I have no idea whether Sweden’s more modest approach to the Covid-19 pandemic—keeping schools and restaurants open while restricting visits to retirement homes—will be a success or a colossal and deadly mistake. No one else will know either, probably for months. But while we wait, the most interesting political fact about Sweden has gone largely unremarked: The prime minister resisting an authoritarian national lockdown and appealing instead to individual responsibility, Stefan Löfven, is the leader of the country’s main center-left party.
Surprise, surprise. Those most enthusiastically cheering on Sweden’s experiment from abroad—especially in America—hail from the political right. They believe that if it succeeds, Stockholm’s resistance to draconian measures would constitute a rebuke to the statist instincts of most other world leaders.
The oddity is that the left in most of the world has been so intensely critical of Sweden’s experiment. If this model works, it would hold out some hope that the coronavirus could be managed without putting millions of members of the left’s own blue-collar base out of work. Yet the prevailing attitude is less “let them try” and more “excommunicate the heretics.”
This column has previously argued that “the science” political figures claim to be following actually offers little practical guide to policy makers. In the fast-moving global effort to unlock the secrets of a new disease, competing studies are readily available to justify almost any approach a politician wishes to adopt.
As a consequence, the political and policy responses to this disaster are more revealing than politicians want to admit. They are not hewing to objectively tested theories. They are following their ideological predispositions to whatever science bolsters prior beliefs.
Politicians on the right made a pragmatic political calculation: A media incapable of sophisticated thought would never forgive them if they made a reasonable bet in favor of policy modesty and it backfired.
Conservatives aren’t wrong about the media’s general inability to process multiple variables, to judge from the way President Trump is scored for a national death toll primarily attributable to New York, whose Democratic governor somehow has managed to emerge from this situation as a hero. Hence the right has uncomfortably embraced draconian interventions, especially in Mr. Trump’s America and Boris Johnson’s U.K.
Meanwhile the left in most developed countries has settled on an embrace of progressive authoritarianism over the interests of what used to be its electoral base among normal working people. This manifests itself in three ways.
One is enthusiastic support for mass shutdowns of economic activity that wreck the lives of lower-paid factory, construction and service workers while leaving lefty urban can-work-from-home creatives only moderately inconvenienced.
Left-wing parties that find themselves in opposition, as in the U.S. and U.K., have engaged in a bizarre game of competitive immiseration with their right-leaning governments. Joe Biden called for a national lockdown last month, rather than demanding a more granular deployment of the least intrusive measures possible in each region. Shortly before Mr. Johnson announced Britain’s lockdown on March 23, Keir Starmer, now Labour Party leader, demanded “further compliance measures.”
Another is the prioritization of the needs of public-sector employees over those private-sector workers who still have jobs. Witness how London Mayor and Labour Party star Sadiq Khan demanded that construction workers be put out of their jobs so that the Underground rail network could run less frequently for the benefit of its staff instead of having to carry all those builders to their job sites.
The third is an aggressive expansion of the welfare state as a substitute for productive work. A looming disaster in the U.S., as writers on this page have warned, is that the coronavirus stimulus bill creates incentives to receive unemployment benefits rather than return to work once the lockdowns are lifted. The left used to think of itself as the movement of empowered working people. Now it’s trying to become a movement of the dependent lockdown poor.
The drumbeat has become so insistent it’s easy to forget there was another way. The left could have chosen to be the political side that would rigorously interrogate whether governments have a reasonable base of evidence on which to halt entire economies, and that would demand lighter and shorter interventions.
Instead the virus disaster has crystallized like almost nothing else could the divide that has opened on the left between blue-collar and lower-paid voters on one side and urban progressives on the other. No wonder the urban progressives are rooting, perversely, against Sweden.