax rate. What people think is free today is so badly run by government, both quality and cost-wise, that the freebies today will come back and bite you 30-40 years down the road.

LI: We see that already with Obamacare in America, where one of its chief creators has been worried that it’s a “train wreck” because the government isn’t spending enough money to support it. Senator Reid echoed that sentiment, saying that the government should be spending even more than it already is. Those who have eyes to see can already see what you’re saying, and that in the long run we end up like Sweden.

KB: People aren’t trained to think in long-term consequences. They’re trained, in schools and by the media, to think of the here and now. Few people attempt to figure out what will happen 10 years down the road, let alone 20 or 30. The schools definitely don’t teach that method of thinking. In Sweden, they teach kids that they are part of the best system in the world, that it’s wonderful that everybody gets free health care, and so on.

Americans should look at others who have done this before, with open eyes. Talk to people who are suffering under these systems to see how bad they are.

For example, my wife broke her leg this past winter, here in Utah where we have recently moved from Sweden. She slipped on a patch of ice. We didn’t have health insurance through my job yet, because it takes a few months to kick in. We looked around and found a 5 minute clinic, went there, found no lines, had a 15 minute wait, got an X ray, got a cast, and we were very quickly back home having only paid $200 cash. That was it.

To even be treated that fast in Sweden is impossible. Even for an emergency, unless you have blood squirting out of you or you’re suffocating. It’s not unusual to sit and wait for seven hours in the emergency room. You see people screaming and bleeding and walking past you with their problems. After you wait for several hours, a doctor’s shift may be over so they go home.

There are some areas of health care in Sweden that do work. But what good is “free” if it’s not accessible? That’s the problem we have in Sweden, and that’s what things may soon be like in America.

If people would only look at other failures where this system has been tried, and understand why it didn’t work… are we so much smarter in America that we can make it work? Or is the problem systemic?

There are aspects that are better in America than in Sweden, and vice versa. For me, right now, there are still more personal liberties in America than in Sweden, and that is why we decided to move.

LI: Jonas Hemmelstrand, president of the Swedish Home Educators Association, fled with his family to Finland (as have many other families). He said that Sweden believes that “the state takes better care of children than their own parents.” Why has it become necessary for these folks, for you, to take such a drastic step?

KB: Our family didn’t think of homeschooling when we lived there. Our kids happened to have a very good school. But just the fact that it’s outlawed made me feel very uncomfortable, and made me want to do it.

Once it was outlawed, it piqued my curiosity and I began to investigate it. Right now we’re doing a mixture of homeschool and online schooling. My kids had an interesting experience when we got here, at Provo High. To them it was a culture shock, having never been used to this time fixation. If you’re a minute late, you get a tardy, if you get a certain number of tardies you get a detention, your parents get notified, police patrolling the schools… it was a big shock for them. So we started online school mostly as a transition but we’re sort of “stuck” on it because it works really well, it’s efficient, you’re done by lunch time and can do other things, spend time on your hobbies and interests.

For people who have tried it, I think they don’t want to go back to the way things were. It’s so much more effective, you’re at home with your family. Most of the Swedish families who have fled have gone to an island in between Sweden and Finland which is part of Finland but is more culturally Swedish. They speak Swedish there. So it’s not a big culture shock for them to leave their country, and with a quick ferry trip they’ll be back to the mainland in thirty minutes.

LI: Minutes before moving to India, Christer and Annie Johansson had their 7-year-old son taken from them by Swedish authorities because they had been homeschooling him. Do you see this as substantively different from kidnapping?

KB: To me, it’s kidnapping. They were leaving Sweden, done with the country. This was a year before homeschooling was banned. At that time, you needed the approval of your local school district to homeschool. They had gotten that approval but at some point that approval was withdrawn for no particular reason, without an investigation.

Because they were leaving for India a couple months later, they said they would homeschool their son until they left. They got into an argument with the local government, social services, and as they were leaving the country, the plane was stormed by police officers who took the child from his parents, and nearly four years later they haven’t seen their child very many times since then.

Just the other day, they appealed to the Supreme Court in Sweden and were denied, so they’ve basically lost their child completely now. This is kidnapping, of course.

It’s interesting to see the reaction to this is Sweden. First of all, almost nobody has heard about this story. To me, this is a huge story! The local paper in the area has written a few things, but the national media hasn’t touched it.

LI: Why is that? Perhaps because it’s outside the predominant cultural narrative in Sweden?

KB: I think so, yeah. I hope it’s because the papers just don’t know about the story, and not that they know it happened and don’t want to report on it.

The next interesting thing is that when you tell people that it happened, then you get a really interesting reaction in most cases. “Well it’s gotta be something,” they say. “Social services wouldn’t do that without for no reason.” When you then tell them that they were homeschooling their son, and that they were Christian, then Swedes typically have a reaction like “well, that explains it…”

Social services say that there was child neglect because the boy had a cavity, which they were going to fix when they arrived in India. They also justified their action on the grounds that he hadn’t received a non-mandatory vaccine. That’s their case.

A doctor involved in this case argued that “It is possible to change parents, we know it from the many adopted children we have in this country. Most can do it without lasting trauma.” So the child has been kidnapped and given to another family. There is no more recourse to appeal, except maybe the European court or something like that, I’m not sure.

LI: Describe the “educare” system in Sweden that provides both education and day care for kids. Are children in the care of the state all day long so both parents can go to work?

KB: That’s the idea. In the 70s, they made a big change to the tax laws, whereby you are individually taxed, rather than as a family. Since then, mothers have been strongly incentivized to work. Both parents end up working in a system where they are being individually taxed with a progressive tax.

More than that, there’s a culture, a propaganda, that to fulfill your potential and self worth, you should have a career. It’s considered the most important thing. If a parent wants to be home, in most cases the mother, there’s a very strong social stigma attached to that. Her friends will wonder what’s wrong with her, why she’s not working. The first question you’re asked when you see somebody is “What do you do?” If you say that you stay at home with the kids, that’s frowned upon.

There aren’t a lot of other mothers and kids at home in any given neighborhood, so it’s a very lonely decision to make. You have to fight both the system and the culture if you choose to do it. The culture is the worst of it, whereby the entire population has become brainwashed.

The mandatory age for begin in school has been lowered from seven to six, and now they want to go down to three years of age. Most parents turn in their kids when they are one. It’s a full day program, and the parents go back to work. The kids cry, the mothers cringe, but they generally reason that their child needs to be socialized and that the teachers are trained.

The number of students per teacher is huge. The plans were to have small groups for better instruction, but of course as with all socialist systems they run out of money and have to do bigger groups with fewer teachers. Even with the best teachers and small groups, to me it’s still wrong to give away your child when they are one year old to be cared for by the state.

LI: Would you agree that placing a child in the care of the state so early better allows the state to indoctrinate that child in a pro-state philosophy that becomes even more difficult to break free from?

KB: Absolutely. If you read the state curriculum with libertarian eyes, you see clearly that it’s an indoctrination program. If you read it with any other perspective you’re led to believe that its a good program. If somebody like myself feels that there is a better way to structure society, then the state’s educational curriculum is perceived as very ideological.

Swedes are told that they shouldn’t feel uncomfortable sending their children to school so young because it’s a value-free curriculum. But there is no value-free system. That must be recognized first, so parents can then choose what values they want their children exposed to.

The earlier the state can begin “educating” children, the more easily it can shape their way of thinking. When they come out of that system, they will support the state. They will believe that Sweden has the best health care in the world, the best schools in the world, that we are the most moral and progressive in the world.

LI: You said earlier how mothers were incentivized to leave the home and work. Despite the taxes, the cultural stigma, and the laws making school mandatory to take the children out of the home, how economically feasible is it for a mother who may wish to remain at home? Can a single income family live comfortably in Sweden?

KB: It can be done, and people do it. But there are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made, compared to having two incomes. For the average income family in Sweden, it’s a significant drop in standard of living. Keep in mind that these folks already pay for day care through taxes.

LI: Sweden has school vouchers. Do you feel that they have helped to make things better and more free, as voucher proponents often claim?

KB: It has opened up more choice in schools, but the schools have become so tightly controlled by the school bureaucrats to the point that they must all use the state curriculum. The money comes with strings, and you cannot teach what you want in these schools.

Another effect, which you seen in pseudo-privatized systems (such as with health care, too) is that the voucher amount is determined based on what it costs the state to educate a child. The state is so incredibly wasteful and inefficient that the monetary cost is quite high. A private school can achieve the school’s low educational standard at a much lower cost than the government schools can. So there is an enormous amount of money to be made by opening this type of business, because you are receiving far more money than is required in a private setting to educate the child to the state’s standard.

Government officials have become aware of this and are decreasing voucher amounts in response. But what happens it that the media discovers this and blames capitalism. They see a guy making millions off of educating children in a private setting, with tax money, and then he moves his tax money abroad to protect it… people wrongly think that this is capitalism, so the outcry is for more and more socialism, more state control.

Instead of realizing that in a true free enterprise society people would manage and spend their own money wisely and efficiently on schools that would have to compete on quality and price, they allow the state to exercise more control.

LI: Finally, if you had the attention of all Americans for two minutes, what would you say?

KB: Socialism shows itself in many different areas of society, and in many degrees. It can be in health care, education, wars, the police state, and a number of other settings. While it appears to solve short term problems, there are significant long term consequences that cannot be avoided, even with the smartest, well-intentioned people.

I would suggest that people try to think about the long-term consequences of any decisions or preferences that they have. Do you really want more control over your lives, less freedom, less prosperity? Realize that most political solutions are socialist in disguise.

Remember what made America so uniquely prosperous and free, and try to preserve that by not buying into collectivist, socialist solutions.