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128 Working Paper

Big Cuts, Little Time: Welfare State Retrenchment in Sweden

Apr 14, 2024 – Carl Dahlström


When harsh cuts were introduced in the Swedish welfare state in an agreement between the centre-right government and the opposition Social Democrats in 1992, there were astonishingly few disagreements between the political parties as to which social groups should carry the burdens of the cuts. The conventional wisdom on welfare state retrenchment would lead us to expect a clash of interests, especially considering the strength of interest groups in Sweden and the different constituencies of the five parties included in the agreement. This paper explains why that did not happen. It argues that the role that key officials played in shaping the 1992 retrenchment agreement in Sweden was decisive in averting potential political conflicts. In a crisis, politicians depend on advice from officials as politicians need complex information, often under pressure of time. This paper argues that key state officials, through their advice, defined both the character of the crisis and the range of possible solutions. As the number of options was restricted, key officials were able to define what cuts were reasonable. Within this framework, politicians looked for practical solutions and, to a large extent, disregarded conflicts of interest. This paper also suggests that the content of such advice depends on what is called the loyalty of key officials, which depends on the terms of their employment.