Who Is More Rawlsian: Mormons or Swedes?

The Nordic countries (particularly Sweden) have been held up by many as the utopias of the future. But journalist Michael Booth has a recent piece in The Guardian demonstrating that the praise may be overdone. For example, the OECD reports that Danes work fewer hours per year than most of Europe while having the highest level of private debt in the world. They even have the fourth largest per capita ecological footprint in the world (higher than the US). But if you ask the Danes, “they will tell you that the Norwegians are the most insular and xenophobic of all the Scandinavians, and it is true that since they came into a bit of money in the 1970s the Norwegians have become increasingly Scrooge-like, hoarding their gold, fearful of outsiders.” Booth describes Sweden as having a “distinctive brand of totalitarian modernism, which curbs freedoms, suppresses dissent in the name of consensus, and seems hell-bent on severing the bonds between wife and husband, children and parents, and elderly on their children. Think of it as the China of the north. Youth unemployment is higher than the UK’s and higher than the EU average” and “integration is an ongoing challenge.” Perhaps this is why the Nordic countries have been cutting back their welfare states (which helped end Sweden’s depression in the 1990s). The market has been taking over Sweden’s health care system, with Swedes increasingly purchasing private health insurance.

I’m curious as to whether the U.S. should be looking across the pond for a Rawlsian utopia or if the answer can be found in some of its own metropolitan areas. As sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox points out,

According to a recent study from Harvard and UC-Berkeley, out of the largest 100 metropolitan regions in the country, the Salt Lake City area is best at promoting absolute economic mobility for lower-income children…Children from the bottom 20% of the national income distribution in the Salt Lake City region were more likely to “reach the top 20% of the national income distribution” as adults than poor children hailing from any other major metropolitan region in America…[T]he Harvard-Berkeley study…found that the most powerful (negative) correlate of such mobility was the share of single moms in a region. This means that children were most likely to realize the American dream when they came from regions—like the Salt Lake City area—with comparatively strong families.Utah, for instance, has some of the lowest rates of nonmarital childbearing and highest shares of its adult population married of any state. Likewise, the study also found that the strength of a region’s civil society was strongly correlated to economic mobility. Communities rich in social capital and religiosity, for instance, were more likely to foster economic mobility for children. And Utah is one of the most religious states in the country, and it scores high on national indices of social trust…[R]ealizing the Rawlsian vision of justice for the least among us, and giving poor kids a shot at the American dream, may depend on the nation’s capacity to revive communitarian virtues and institutions.

So, which utopian model is best: the Mormons or the Swedes?[ref]This is obviously a misleading question for three reasons: (1) Not all of Utah is Mormon and not all Mormons live in Utah, (2) there are Swedish Mormons (though Sweden is highly irreligious), (3) Mormonism is a religion, Sweden is a country and nationality. But you get the point.[/ref]

4 thoughts on “Who Is More Rawlsian: Mormons or Swedes?”

  1. This post is so great.

    I just want to add one detail to fill out the picture. Wilcox writes:

    Utah, for instance, has some of the lowest rates of nonmarital childbearing and highest shares of its adult population married of any state.

    Utah has a very low rate of nonmarital childbirth, but this is not accomplished through abortion, because Utah also was one of the lowest rates of abortion in the country, far below the national average.

    It’s interesting, and not at all coincidental, that Utah represents a conservative path to strong families (e.g. traditional values) rather than a liberal path to strong families (e.g. liberal sexual norms combined with broad access to abortion).

    Here are sources for the claims about low abortion rates in the state of Utah.

    Guttmacher – Lots of facts, including a chart of the legal abortion rate per 1,000 women ages 15-44 for Utah vs. United States. Utah is much lower (less than 1/2 the rate).

    Kaiser Family Foundation – Includes a rank of states by rate of legal abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44. New York is the high with 30, Utah comes in almost last with 6.

  2. Yes, great post.

    My sense is that, at least in political theory circles, Rawls and communitarians are typically opposed to each other, since Rawls is the most prominent face of liberalism during the liberal-communitarian debates in the 1990s. Since Wilcox is a sociologist, it’s not clear to me whether he’s wryly playing on this tension in his comment, or not. What’s your sense?

  3. I’m a swede, and I’m a Mormon. Considering the present state of the nation, I’d much rather hold on to the utopia of Mormonism than that of the swedish socialist welfare system. There are many negative things to say about the swedish “system” – it alienates people, debate over pressing issues is sacrificed on the altar of consensus (political correctness is an established term), the quality of the welfare service we all have grown used to and demand is declining rapidly, the economy looks solid since the financial debt is put upon the people in stead of the state (there’s a housing bubble that’s waiting to collaps), most (if not shy of all) people are totally unable to think of any other way to organize a society than the known way. These are a random sample of negatives seen to the society as a whole.

    The current system also takes its toll on the swedish Mormons, most of whom can’t se any difference between the welfare system promoted by the Church and that of the Swedish government. And that is disturbing, to say the least. More and more women in the church join the work force (as all other women in Sweden), kids spend long hours in kindergarten. The system is hard on families. Taxes are high, and the amount of freedom to choose another path for oneself and ones family is limited. And honestly, most of us think that we can’t. It’s hard to believe you can take care of yourself when nothing in the system, that’s so present, tells you so.

    So, I’d go for the Mormon utopia any day of the week. /the Traitor

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