In the US we are concerned about our government being corrupt. It helps to examine corruption abroad as well, like in Sweden.
The passing of time, Swedish culture and proportional representation
Cultures are long-lived and also invisible affairs. For at least a millennium (likely for much longer), and until about 1850, the vast majority of Swedes lived clustered in small farming villages where everyone knew everyone else, and where everyone also knew what everyone else was doing. At the same time, the farmers were to a large degree self-owning, and the villages were largely independent political entities. In such an environment, on the one hand, the farmers took decisions collectively; but on the other hand, and partly as a consequence, social conformity was ruthlessly imposed on anyone standing out from the crowd.
As a result, Swedes are known for their unusually strong “royal Swedish envy”, as well as for their often-desperate attempts to reach a consensus. Before the introduction of proportional representation, any aspiring politician had to overcome such mental hiccups. They had to be public speakers and they had to demonstrate that they, personally, had achieved something in life, so that the electorate might consider them trusted representatives. One might say that they had to demonstrate that they were not representative, but that they stood out from the crowd. In Sweden, we have also had a tendency to appreciate our “chieftains”. He or she who “is just like us”, and who tries to stand out from the crowd, is often ruthlessly put down. But if someone appears to be exceptional, Swedes have no problem accepting them as potential leaders.
When proportional representation was introduced, instead of voting for individuals, Swedes were faced with only five sets of pre-packaged ideas to vote for, one for each of the then five parties in the Riksdag. The logic of this process leads to that within each party, for years on end, all members had to show a united front to the outside world. Conflicts of ideas and interests were handled as internal matters. But the Swedish political parties were nevertheless popular mass movements that depended on their members. Recruiting new members was essential for their existence, as was vigorous internal debate, and political and social activities for the tens or hundreds of thousands of members of each party.
For over 50 years, the consequences of proportional representation gradually changed the political culture of Sweden. To outsiders, each party was more or less represented by a single person, the party leader, heading a party that for the most part showed unfailing unity. Gradually, the Swedish national character also took its due, so that few openly criticised their party, or even openly competed for elected positions within the party. This is close to the opposite of the behaviour necessary within a system with majority elections for individual seats.
Sweden gets legalised political corruption
In Ancient Greece and Rome, it was considered such an honour to represent the city or the fatherland that it was done without financial compensation. For the same reason, the members of the upper chamber of the Swedish Riksdag were for a long time not remunerated.
Many considered it wrong that only “the rich” would be able to represent the people. But as the parties, except for the communists, had over a hundred thousand paying members each, and large resources – in particular due to voluntary donations – this could hardly have been an insurmountable problem.
An alternative solution, which this author sometimes fantasises about, is the one that applied up until the dual-chamber Riksdag was voted through in 1865. Before then, parliament only convened every five years, from the 1840s every three years, giving the members of parliament ample opportunity to pursue a profession and pay themselves for their political activities. However, in Sweden all parliamentarians eventually obtained a substantial salary to complement the honour of representing the nation.
Our representatives rule over us. And they sit with ladles in their hands around troughs filled with the taxpayers’ money. Beginning after the war, one by one, a number of newspapers closed down. The political parties therefore began worrying about the “diversity” of the access to information, that is, that their own party might not be represented by a newspaper in all, or almost all localities. This worry was the most acute amongst the Social Democrats. At the same time, the “Folkpartiet” (social liberal), and the Center party (formerly the Farmers’ party) had problems with the financing of their party activities.
Therefore, in 1965, these three parties together voted through a proposal that provided both public financial aid to the political parties, and financial support to newspapers. As a condition for receiving money, a limit of at least two percent in the national elections to the second chamber was included. Below that, no financial support was paid out. This way, parties outside of the Riksdag, such as MBS and the Christian Democrats, would be unlikely to receive any funds. When Sweden moved to a single-chamber parliament in 1971, the limit necessary was raised to 2.5 percent of the national vote. From 1969, the municipalities were also allowed to distribute financial aid to political parties.
I do not at all claim that politicians in Sweden personally are corrupt; only that they take part in a deeply corrupt system. An aspiring politician has no choice but to become part of this system. Those in power explicitly take money from the taxpayer to give to themselves so that they thereby can promote themselves and explain how important it is that the voters continue to elect them. Even though most politicians are probably able to convince themselves that this system, as they say, “safeguards democracy”, it is nevertheless a case of legalised theft.
At the same time, the newspapers receive financial support, and thus, journalists are – to a degree – bought by those in power. To make matters worse, since the 1920s, Sweden has had supposedly “independent” state radio, and later also state television. These are, for obvious reasons, completely dependent on government, both with regard to funding and to oversight. Luckily, today, there is the internet. But it is still illegal to start a nationwide private radio station.
Featured image: King Oscar II of Sweden (1829-1907) and family, from left: Prince Eugen, Prince Oscar and Princess Ebba Bernadotte, Princess Teresia, Prince Wilhelm, Queen Sofia, Princess Margareta, King Oscar, Prince Gustaf Adolf, Crown Princess Viktoria, Prince Erik, Crown Prince Gustaf, Princess Ingeborg with daughters Märtha and Margaretha and their father Prince Carl