Quote of the Day:

I moved to Sweden for love, not money, but I was happy to learn that merely living in this social democracy also entitled me to paid parental-leave benefits. Who could object to free money, handed out by the government to all Swedish parents?

–Zach Maher in the Wall Street Journal


Sweden's complicated social welfare system is aimed at attaining trygghet, a sense of safety and security. Parental benefits are a cornerstone of the pursuit of trygghet

What's not to like?

Well, plenty, as it turns out.

Upon becoming a parent, Zach Maher learned something important about the Swedish welfare system: When the state treats childrearing as a job, which is supported by money generously distributed by the government, the government becomes the boss.

But the benefits do sound enticing. The Swedish government not only will pay Maher's wife 80 percent of what she could earn for a year after the birth of a child, but Maher learned that he could also sign up for generous benefits for six months. Maher learned that there is a controlling side to this state-supported generosity. Maher got a preview of the strings attached to this largess when his two-year-old niece broke her leg. Here is what happened:

The physician who treated the girl told my brother-in-law that his daughter would be given a full-body CT scan. The doctor insisted that the procedure was mandatory, but not for any medical reason. Rather, the Swedish social-services administration requires such scans to look for evidence of child abuse. While the doctor did note that the broken leg was the result of an accident, he told my brother-in-law the matter was “out of my hands.”

When the girl’s parents refused to subject her to this unnecessary procedure, the hidden machinery of the Swedish welfare state sprang into motion. My brother-in-law and his wife were required to attend multiple interviews with social workers and to submit friends and neighbors in their small town for questioning. Social workers even inspected their home. Suddenly, decisions as benign as what milk to buy seemed potential evidence of parental deficiency. My in-laws feared their two children might be taken from them.

Social services never found grounds to remove Maher's niece from her parental home. But the experience showed what happens when childrearing becomes a state-supported job: the boss rules. Maher explains:

In Sweden, the state reserves for itself ultimate responsibility for children’s well-being. As a parent my job is to give my kids the trygghet necessary to become productive, tax-paying members of Swedish society. This is why I receive financial support and medical benefits. The state is paying me to be a parent. I am, in effect, an employee—and if I do a poor job, my responsibility as a parent might be taken away from me.

. . .

The Swedish word for this cultural phenomenon, lagom, has recently appeared in the international press, mistranslated as moderation or self-restraint. Lagom is actually a uniquely Swedish conception of common sense, according to which the best way of acting is always inextricable from how you expect your neighbors to act. Lagom is what everyone thinks everyone else thinks—whether about milk, welfare or what constitutes good parenting.

The mere fact of being investigated by a social-services agency placed my brother-in-law’s family outside lagom. No one needed to accuse them of anything, and that was the point. No reasonable person should ever do anything suspected of being unreasonable.

Some parents insist, as my wife and I do, on having their own ideas about raising children. In our opinion, anesthetizing a 2-year-old girl and subjecting her to radiation for an unnecessary medical procedure is not lagom. Does this mean we can’t accept parental support from the state? Does this mean we can’t live in Sweden?

Although the welfare state is often debated in economic terms, we have yet to put a price on self-determination or freedom of conscience. What I once thought was free money may cost more than I am prepared to pay.

The U.S. is having a debate over how to help working parents get needed time with their children. The issue of what happens when the state becomes the boss of parents is too rarely mentioned. Money generally comes with strings attached.