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Opinion: What Swedes give up for 'free' money

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 8/18/2017 Zach Maher

© Getty ImagesWhen the state treats childrearing like a job, make sure you don’t run afoul of the boss.

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

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? Then I became a father.

Two hundred years ago, Sweden was a nation of smallholding farm families, many of whom were poor enough to prefer emigrating to North Dakota or Minnesota. Today, workers in Sweden are offered a welfare smörgåsbord of free health care, subsidized housing, paid leave, unemployment benefits, job training and pensions. This system of interlaced welfare programs is the government’s attempt to realize a political and social ideal that has seemingly universal acceptance among Swedes, known as trygghet.

Although trygghet is usually defined as security or safety, neither of these translations carries the implications about the future that trygghet projects. To be trygg is to feel so comfortable and certain in a secure, predictable environment that you can relax, express yourself and grow. Trygghet is what Swedish parents are expected to give their children, and ensuring that they do so is the function of the most prized component of the Swedish social-welfare state, the parental benefits system.

For one year after the birth of our son, the government’s social-insurance agency will pay 80% of the salary my Swedish wife earned as a lawyer working in public service. I was surprised to learn that I, too, could receive parental benefits, for up to six months, at the generous minimum level. Only after a recent family crisis did I understand why.

Six months ago, my 2-year-old niece broke her leg. 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.

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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.

Social services never found grounds to continue their investigation of my brother-in-law’s family beyond the preliminary steps. Nevertheless, they had been made to feel belittlement, confusion and embarrassment, simply because they disagreed with the authorities. These reflexive feelings of guilt and shame are another, far subtler and more insidious mechanism for enforcing conformity.

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.

Mr. Maher is a freelance writer and former staff member of the New York Review of Books.

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