After a fortnight in Sweden, I was glad to get back to the U.S. It was home. Re-immersing myself in stuff like the debate over universal health care made me think about differences between our two worlds. A few nights after returning, Linda told me about a teenager who appeared in front of her in juvenile court. He had parents, but the state had terminated their rights years ago; he and his brother, 19, had lived with grandparents and other relatives, then friends, and now it was just the two of them in a small apartment. Brother, who was appearing in court on behalf of his sibling, earns $400 a week working at a 7-Eleven, “just enough to live on.” The story made me sad. The Swedes would never accept a situation like that, but it happened all the time in the U.S.
No, we are not going to move toward social democracy in my lifetime, or even our kids’, but the story of the brothers, and two weeks in a society where people are looked after, did make me think. And one of the conclusions is this: people everywhere will do stupid things, or will fall victim to things beyond their control, like illness, and what matters is whether society as a whole steps forward and helps them.
I know that state help sometimes gets excessive in social democracies, and that taxes are high, but the absence of a safety net – for those two brothers, for example – is just not right. And as I have often written in these pages, the economies of the social democracies seem to be humming along just fine: new construction in Toronto, late-model cars on the streets in Sweden, Brits boarding our Silver Bird for vacations. My conservative friends also tell me that all that coddling stifles innovation, and makes people afraid to try new things (and perhaps fail). I do understand the vibrancy and innovation in our economy, but I don’t think it logically follows that all that good would go away if we chose to take better care of the most vulnerable among us.