When I think of Sweden, what comes to mind is a big government welfare state, with higher priority being given to economic security than to economic freedom. I was therefore surprised when I saw the Heritage Foundation data reproduced in the accompanying graph, which shows that economic freedom in Sweden is now higher in the United States and Australia. I expect that many readers would be similarly surprised.
The substantial decline which the graph shows for economic freedom in the U.S. and Australia since 2020 is presumably associated with government policies restricting freedom during the Covid19 pandemic. However, economic freedom in Sweden has apparently maintained an upward trend during that period.
In order to come to grips with this new information I thought it might be helpful to consider alternative economic freedom estimates and to take a look at the components of the Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom estimates.
Comparison of Heritage and Fraser estimates
Some of those who feel uncomfortable with the idea that people may now have more economic freedom in Sweden than in the U. S. and Australia might obtain some solace from the fact that the latest economic freedom estimates of the Fraser Institute has Sweden (in 33rd place) ranked far behind both Australia (6th) and the U.S. (7th). Some of the differences between the Heritage and Fraser estimates may be attributable to timing. The Heritage estimates for 2023 are based as far as possible on data for June 30, 2022, whereas the latest available Fraser estimates are for 2020. However, there are also differences in the aspects of economic freedom covered by the indexes. For example, the Heritage estimates incorporate Fiscal Health (deficits and debt) which is an aspect of economic management not incorporated in the Fraser estimates.
I was not surprised to see Sweden ranked first in the Fraser Institute’s index of personal freedom, well ahead of Australia (17th) and the U.S. (33rd). The Human Freedom index (which combines economic freedom and personal freedom) has Sweden ranked 6th, ahead of Australia (11th) and the U.S. (23rd).
Comparison of scores on various aspects of economic freedom
The comparison of scores on the accompanying graph indicate that aspects in which Sweden performs relatively well, by comparison with Australia and the U.S. are fiscal health and government integrity. As might be expected from Sweden’s welfare state reputation, the aspects on which Sweden performs relatively poorly include tax burden and government spending.
The answer to the question I posed at the outset depends on which economic freedom index one looks at. The Heritage Foundation’s index clearly has people enjoying greater economic freedom in Sweden than in the U.S. and Australia, but that finding is not confirmed by the Fraser Institute’s index. Whatever Sweden’s current ranking relative to the U.S. and Australia, it is worth pondering how Sweden has managed to maintain relatively high levels of economic and personal freedom, despite having a large welfare state. At this stage, there is not much evidence that Sweden is in grave danger of sliding down the slippery slope to serfdom.