Liberty, Religion and Atheism

Yaron Brook speaking. Panelists from left: Father Sirico, Dr. Gregg and Professor Gissurarson.

Classical liberals or libertarians can both be religious and atheists, according to RNH Academic Director Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson who was a commentator in a session on the moral foundations of the free society at the 2016 general meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Miami 18–23 September. The speakers in the session were Dr. Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute who argued that people of reason had to reject religion and Dr. Samuel Gregg from the Acton Institute who maintained that Christianity was compatible with both liberty and reason. Father Robert Sirico was in the chair.

Professor Gissurarson pointed out that some more or less pagan societies seemed to have had a firm moral basis, such as the ancient Romans and the Japanese. Undeniably, however, the only real resistance put up against 20th Century European totalitarianism had been by the Christian churches. Christianity presupposed that all men were subject to the Natural Law, including those holding power. Christianity implied universalism: In the eyes of God everyone was equal, rich and poor, man and woman, black and white. Totalitarianism on the other hand was extreme rationalism, the attempt by human beings to play god. Unlike some other religious groups Christians wanted to render unto Ceasar what was Ceaser’s and to render unto God what was God’s. In other words, Christianity implied the separation of spiritual and secular powers alien to some other religions. Christ had not been a soldier on horseback wielding a sword, like Muhammad. The ten commandments did not have the logical structure of commands, despite their name, but rather that of prohibitions which made them more freedom-preserving than direct order to behave in a certain way.

Professor Gissurarson offered his own interpretation of two well-known Christian parables. The parable of the Good Samaritan was really about 1) the dangers of highwaymen from the mountain, and consequently the need for strong police and defence forces; 2) the treason of the clerks, namely that of the priest and the Levite who passed the victim of the robbers without helping him; 3) the need for men of means who could afford to help victims; 4) the good deed done with the Good Samaritan’s own money. Professor Gissurarson submitted that the eleventh commandment should really be: “Thou shalt not do good with other people’s money.” When John the Baptist had said that a man with two shirts should give one of them to his neighbour having no shirt, he had identified the problem of shirtlessness, but not called for an enforced redistribution of income. The problem of shirtlessness could be solved by enabling people to sew their own shirts, providing opportunities to them. The main objective should be a flourishing shirt factory in full operation.

Professor Gissurarson said that Ayn Rand had been a powerful thinker, even if he could not personally endorse her militant atheism. Her distinction between creators and parasites was still valid. Rich people should not be ashamed of their wealth, if honestly acquired. Instead, it should be proud of it. Justified pride in one’s own achievements was not the same as arrogance. Entrepreneurs and capitalists performed important and necessary roles in a growing economy. Both religious people and atheists could belong to the Mont Pelerin Society. Professor Gissurarson’s participation in the conference formed a part of the joint project by RNH and AECR, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe, Iceland, and the Future of Capitalism”.

Sir Roger Douglas and Professor Gissurarson.

Speakers at the conference included British historian Niall Ferguson, American sociologist Charles Murray, Chilean economist José Piñera, and some well-known American economists such as Nobel Laureate Edward C. Prescott, Professor John Taylor and Diana Furchgott-Roth. Professor Peter Boettke from the US took over as President of the MPS from Spanish Professor Pedro Schwartz. The general meeting was well-attended and well-organised, and regarded by most attendees as having been quite successful. The next regional meeting of the MPS will be in Seoul 7–10 May 2017 and in Gran Canaria 30 September–6 October 2018. After the MPS meeting, Professor Gissurarson attended the Atlas Network Liberty Forum. The Atlas Network is an umbrella organisation for research institutes looking for spontaneous and voluntary solutions instead of coercive government interventions, and seeking to use price rather than force as a lodestarf in human interactions. Sir Roger Douglas, New Zealand Finance Minister in 1984–88, and Ruth Richardson, Finance Minister in 1990–93, described the radical and successful economic reforms in their country in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. The American television reporter John Stossel chaired a meeting about how freedom could be promoted by other means than books alone, such as by story-telling and documentaries and even by dramatic films. Linda Whetstone took over as Chairman of the Board of Atlas Network from Daniel Grossman. Linda is the daughter of Atlas Network founder Sir Antony Fisher.

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Icelandic Fisheries Policy as a Model?

Professor Gissurarson gives his talk. Diego Zuluaga is in the chair.

In the United Kingdom, considerable interest in the Icelandic system of managing the fisheries can be found, now when the country is leaving the EU and will not be subject to the failed CFP, Common Fisheries Policy. This became clear at a conference on private governance organised by the IEA, Institute of Economic Affairs, in London and Epicenter, a coalition of major European think tanks, in Florence 7–9 September 2016. RNH Academic Director Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson discussed the general common pool problem which is essentially that under open access to natural resources, utilisation of those resources will increase to the point where all possible profit will be dissipated in excessive effort. Common utilisation implies over-utilisation. The solution is often to develop exclusive use rights to the resources—to enclose the commons in one way or another. Professor Gissurarson described some such solutions developed in Iceland over the centuries: Grazing rights in the mountain pastures common to each farming community were allocated to individual farms; in the numerous salmon rivers each riparian farmer holds a right to a certain part of the total effort allowed in the river; and, most importantly, in the offshore fisheries individual transferable quotas, ITQs, amounting to a right to harvest a given proportion of the total allowable catch, have been allocated. Professor Gissurarson said that the ITQ system worked quite well, as was demonstrated by the fact that the chief complaint in Iceland was that the fishing firms were very profitable whereas in most other countries they were operated at huge losses.

Other speakers included German economist Guido Hülsmann who discussed central banks, Brazilian economist Diogo Costa who analysed the share economy, and Chemistry Professor Terence Kealey from England who pointed out the lack of evidence for any positive impact on economic growth from public investment in scientific research, whereas private investment clearly had such an impact. Another topic taken up at the conference was whether the EU could and would develop in a more liberal direction. Professor Gissurarson’s participation in the conference formed a part of the joint project by RNH and AECR, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe, Iceland, and the Future of Capitalism”. Professor Gissurarson used the opportunity in Florence to undertake some research on the life and works of Niccolò Machiavelli. After his stay in Florence Professor Gissurarson went to Rome to meet with Professor Antonio Martino, Italy’s former Foreign Minister and Defence Minister, and a former President of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international academy of liberal scholars. Martino, who was also long Professor of Monetary Theory, is an adviser of RNH.

Gissurarson Slides in Florence 8 September 2016

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Quota Auction not advisable

Gary Libecap gives his lecture.

Auctioning off catch quotas in the Icelandic fisheries is both unnecessary and ill-advised, as the Icelanders have already developed an efficient system there. Two international experts on natural resources and auctions agreed on this at an international conference on rights allocation in the fisheries, organised by the Economics Faculty of the University of Iceland, RNH and RSE 29 August 2016. Professor Gary Libecap of the University of California at Santa Barbara, author of many books on resource management, described the tragedy of the commons in the fisheries: Open access led to increased fishing effort, until all profit had been dissipated. It was necessary to limit access, and the most natural way of doing it was to allocate fishing rights to those who were already harvesting fish, on the basis of catch history (grandfathering). Then the necessary change from an open-access regime to a system of exclusive rights takes place in a peaceful and gradual manner. The Icelandic system of individual transferable quotas, ITQs, was a market solution, whereas public auctions of fishing rights had not been successful in the few places where they had been tried. In the panel discussion, Professor Charles Plott of the California Institute of Technology, a renowned specialist on auctions, pointed out that in Iceland an efficient system of harvesting fish was already in place, the system of individual, transferable quotas, and that therefore it was not necessary to change it. Sometimes auctions of scarce goods made sense, but not in this example.

In his lecture, Ragnar Arnason, Professor of Fisheries Economics at the University of Iceland, argued against three common misconceptions of the fisheries: 1) that the fisheries profit (or resource rent) was derived from the resource alone, and not created in any way by the fishing firms; 2) that the holders of catch quotas were the only ones who profited from the system of exclusive rights; and 3) that a resource tax, imposed directly or indirectly on the fisheries, would not reduce the total fisheries profit. In addition to Professor Plott, the panelists discussing the papers were Dr. Tryggvi Thor Herbertsson, economist and former Member of Parliament, Helgi A. Gretarsson, Associated Professor of Resource Law in the Faculty of Law, and Hannes H. Gissurarson, Professor of Political Theory in the Faculty of Politics, and the author of a recent book brought out by the University of Iceland Press, The Icelandic Fisheries: Sustainable and Profitable, also available on the Internet.

The conference was well-attended and well-reported in the Icelandic press. Morgunbladid published 30 August an account of the lectures given by Gary Libecap and Ragnar Arnason, and 15 September an interview with Charles Plott. “I do not understand why people would try to meddle with a successful industry,” Plott said. “Auctions would be very disruptive for the fishing sector. They would reduce the incentives to harvest fish efficiently; they would harm the institutions in the fisheries. Ef you can buy and sell quotas in an open market, then things will take their normal course and quotas will be transferred from the less efficient to the more efficient.” Plott also discussed examples where auctions would make sense. The participation by RNH in the conference formed a part of the joint project with AECR, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe, Iceland and the Future of Capitalism”.

Slides Gary Libecap

Slides Ragnar Arnason

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Allocating fishing rights: catch history or auctions?

RNH is organising, with others, an international conference in the meeting hall of the National Museum Monday 29 August between 14 and 17 on a topic hotly debated in Iceland: Two ways of allocating fishing rights, on the basis of catch history (with transferability, implying that a market allocation by trade takes over after an initial allocation) or by regular government auctions. Gary Libecap, Professor of Economics at the University of California in Santa Barbara, gives a lecture on “The Allocation of Fishing Permits”. There he tries to answer the question what system of fishing rights is likely to produce most economic benefits in the long term. He compares allocation on the basis of catch history, or “grandfathering”, which has been most common in the move from free and open access, and allocation by regular government auctions, much-discussed in Iceland but not widely tried. He also discusses the experience of utilising other kinds of natural resources such as oil wells and land. Professor Libecap is an internationally acknowledged expert on resource economics and has published several books and papers on natural resources in the American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy and other scientific journals. He is a past president of the Economic History Association, the Western Economics Association International and the International Society for the New Institutional Economics.

Ragnar Arnason, Professor of Fisheries Economics at the University of Iceland, gives a lecture on “Fisheries Taxation and Economic Efficiency”. He analyses three common fallacies in the discussion on the fisheries: 1) that fisheries profits are generated only by the resource and not by the fishing firms; 2) that only holders of fishing rights gain by the introduction of an efficient system; and 3) that fisheries profits can be taxed without negative economic impacts. Professor Arnason has published widely in the field of resource economics and has served as an adviser on fisheries to the World Bank and other international organisations in many countries.

After the two keynote lectures a panel of scholars from different fields will discuss them, with Professor Birgir Thor Runolfsson in the chair. The four panelists are: Dr. Tryggvi Thor Herbertsson who as a former Director of the Economic Research Institute of the University of Iceland and a former Member of Parliament had wide experience in the field; Helgi A. Gretarsson, Professor of Law at the University of Iceland, who has published several books and papers on the legal aspects of fisheries management; Charles Plott, Professor of Economics at the California Institute of Technology, a renowned expert on experimental economics, with special interest in auctions; and Hannes H. Gissurarson, Professor of Politics at the University of Iceland, who has published books and papers on the ethics and politics of allocating private rights to utilise natural resources, most recently in the book The Icelandic Fisheries: Sustainable and Profitable, published by the University of Iceland Press in 2015 and available online. The participation by RNH in the conference forms a part of the joint project by RNH and AECR, The European Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe, Iceland and the Future of Capitalism”. It is also a fruit of the cooperation between RNH and IDDE, the Institute for Direct Democracy in Europe.

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Publication Party: Books on the Baltics

David Oddsson speaks at dinner 26 August 1991. Others from left: Algirdas Saudargas, Lennart Meri and Fridrik Sophusson, then Icelandic finance minister.

The Icelandic Public Book Club (Almenna bokafelagid) hosts, with the honorary consuls in Reykjavik of the three Baltic republics, a meeting and a publication party Friday 26 August 2016 between 17 and 19 at Litlatorg in the University of Iceland. The occasion is the republication, on this day, of two books which came out in Icelandic during and in support of the Baltic nations’ struggle for independence: Baltic Eclipse, Orlaganott yfir Eystrasaltslondum in Icelandic, by Ants Oras in 1955, translated by the Rev. Sigurdur Einarsson; and Estland: En studie i imperialism [Estonia: A Study in Imperialism], Eistland: Smathjod undir oki erlends valds in Icelandic, by Andres Küng in 1973, translated by then-law student David Oddsson. August 26 marks the 25th anniversary of the re-recognition by Iceland of the three Baltic states, celebrated at a signing ceremony in Hofdi 26 August 1991 with the three foreign ministers of the Baltic countries, Lennart Meri from Estonia, Janis Jürkans from Latvia and Saudargas Algirdas from Lithuania as well as Icelandic foreign minister Jon B. Hannibalsson who had been a strong supporter of the Baltic countries in their struggle. In the evening, the foreign ministers attended a dinner given by David Oddsson who had now become Iceland’s prime minister. A conference in late September 2016 in memory of the events of 1991 is also being organised by the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the support of RNH. The Baltic states were all occupied in 1940 and forced to become “soviet republics”, but they regained their independence in 1991, after a failed coup by hardline communists in Russia and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Tunne Kelam

The publication party will be addressed by David Oddsson, editor of Morgunbladid, and Tunne Kelam, MEP. Oddsson will tell the story of the Icelandic re-recognition of the Baltic countries, but also of his support behind the scenes, as prime minister in 1991–2004, of NATO membership for the Baltic states. A historian by profession, Tunne Kelam lost his job as an archivist as a result of his support for Estonian independence, and was employed for many years as a night-shift worker on a state poultry farm. He was the chairman of the executive body of the Congress of Estonia which was organised in 1990 parallel to the so-called Supreme Soviet set up in 1940 by the occupation forces. Kelam was member of the Constitutional Assembly in 1991–1992 and a member of the democratically elected Estonian Parliament 1992–2004, being Vice-Speaker in 1992–2003 and chairman of the European affairs committee in 1997–2003. He has been a member of the European Parliament for the Estonian Pro Patria and Res Publica Union since 2004. He is the author of two books on current affairs and was one of the translators of the Estonian edition of the Black Book of Communism.

Sandra Vokk

Sandra Vokk, executive director of Unitas Foundation, will chair the publication party. Unitas was established in 2008 by Mart Laar, former Estonian prime minister, and others  in order to defend Western humanitarian values against totalitarianism in theory and practice. The two books by Oras and Küng on the struggle for independence in the Baltic countries form a part of the series on “Documents on the history of communism” which the Public Book Club, AB, brings out under the editorship of Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson. Previously in the series have appeared Articles on communism, Greinar um kommunisma in Icelandic, by British philosopher Bertrand Russell, Women in Stalin’s prison camps, Konur i thraelakistum Stalins in Icelandic, by Elinor Lipper and Aino Kuusinen, Out of the Night, Ur alogum in Icelandic, by Jan Valtin (Richard Krebs) and Khruschev’s Secret Speech on Stalin. Professor Gissurarson writes an introduction and provides End Notes for all the books which are also published online free of charge.

The publication party is open to all and admission is free. The books in the series mentioned above will be for sale at a discount price, with some other AB publications. The series is a part of the joint project of RNH and AECR, Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, on “Europe of the Victims”. It is also supported by Atlas Network and IDDE, Institute for Direct Democracy in Europe. RNH is a member institute of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience which seeks to preserve the memory of the victims of totalitarianism.

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AB Receives Freedom Award

Jona, Laufey Run and Sigridur, under the watchful eyes of Jon Thorlaksson, the first leader of the Independence Party and a committed classical liberal.

AB (Almenna bokafelagid, The Public Book Club) received the 2016 Kjartan Gunnarsson Freedom Award, given by the Association of Young Independents, SUS, and named after lawyer Kjartan Gunnarsson, long executive director of the Independence Party and an untiring champion of freedom. Jonas Sigurgeirsson, AB executive director, received the award 21 July from Laufey Run Ketilsdottir, President of the Young Independents. It is given annually to one institution and one indidual who, in 2016, was Sigridur A. Andersen, who as member of parliament for the Independence Party has been an indefatigable frredom fighter in public life.

In his acceptance speech, Jonas Sigurgeirsson pointed out a problem that Icelandic publishers, struggling against odds on a very small market, had to face. It was that the state in Iceland, unlike most other Western countries, operated around a quarter of all publishing. A large government agency published textbooks for schools, and the state also produced audio editions of Icelandic books without any charge, allegedly for the blind, but in reality used by an increasing number of ordinary people in their cars and summer houses and on walking tours. Ms Andersen agreed that one of the most important tasks of the supporters of free enterprise was that agents in the marketplace could compete fairly.

In the last few years, AB has published many works for liberty and against totalitarian nazism and communism: In 2011, a 624 pp. history of the Icelandic communist movement 1918–1998 by Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson; and an analysis by journalist Sigurdur Mar Jonsson of the Icesave deals in 2009 and 2010, twice voted down in national referenda. In 2012, a translation of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. In 2013, a translation of Atlas Shrugged; and an analysis of the so-called “pot-and-pans revolution” in 2009 by historian Stefan Gunnar Sveinsson. In 2014, The Rational Optimist by science author Matt Ridley; a collection of scholarly papers on income distribution and taxation; and a translation of We the Living by Rand. In 2015, an analysis of scandals at the Icelandic Financial Services Authority by journalist Eggert Skulason; and reprints of three anti-totalitarian works, articles on communism by Bertrand Russell; memoirs by two women, Elinor Lipper and Aino Kuusinen, of Stalin’s prison camps; and Out of the Night, an account by Jan Valtin (Richard Krebs) of his time as a Comintern agent.

The next AB books will be reprints of two books on the Baltic countries, Baltic Eclipse by Ants Oras from 1955 and Estonia: A Study in Imperialism by Andres Küng from 1973, both with forewords and notes by Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson. They will come out 26 August 2016 when a quarter of a century has passed since Iceland was the first state to re-recognise the independence of the Baltic countries. At a publication reception, hosted jointly by AB and the honorary consuls in Reykjavik of the three Baltic countries, David Oddsson will make an address. It was he, as a young law student, who translated the book by Küng in 1973, and he was Prime Minister when the Baltic countries were re-recognised in 1991. As Prime Minister in 1991–2004 he also actively supported NATO membership of the Baltic countries. Distinguished guests are expected from the Baltic countries on this occasion. Another book soon to be published is Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Scottish historian Niall Ferguson. AB also plans to make the second part of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations available as soon as possible. The first part was published in 1997 in a superb translation by Thorbergur Thorsson. Historian Snorri G. Bergsson is writing two books for AB, on refugees in Iceland before the 2nd World War, and on the origin of the Icelandic communist party.

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