Sweden: The State as Surrogate Parent

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January 17, 2020 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors

In my last piece, I criticized Danish historian Mikael Jalving’s piece in Quillette entitled “Scandinavia: Can the New Parental Team Replace Marriage?” (Quillette, 1/2/20)  I did so because of his strange conclusion that shared parenting (and the scientific evidence supporting it) is dangerous because it encourages divorce.  Needless to say, he cited no evidence for the proposition.

Nor did he mention that, in the U.S. at least, we know from Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen’s work that it’s precisely the prospect of sole parenting that encourages divorce.  The two researchers found that women tend strongly to file for divorce because they know that the sole-parenting custom by judges means they know they won’t lose their kids.  If anything, that suggests that equal parenting would tend to discourage divorce filings. 

As I said in my last piece, people divorce, whether Jalving likes it or not.  Given that, surely public policy should be informed by the science on children’s welfare when their parents split up.  And that science points directly to shared parenting.  It’s an obvious point that Jalving missed due to his antipathy for government interference in families.

I of course share that antipathy, at least to an extent, and Jalving makes some important points about the relationship between families and governments.  I’ve been studying and writing about families, children, parents and family law for over two decades now and my strong take on the subject Jalving raises is that governments are poor substitutes for parents.  They prove it every day.

For example, even a brief glance at state child protective authorities reveals time and again a preference for state interference in children’s lives, often despite the harm it does to those children.  The other side of the coin often reveals shocking negligence that often results in injury to kids.

Now, CPS officials will argue that, however badly they’re doing their job now, the state does better now than was ever done in the past before public authorities got involved in the business of trying to protect kids from harm.  That’s probably true for kids who truly are at risk.  The problem with state intervention though is that it often occurs when it need not.  Time and again we see parents, judges, lawyers, etc. complaining about state overreach, about families torn apart for no reason, about parents threatened and browbeaten by caseworkers.  And of course the depredations of CPS are visited overwhelmingly on the poor and poorly-educated.  CPS agencies doubtless came into being with the best of intentions, but, as seems to be invariably the case, when governments take a certain power, it tends to increase far, far beyond what was originally intended.

Jalving is likewise concerned about events in Sweden that tend to further establish the government as everyone’s surrogate family.  He’s right to be.

In Sweden, individuality springs from the state. Without it, emancipation is not possible. Equality and freedom of choice is in itself made possible by a form of social engineering that the authors describe as “statist individualism,” under which high levels of state support serve to enhance, rather than challenge, citizens’ personal autonomy. More broadly, this typically Swedish approach to policy, informed in equal measure by optimism and paternalism, is animated by an institutionalized sense of national confidence in experts who use scientific methodology to improve society from one generation to the next. The overall effect of these ideas has been a weakening of many of the institutions that once mediated relations between state and citizen—including churches, charities and even families—since they are seen as dispensable in a country where individuals interact directly and regularly with a benign state. 

Central to this “cradle-to-grave” arrangement are such initiatives as universal daycare, a comprehensive program of direct student loans to teenagers and young adults, and the creation of a special ombudsman to protect children’s rights. The very language of public discourse now reflects such expectations: When the current government recently introduced the idea of making it mandatory for parents to send their young children to daycare in order for immigrant children to learn Swedish early on, this was presented as vindication of “the right to compulsory pre-school.” Implicit in these projects is the idea that a reliance on traditional forms of community and upbringing sets one at risk of oppression and inequality, while the welfare state is idealized as a liberating agent that frees citizens from hidebound social norms.

Yes, it’s that concept of the state as a benign actor in relationship to individuals that’s at the heart of the Swedish approach to, apparently, pretty much everything.  It’s an assumption that’s dubious at best, so dubious in fact that the Founding Fathers of the United States made exactly the opposite assumption.  That’s why we have the Bill of Rights as part of our Constitution.  They well knew the tendency of governments to arrogate power to themselves, a process we see often.  Did the Patriot Act promise that the NSA would never, never acquire and analyze general information about Americans?  It did, but guess what happened.  It did just that, sucking up vast stores of data from telephone companies and elsewhere with neither the consent nor the knowledge of those surveilled.

Were we assured that FISA courts would protect individual Americans from surveillance by the state via scrupulous courts positioned as a check on investigative agencies?  We were, but now we know how easily those courts can become, not an obstacle to state intrusion, but a co-conspirator in it.

And, as I mentioned above, child protective agencies originated to keep kids from harm, but they’ve evolved to become the face of Big Brother to many, many parents.  The system of “mandatory reporters” means that 80% of reports of child abuse are unfounded, but can still involve investigations by agents of the state wielding the terrifying power to take away parents’ children.

This “benign” state acting for the “benefit” of the individual can lead to some truly Orwellian outcomes.  So the Swedish government’s notion that a “right” to pre-school education can also be “compulsory”  is both mind-bending and no surprise.  Orwell himself couldn’t have imagined a more perfect example of Orwellian language.

But perhaps the state is benign and if so, why not in the area of the family?  Perhaps it can be, but Jalving’s examples don’t encourage the conclusion.  After all, daycare may free parents for non-child-related pursuits, which of course is the point.  But much science on child well-being and daycare finds that, particularly for very young children, daycare can result in elevated levels of cortisol that can have deleterious effects long into adulthood. 

Direct loans to adolescents for school expenses tend to bypass parents as supporters of children.  And an ombudsman for children’s rights does the same.  We’ve seen the results of that in, for example, Canada, where a girl sued her father because he grounded her for disobeying his demand that she spend less time on social media and more on her studies.  She won.  The judge overruled the father, substituting his own ideas about appropriate parenting for the girl’s everyday dad. 

So Jalving’s right to be concerned about the rise of the state as a substitute for parents.  The hobbyhorse of shared parenting doesn’t take him there, but he’s right all the same.  History is devoid of evidence that governments can do a proper job of caring for kids.  And our knowledge of the biological connection between parents and their children militates strongly against the notion and in favor of parents being our best bet for promoting children’s welfare.

But the experiment in Sweden is well under way.  I suppose we’ll see how it turns out.

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