Imagine a land where politicians regularly propose tax increases at election time to get votes. That's Sweden, with its comprehensive social welfare system."If you want to have a working community, with infrastructure and all these kinds of social benefits that you have in a civilized world, then you have to pay taxes." So says one Swedish taxpayer recently interviewed for a Swedish Institute story about residents and their fiscal relationships with the state.
And pay taxes they do. Income tax for the average Swede is 44 percent, with rates as high as 60 percent. As a percentage of gross domestic product, Sweden's income tax revenue is one of the world's highest. The value-added tax, essentially a sales tax, is 25 percent.
But what Swedes get for all these taxes is substantial. Comprehensive health care includes visits to both general practitioners and specialists at very low cost. Dental care, including orthodontics, is free for children and adults up to 20, and then subsidized for those older than 20. Throw in liberal amounts of parental and sick leave, as well as generous unemployment benefits, and you can begin to understand why the Swedes contentedly file their taxes on Tax Declaration Day.
How Would Americans React?
But if you asked even politically left-of-center Americans if they would trade high-end social services for the taxes Swedes pay, it's far from certain if they would have the same feeling about April 15.
"I have shared some examples of Swedish taxation with Americans," says Steven Schier, Fulbright scholar for American Studies at Sweden's Uppsala University, "and some of them find it just beyond belief that taxes could be so high. A 25 percent sales tax, for example ... is shocking to many Americans, because they are more suspicious of government -- suspicious of the ability of government to deliver services, as well -- and therefore less inclined to want to pay high levels of taxation."
Going far back into Sweden's history, government has always loomed large. Sweden still even has a king, though true political power is exercised by a democratically elected prime minister and parliament. A culture of looking to the state for help and guidance has led to the Swedish view of individualism as one of "state individualism," as Schier puts it, where the state provides enough basic services well enough to fulfill individual needs, and thereby mitigates the desire to seriously question the system or pursue personal wealth very aggressively.
The concept of state individualism is foreign to most Americans. The U.S. was born out of a fight to throw off the monarchy, and the concept of limited government was embraced early on. The uproar over the Affordable Care Act exemplifies many Americans' queasiness about government. Far from the single-payer, government-run health-care system that most industrialized nations -- like Sweden – employ, Obamacare continues to be criticized as socialism, at least from some quarters.