It’s not a new point, but it’s so well made here by Ross Douthat that it’s worth repeating.
As part of an ongoing debate he’s having with colleague Paul Krugman, Douthat takes issue with the simplistic comparison oft made between America and the Left’s favorite European country:
It’s true that the Swedish rate of child poverty is much lower than ours even though their out-of-wedlock birth rate is higher, and the scope of their social spending clearly has something to do with this reality. (What’s more, the design of that spending has some lessons for American conservatives, since the Swedes have combined generous family subsidies with their own version of entitlement reform.) However, three big caveats are in order. First, even though Sweden is more egalitarian than the United States, the link between child poverty and family structure is still very much present, and non-intact families produce worse outcomes for their offspring in Scandinavia as well. Second, Sweden’s high out-of-wedlock birth rate notwithstanding, Swedish children are more likely than Americans to grow up with both parents in the household: The marriage rate may be lower, in other words, but Swedish families are more stableeven when the parents are cohabitating rather than joined in matrimony.
This second caveat points, in turn, to the third and most important one, which is that Swedish society differs from American society so substantially as to make cross-country comparisons extremely difficult.
The Swedish experience does demonstrate that it’s possible for a welfare-state society to survive the waning of religion and the decline of traditional marriage without sacrificing middle class prosperity. But this success is founded on a level of cultural homogeneity and an inheritance of social capital that simply isn’t available in a polyglot republic-cum-empire like our own. Sweden has the population of North Carolina, no real linguistic or religious diversity, no experience of chattel slavery or mass immigration (and the children of recent immigrants in Sweden, incidentally, tend to have much higher poverty rates than the native-born), and a culture of Lutheran thrift and prudence that endures even though Lutheranism itself is on life support. America is and always has been a country of much greater diversity and wider cultural extremes, which is why we’ve always had to lean more heavily than smaller and more homogeneous societies on a wide array of mediating institutions — churches, families and private associations of all sorts — to foster assimilation, encourage upward mobility, and make the pursuit of happiness a possibility for people from wildly different walks of life. Even if the Scandinavian counter-example — in which a strong government compensates for a weakened social fabric — has some applicability here, it offers fewer lessons than many liberals like to think. The bonds that hold Swedish society together aren’t just the creation of a well-funded welfare state, and they simply aren’t available to, say, recent immigrants in Southern California or struggling blue-collar workers in the post-industrial Midwest.