Sweden's mask slips

September 07, 1997|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- One young girl had trouble seeing the blackboard. Her teachers concluded that she was mentally retarded. In accordance with the nation's law, she was sterilized. Later, it was discovered that she suffered from nothing more than bad eyesight.

What barbaric regime perpetrated such an atrocity? It was Sweden, the very model of progressive socialism.

Between 1934 and 1974, 62,000 Swedes were sterilized, often against their will, for a variety of reasons. Many, like the girl who couldn't see the blackboard, were considered mentally inferior. Some were thought to have insufficiently Aryan features -- and one woman is known to have been sterilized as late as 1974 for being of ''mixed race.''

Originally designed to focus on the mentally inferior or disturbed, the law was changed in 1941 to include criminals, misfits and the ''anti-social.'' All were legally forced to forfeit any chance of having children.

The Social Democrats, who ruled Sweden for decades, justified the sterilization policy on a variety of grounds. The straightforward reason was to hold down the cost of the very expensive, cradle-to-grave welfare state. ''The welfare state was only for those who behaved themselves,'' Maija Runcis, a doctoral candidate at Stockholm University whose research triggered these revelations, explained to the Washington Post.

It makes sense. If the state is providing everything to you, it has the right to take everything from you. Or, in the words of an Israeli diplomat, ''Those countries that have placed freedom above equality have done a lot better by equality than those countries who have put equality above freedom have done by freedom.''

The unstated reason to sterilize the poor and weak was eugenics, the ''science'' of improving the genetic stock of human beings. Those who thought the Holocaust had settled the matter of whether eugenics was a decent field didn't reckon with Sweden, which continued its eugenics policy long after the Nazis were forced to abandon theirs.

The sterilization program was not secret. It was openly debated and enforced. One young woman was forcibly sterilized because she had not mastered her confirmation studies to the satisfaction of her priest.

In service to the state

What frame of mind is required to suppose that the state has the right to do such things? The socialist frame of mind places the individual in service to the state, rather than the opposite. Though the state may provide what seem like generous benefits -- ''free'' health care, paid holidays, liberal vacations -- there are prices to be paid, economically and morally.

The economic price may seem worth it to those who place equality above every other value. Socialist economies do not produce great wealth because their job-protecting, worker-coddling policies make creating jobs too expensive. Socialist systems also create disincentives to hard work and risk-taking. If everything is taxed away in the name of equality, what's the point of hard work or innovation? And in fact, all of Europe, not just Sweden, is suffering under the sclerotic hand of socialist policies that have lead to zero net jobs created over the past 20 years.

Socialist systems also create perverse incentives in the social zTC realm. Sweden has the highest illegitimacy rate in the industrialized world -- 52 percent.

The bad news for Sweden's self-image doesn't stop there. Academics and journalists are also poring over Sweden's World War II history. It seems that at least 900 dormant bank accounts belonging to Jews who perished in the Holocaust have been discovered in Swedish vaults. Sweden was neutral during the war but aided the Nazi war effort by selling iron ore and other critical war materiel.

All of this is forcing some Swedes to re-evaluate their self- image. Memories of Swedish moral preening, particularly at the expense of the United States during the Vietnam War, are particularly galling. American hippies who found refuge to despise their government in socialist Sweden should reconsider the nation to which they fled. The Swedes have equality -- but don't look there for freedom, dignity or honor.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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