August 10, 2020

I am writing this from the water’s edge on one of the 24,000 islands of the Stockholm archipelago. It’s a lovely summers day, boats are coming in and out of the little harbour and the restaurant is doing a busy trade. Across the sound, the rocks slope straight into the sea and are dotted with summer houses.

The homes are not divided by fences, but sit at a respectful distance from each other, never in a row but each positioned in a particular spot of the owner’s choosing; there’s a harmony of style which still leaves room for individuation — some houses are yellow, some red, some slightly more modern, some slightly more traditional, but each adorned with a well-kept garden, a boat-house and pier, and of course a Swedish flag. It’s a vision of the Good Life, Swedish-style.

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Since its lockdown-free response to Covid-19, Sweden has suddenly found itself the pin-up nation for libertarians worldwide, who see in its more laissez-faire response a defence of individual freedom and self-governance above all else. But Sweden is not a libertarian society — far from it; in reality, they are sticklers for the rules. Try putting decking on the seaside edge of your garden, or buying alcohol from anywhere other than the state monopoly — you will be met with restrictions that would be unthinkable in either Britain or the United States.

The picturesque scene in front of me speaks of a culture that some might even find oppressive. It’s 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.

So how should we understand this paradox? Six months into the Covid-19 era, Sweden remains mask-free; most businesses and schools stayed open throughout, never closing for a single day. You could argue that their more laissez-faire policy was an accident of their more independent health agency or the personality of state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, but despite a higher death toll than neighbouring countries, and some slippage over time in support, the policy remains widely popular (especially now it seems to be working so well, with case numbers and deaths falling to very low levels). As a half-Swede half-Brit, to me it feels deeply connected to the quirks of Swedish culture.

In particular, the Swedish example helps to correct a philosophical error that dominates the Covid-19 debate in the UK and the US: that if you are resistant to draconian policies to counter the pandemic, you must be a die-hard libertarian— at best, devoted to individual freedom over the common good, at worst, straightforwardly selfish. I believe Sweden shows how the opposite can be true: 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.

I’d go further. 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.

So what are these other virtues, embodied in the Swedish flag that flies in every garden? To help explain I’d like to introduce you to three Swedish words, none of which has an adequate English translation, but all of which are evident in the scene in front of me.

The first is a verb, to njuta (pronounced nyoota). Most dictionaries will translate this as “enjoy” but it means more than that — something closer to “take pleasure in and give praise for the gifts of creation”. It’s what the summer houses opposite me were built for, and most of them are barely 100 years old. In a land of long, dark winters and a harsh climate, in which life was very hard for most people until very recently, the ability to njuta is a precarious civilisational achievement, something to defend and not feel guilty about.

In our Anglo culture, taking pleasure in life, even wholesomely, has become so mixed in with issues of guilt and privilege that it is considered a luxury more than a moral good. You wouldn’t catch the British or American equivalents of Anders Tegnell seriously discussing the importance of Easter skiing holidays or graduation parties for school leavers, as he did. In the debate in the UK, pubs are put in simplistic opposition to schools as a “nice to have” as opposed to a necessity, and ministers score virtue points for cancelling their holidays.

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In Swedish to njuta av vad gott är, or “take pleasure in what is good”, has an almost holy overtone —the phrase is actually a quote from the Swedish translation of Ecclesiastes 3:13. It’s not an elite pursuit: fully 20% of Swedes own summer houses, and there are plenty of public boats and beaches for families to enjoy the brief summer months, just as there are widely observed aesthetic traditions in the winter.

If the beauty and joy of life carries moral weight, it follows that things like lockdowns and universal mask-wearing will require more compelling evidence than has so far been forthcoming to win the argument. “Might as well” is not enough; if they can get by without them (which they are, increasingly successfully) they will.

The second word is more of a legal concept, but gets to the heart of the Swedish understanding of freedom as a core part of the common good: allemansrätt, meaning something like “everyone’s right to roam”. This is the real reason why there are no fences separating those summer houses. Effectively there is no law of trespass: no rich landlord can fence people off their patch of earth, every citizen has the legal right to walk anywhere they like, to pick flowers or simply enjoy the scenery.

Yet this freedom comes with clear limits: you may not disturb someone’s garden or come uncomfortably close to their house or pick their produce. It is the expression in law, universally understood, of freedom-within-limits, or frihet under eget ansvar, that in other countries is generally confined to classes in political philosophy. The Swedes are fond of their freedoms, but they are as fond of the limits to them that protect their society.

The attitudes I saw both in Stockholm and in the rural county of Dalarna over the past weeks were not in the least bit reckless. If your mental image is that of Vikings, swinging from the rafters and pretending Covid-19 doesn’t exist, you’d be dead wrong. In the supermarkets, Swedes are careful to observe social distancing, particularly with older people; at the restaurants and bars there is a queue outside until seats become available (there’s a table-service only rule in place). In the spirit of allemansrätt, people are behaving responsibly but choosing their own path.

Their behaviour is best described by a third uniquely Swedish word, which despite being something of a Swedish cliché it would feel odd to leave out: lagom, meaning “just so” or “neither too much nor too little”. If there is a national characteristic it is surely this — the highest virtue in a culture where excess is frowned upon and rashness is considered dangerous. It explains why, despite a huge number of wealthy people, there are relatively few over-the-top mega mansions in the Stockholm archipelago.

It also helps explain the Swedish policy response to Covid-19 — banning gatherings over 50, encouraging home working and social distancing, shielding of vulnerable groups, while keeping society as open as possible — which can be seen as typically lagom. It was designed to be proportionate to the threat, but unhysterical, and sustainable over the long term. To rip up a long-prepared pandemic plan and impose unprecedented measures just because everybody else was would be considered reckless; to close schools would have been considered morally unacceptable.

It is notable that Anders Tegnell, who in our interview last week comes across as a perfect exemplar of unflappable lagom, naturally uses the vocabulary of the Left. The rationale behind his strategy he couches in egalitarian terms — closing schools, for example, would put unacceptable pressure on poorer and single parents as well as hitting disadvantaged children hardest, just as more dramatic lockdowns would most impact the poorest and most vulnerable in society. His most vocal critics tend to be from the Right, who see him as an intransigent technocrat standing in the way of more effective action.

Of course, the same left-liberal spirit I have described is shared to varying degrees across Scandinavia and the North Sea region. But the idea that Sweden’s approach was opposite to its neighbours is simply not true. In our interview with Norwegian health chief Camilla Stoltenberg, she was at pains to emphasise how similar to Sweden the short Norwegian lockdown was in reality, and in a recent interview the German health minister Jens Spahn insisted the German lockdown was “much closer to Sweden than Spain”.

As for Denmark, many Swedes put that country’s rush to close borders in response to the pandemic down to the anti-immigration version of the Social Democrats who currently hold power there. And the list of European countries where there is still no facemask mandate and very few people wearing them includes Denmark alongside Sweden, Norway, Finland and Holland. Clearly, something cultural is going on.

Njuta, allemansrätt, lagom — what are our equivalent values in Britain or the United States? Sweden has all sorts of problems, not least the political instability associated with high levels of immigration. But whether or not their approach to Covid-19 will be vindicated by the numbers, its consistency in the face of enormous pressure and international criticism makes a striking contrast to the jumpy and acrimonious debate in the UK and, even more so, the US. It strikes me as more a sign of cultural strength than weakness, and there’s really nothing “libertarian” about it.