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Best-Of 2023 Week: Lars Tragardh, Uppsala University – The Swedish Theory of Love

What is the Swedish theory of love?

Lars Tragardh, professor of history at Uppsala University, explains.

Ph.D in History from UC Berkeley; professor of history at Uppsala university, Sweden; public commentator on Swedish politics and society.

The Swedish Theory of Love

Americans are fond of thinking of themselves as rugged individualists. But compared to Swedes they emerge as highly dependent on their family. What passes for individualism in the US is more accurately described as anti-statism.

In Sweden, the State is viewed as an ally of the individual. The relationship between state and citizen is one of mutual trust. The social contract is straightforward: citizens who work, pay their taxes, and earn their rights. Underlying this system of reciprocal responsibilities in the form of mutual investments and insurance lies a moral logic favoring a radical form of individual autonomy, what I call a Swedish Theory of Love.

The idea is that even private relations ought to be based on the ideals of voluntariness, equality, and autonomy. For if your husband or wife depend on you, how do you know that they stay because they truly love you? Or that you are truly choosing them freely. Rather than bound to stay out of need and necessity, by laws and institutions?

In Sweden the base unit of society is the individual, not the family. This is reflected in the establishment of individual taxation – there is no room on a Swedish tax form for a head of household, or dependents that result in tax deductions. The financial responsibility for the elderly lies with the state. The young can apply for student aid without regard to parental income – again, a question of individual freedom and autonomy. Children’s rights trump parental rights. Nobody owns anyone else.

This is quite foreign to American mores that are more communitarian, extolling family values, religion, and charity. Swedish individualism can appear shocking to many foreigners. But the social mobility and individual freedom that results also lands Sweden and other Nordic countries at the very top of global rankings of happiness and well-being.

Read More:
[University of Washington Press] – The Swedish Theory of Love

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