By Nima Sanandaji and Robert Gidehag
Sweden is a nation with extraordinary high tax rates. The average worker not only pays 30 percent of her or his income in visible taxes, but, additionally, close to 30 percent in hidden taxes. The defenders of the punishing tax burden argue that it is needed to maintain Sweden’s generous welfare system. While this claim may seem reasonable on its surface, a deeper look suggests that it is based on flawed analysis.
Some level of taxation is, of course, required to fund the public sector. At the same time, a high level of taxation does not necessarily translate into an equally high level of welfare:
Taxes discourage work and encourage tax avoidance. There is strong evidence that Sweden’s highest rate of individual and capital taxation actually reduces public revenue. For this reason, some taxes, such as the wealth tax, have recently been reduced. The result is estimated to be a net increase in tax revenues.
When Swedish municipalities receive increased funding from the state, the money is used to expand the local bureaucracy, a government survey has shown, instead of going to educators and health care workers.
Municipalities provide much of the welfare in Sweden. The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions have shown in a study that funding for Swedish municipalities grew dramatically between 1980 and 2005. Despite this, the general public consensus is that the quality of welfare has declined during the same period.
Welfare provisions don’t necessarily correspond with taxation levels. A 2005 research paper examines the efficiency of the public sector in 23 industrialized countries. The researchers found that Sweden only reaches a mediocre 12th place when it comes to how much the public sector provides in terms of welfare services. When the level of welfare is related to the level of taxation, Sweden falls to the last position in the index.
There is a high variation in how effectively public money is spent within Sweden. The Swedish Taxpayers Association has, in a number of surveys, shown that identical welfare services such as care of the elderly, can vary in cost quite dramatically across Sweden.
There are two important reasons why the average Swedish worker pays a large portion of her or his income in taxes, without necessarily receiving an equally high level of welfare.
First, much of the money is spent on administrative costs at various levels of government. Although a small nation, Sweden has over a hundred public authorities. Vast sums are spent on political projects which fall outside the frames of general welfare. It is, for instance, not unusual for Swedish municipalities to fund bowling alleys, swimming pools, or camping places.
Second, a large fraction of the population is living on benefits rather than working, due to the combination of high taxes, a rigid labour market and generous welfare benefits. Even before the economic crisis hit, for example, almost one out of five children in Sweden’s third largest city, Malmö, were living in a family supported by social security. Sweden has 105 local districts where the majority of the population lives off of various public benefits, and does not work. This unintended consequence of the welfare state has taken a heavy toll on public services, since an increasing share of tax revenue must be diverted to fund welfare payments, rather than social services.
Many are immigrant dense neighborhoods; others are situated in the northern part of Sweden, where many cities with stagnating economies have suddenly experienced a boom in the fraction of the population who cannot work due to disability.
The famous Swedish welfare state is to a large degree a notion of the past. Many feel that its glory days occurred during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Sweden successfully combined welfare policies with an expanding economy. At that time, however, Swedish taxes were 27 percent of the GDP, compared to 47 percent today. The golden days of Swedish welfare did not coincide with the high tax regime we know today.
How could Sweden fund a prospering welfare system with relatively low taxes in the past? As the researcher Erik Moberg documents in a book for the Ratio Institute, public money was spent much differently back then. The share of public revenues spent on health care and education at the end of the 1950s was greater than it is today.
And, compared to the 1950s, close to three times as much of public revenues are now spent on public bureaucracy. Four times as much is spent on welfare payments and social insurance. As the level of taxation has increased, so has the share of taxes going to public bureaucracy and various government handouts.
The historical comparison with the 1950s and 1960s is worth thinking about. It shows that a high quality of welfare can be achieved with a much lower tax level than we have today. If politicians slim down public bureaucracy and cut wasteful spending, resources can be opened up for increasing welfare and reducing taxes at the same time. If the system rewards work to a greater degree than it does living off the state, fewer will be dependent on the public for their daily living, again opening up tax revenues for better use.
Sweden has long been a small homogeneous country with a high degree of economic equality. Strong norms related to work and responsibility made it possible to enact an effective welfare system early on. With time, however, welfare dependence has reduced the very norms that formed the foundation of Swedish welfare, and wasteful spending has increased.
Many important social outcomes that the welfare state aims to address, and that Sweden is famous for, such as a low crime rate, have increased in recent decades, concurrent with the expansion of the welfare state. Even income inequality has increased in Sweden compared to, for example, the 1980s, despite similar or higher public expenditure.
Swedish decision makers are doing their best to reduce public spending and lower taxes. The reforms have been highly successful so far. As taxes have decreased from 57 percent of GDP in 1989 to 47 percent of GDP in 2009, the incentives to work have improved, with Swedish growth rates benefiting. The convergence of lower taxes and lower public spending is likely to continue. After all, experience has made it quite apparent for many Swedes that extraordinary high taxes are not the key to qualitative welfare services and a well functioning society.
Nima Sanandaji is president of think tank Captus and a fellow at the Swedish Taxpayers Association. Robert Gidehag is president of the Swedish Taxpayers Association.