Reflections on Trust in Sweden, or: We Live in a Society

Having spent a few months in Sweden now, one thing that constantly strikes me, especially coming from an American perspective, is just how well society functions here. It actually feels like a cohesive society and community in a lot of ways, as opposed to the collection of individuals forced to live in the same vicinity that America often feels like.

The obvious example of this is the Swedish welfare state, going back to the idea of folkhemmet, or “the people’s home.” The driving idea behind the establishment of the Swedish welfare state was that national society ought to be like a family, in which everyone both contributes and is taken care of. The political fortunes of the Social Democratic Party that instated these policies may have waned in recent years (although they are still the largest party), but the welfare state remains and is still highly popular. Swedes are very happy with the welfare state and the benefits provided to them and their communities, and maintain a high level of trust in government. Coming from an American context, where it feels that the current government often oscillates between incompetence and outright malice, the idea of a government and a nation that takes care of its citizens is amazing.

Even at a more personal level, the degree to which Swedes trust in their society and communities is fantastic. Young children taking public transit alone is commonplace and expected. Get on a bus at the right time in the morning and you’ll find that you may as well be on a school bus, because all the children take the same transit as everyone else to school. Swedes expect that their children will be safe traveling without supervision in public, and that nothing bad will happen to them. And they’re right, despite the shock many of us Americans feel at seeing unaccompanied children on the subway.

Even the little things work better here. The roads in my neighborhood are undergoing a lot of construction, and despite a number of areas being made one-lane, there’s no need for flaggers to direct traffic. People just know to take turns and let other people through the road. When a tree fell in the forest behind my house, my host parents were unconcerned, because they could simply use an app to contact the local government office and let them know it needed to be removed. The idea that it would be easy to contact local government services, let alone have faith that they would accomplish anything in a timely manner, was totally foreign to me.

This is not to say that Sweden is perfect, of course. Political polarization and division are on the rise, as is crime and inequality. Services work, and well, yet there are still hospitals that have to cut jobs and trains that fail to run because of the (somehow unforeseeable) snow. But compared to America, where we have an exceptionally long way to go to reach the level of societal trust and functionality found in Sweden, it’s clear that the Swedes are doing something right.