“History, in general, only informs us what bad government is.”
—Thomas Jefferson

If there were an award for the most successful revolutionaries of the 20th century, two relatively unsung yet worthy candidates would be Gunnar and Alva Myrdal. The Swedish husband-and-wife team has exerted an alarmingly pervasive influence upon modern society, in part because their bloodless, bureaucratic revolution was too low-key to inspire the violent opposition that has undermined the revolutionary legacy of so many other candidates.

In The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics: The Myrdals and the Interwar Population Crisis, Allan Carlson, author of a recent study on the contemporary American family, returns to the subject of his doctoral dissertation: the pivotal role the Myrdals played in shaping modern Swedish society. The book, which Carlson calls an “intellectual political biography,” reveals how, in the course of four years (1934-1938), one man and one woman decisively redirected the course of an entire society. Carlson highlights the ways in which ideologues can manipulate the often ambiguous data of sociological research and the crucial importance of individuals in perceiving and even inventing historical “trends.” His exhaustively researched and documented analysis yields lessons that many other societies have yet to learn.

Gunnar Myrdal was born in 1898 in a rural Swedish town. While studying economics at the University of Stockholm, he met an extremely intelligent liberal arts student, four years his junior, named Alva Reimer, whose father was involved in labor unions and the Social Democratic Party in Uppsala. Having studied literature, religion, and psychology, and possessing strong socialist and feminist sympathies, Alva seems to have been the prototypical 20th-century radical female intellectual. She married Gunnar Myrdal in 1924, and after a research trip to the United States in 1929, financed by fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the couple became convinced that Swedish society was in need of radical reforms. While Gunnar focused on demographic and economic questions, Alva was preoccupied with children’s issues and the obsolescence of the traditional family. It is ironic that, to a significant extent, Sweden’s radical social policy was inspired and funded by American sources.

Without question, Swedish society was in trouble. In 1933, Sweden recorded the lowest peacetime birthrate of any modern nation. The net reproduction rate was below replacement level. According to data from 1927, only 5.6 percent of the population attended Sunday communion. As the structure of agrarian society unraveled in the 19th century, the traditional practice of frieri—a courtship custom that allowed premarital sex—became less an anticipation of marriage than simple fornication and a source of illegitimacy.

In the obvious need for “pro-natalist” policies to counteract the declining birthrate, the Myrdals saw a justification for their radical reforms, and their 1934 book. The Crisis in the Population Question, placed them at the center of policy debate. Concerned that previous sociology had been marred by unspoken commitments to existing social structures, they advocated an approach to social policy based on the premise that “All institutional factors . . . can be changed.” A central contention of their book was that Swedes were having fewer children because of inadequate urban housing. Studies showing that many small families with ample finances actually chose to live in substandard housing convinced the Myrdals not that housing was not the problem but that parents could not be trusted with cash benefits; state assistance would have to be “in kind.” Claiming the “modern miniature family is . . . an abnormal situation for a child,” the Myrdals pushed for “collective houses,” apartment houses with a single nursery and single kitchen for the entire building.

The ideas in Crisis in the Population Question began to be converted into public policy after Gunnar Myrdal was appointed to Sweden’s Population Commission in 1935, for the policy recommendations of the Commission were taken seriously Ly Sweden’s Riksdag. As its most active member, Myrdal” oversaw the Commission’s numerous reports on subjects such as marriage loans, working women, maternity benefits, taxes, sex education, and birth control. The Commission recommended marriage loans to encourage earlier and presumably more fruitful unions. It also recommended sex-education classes, including information about birth control as a natural and normal part of marriage, beginning in the third grade. Although Sweden’s problem was population decline, the Commission recommended the repeal of (admittedly ineffective) laws against birth control; the Myrdal argument maintained that a system of strictly voluntary parenthood (made possible by birth control) plus economic support from the state would increase the birthrate.

At the same time, Alva Myrdal was wielding similar influence, though on a smaller scale, through the Women’s Work Committee and her own school for teachers, the Social Pedagogical Institute. The Women’s Work Committee urged the state to accept female Lutheran clergy, female prison guards, and female gym teachers in boys’ high schools. Alva’s Institute encouraged gender neutral toys and games in order to overcome sexual stereotyping.

The approach of World War II and the departure of the Myrdals for the United States in 1938 brought an end to their active involvement in Swedish social reform, but by then they had already transformed public policy in significant ways.

They had also demonstrated just how much could be accomplished by a few dedicated and energetic individuals. Besides receiving grants from the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations to pursue their policy-shaping sociology, the Myrdals invested their own money in distributing countless reports and analyses to study groups and seminars throughout the nation. Personal magnetism also played a part in their effectiveness. By 1938, Alva Myrdal was the seventh most popular woman in Sweden, a ranking that placed her somewhere between Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman. Indefatigable propagandists, the Myrdals set the terms of debate, both in society and in the important official committees to which they belonged. The Myrdal name was synonymous with family and fertility matters; in fact, things reached a point where “to myrdal” became a popular euphemism for “to copulate.”

Carlson’s account of the Myrdals’ work reveals a striking feature of sociological analysis that might be called “selective inevitability.” Although they insisted that “all institutional factors . . . can be changed,” the Myrdals were forever encountering inevitable “social facts”: popular acceptance of birth control, working mothers, small families, the obsolescence of traditional family arrangements. A shameless double standard was at work. Whatever the Myrdals disliked could be changed; whatever already suited their plans was an inevitable “social fact.” The inevitability was unidirectional. Centuries of housewifery were not inevitable, but working mothers were. Resistance to birth control was a temporary attitude; its acceptance was a “social fact.”

Related to this selective inevitability is the curious way in which historical necessities often seem to need a helping hand from the social engineer. One might suppose that if socioeconomic developments are said to be altering the family as an institution, then the transformation will occur spontaneously. But no. Radical new laws and state intervention are required to ensure that prophecies about the demise of the traditional family are fulfilled. The line between adapting to the future and creating it is sometimes hard to detect.

The Myrdals’ story also shows the enormous value that “crises” can have for social reformers. In response to a “crisis,” all manner of radical changes can be introduced; “emergency measures” are called for. The economic crisis of the 30’s was the justification for Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States; it was the demographic crisis of the 30’s that paved the way for Sweden’s domestic “new deal.” The atmosphere of “crisis” helps people swallow the fallacious rhetoric of “Something must be done”—regardless of whether it will actually help the situation. Untested policies are thus implemented, often, as in the case of Sweden, without any plans for verification. The “AIDS crisis” has become a similar tool for drastically reforming society’s attitude toward homosexuality: it is “necessary” to teach small children about homosexuality; it is “necessary” to advertise condoms in public; it is “necessary” to use tax revenue to distribute needles to drug addicts; it is “necessary” to allocate disproportionate funding to AIDS research. At the same time, it is not necessary to quarantine homosexuals or to discourage homosexual behavior, though such measures might well reduce the incidence of AIDS.

If Sweden’s Riksdag had attempted to verify the effectiveness of the Myrdals’ recommendations, it might have been surprised. Carlson notes that couples who took advantage of the marriage loan program actually had fewer children (and twice as many divorces!) as couples who did not. Today Sweden has the world’s lowest marriage rate, and fertility is still below replacement level. Half of Swedish men between the ages of 25 and 29 are cohabiting, and half of Swedish children are illegitimate (their fathers are, for all practical purposes, the state). Eighty-five percent of Swedish mothers with children under the age of seven are working.

Viewing these long-term consequences of policies that were supposedly designed for “pro-natalist” purposes, Carlson raises the very pertinent question of whether it is proper to say that the Myrdals “failed.” The answer, it seems, is no. Carlson makes clear that their “pro-natalism” amounted to little more than a healthy fear of economic collapse and national extinction. Their concern for marriage and family was entirely consequentialist, as can be seen from the failure to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate unions: whatever produces children is good for the state. Human beings were not valuable in themselves (the Myrdals countenanced forced sterilization for the mentally ill, the “genetically defective,” and criminals) but as instruments of the state: human beings were necessary to fill jobs, to pay taxes, and to breed more job-filling taxpayers.

Alva Myrdal liked to condemn the “unbridled individualism which characterizes the . . . bourgeois culture” of capitalism. Yet her militant feminism and hostility toward the traditional family made her sing the praises of “individual self-sufficiency.” She failed to realize that, as Joseph Schumpeter put it, “feminism is an essentially capitalistic phenomenon.” In the battle between social welfare and feminist individualism, feminism won. Thus, the family wage, formerly part of the Social Democratic Party agenda, became oppressive in the eyes of Alva Myrdal. In 1971, the Swedish Commission on New Marriage Law claimed a need to form “a society in which every adult takes responsibility for himself without being economically dependent on another”—bourgeois individualism in a socialist welfare state.

The Myrdals’ analysis of the Swedish birth dearth reveals the extent to which they bought into the materialistic premises they condemned. Their plan to increase fertility fostered rather than combated selfish individualism. It capitulated to selfishness by attempting to make children compatible with purely economic self-interest. They ignored the wise objection of Sweden’s husband-and-wife social-policy team, Eli and Ebba Heckscher, who said that fertility rates would never be raised by taking children from their mothers and giving them to the state. The Heckschers’ objection points to a profound truth: the state can only flourish by recognizing the essential preeminence of the family.

The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics should be required reading for anyone interested in Sweden’s present situation, but it is perhaps most interesting as a cautionary tale for policymakers in the United States who, in the name of “family policy,” are tempted to turn their backs on the family. 


[The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics: The Myrdals and the Interwar Population Crisis, by Allan Carlson (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers) 235 pp., $39.95]