Gissurarson Interview in New Zealand

In June 2017, RNH Academic Director Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson published an article in The Conservative, published by ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) in Brussels, ‘Why Small Countries are Richer and Happier’. The article has been widely discussed, even by leftwing intellectuals like Nick Slater in New Zealand. On 15 December 2019, Professor Gissurarson was in a long Sunday morning interview at Radio New Zealand about his argument where he discussed the case for small states: they usually are cohesive and transparent, less aggressive, and maintain open economies which enables them to benefit from international division of labour through free trade. In some of them, like the Nordic countries and New Zealand, the Rule of Law is also a strong tradition. The chief weakness of small states is their powerlessness against larger and more aggressive neighbours (as the Baltic states discovered after the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact between Hitler and Stalin and Tibet after the Second World War), and this weakness can be tackled partly by alliances with other larger and friendlier neighbours (such as with the United States in the cases of Iceland and New Zealand) and by alliances between small states themselves: United we stand, divided we fall. Gissurarson also pointed out that Iceland and New Zealand had much in common in many ways. The Anglo-Saxon and Nordic political traditions were closely related.

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Critique of Rawls and Piketty

Piketty.

The French scholarly journal Journal des Économistes et des Études Humaines, published by De Gruyter, has put out an online version of a paper by RNH Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, on ‘Redistributionism in Theory and Practice’ where he criticises the two main icons of the intellectual left, John Rawls and Thomas Piketty. The paper’s abstract reads like this:

Rawls’ theory is about prudence rather than justice. It is about the kind of political structure on which rational people would agree if they were preparing for the worst. Other strategies, such as confining redistribution to upholding a safety net, might also be plausible. Rawls’ theory is Georgism in persons: the income from individual abilities is regarded as if it is at the disposal of the collective and could be taxed as rent. This goes against the strong moral intuition of self-ownership. However, Rawls’ question, where the worst off are as well off as they can be, is interesting. According to the Index of Economic Freedom, it actually may be under relatively unfettered capitalism. Unlike Rawls, Piketty is chiefly worried about the rich, seeking to impose confiscatory taxes on them. But the rich are not a fixed, unchangeable group of people who can effortlessly watch their capital accumulate. Capital is precarious, as is vividly illustrated in Balzac’s novel Père Goriot which Piketty quotes. Different as the approaches of Rawls and Piketty are, both of them agree that their ideal society has to be closed: It must become ‘socialism in one country.’

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Gissurarson: Conflict Between Groups, Not Man and Nature

A distinction has to be made between wise-use environmentalism and ecofundamentalism, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director, argued in a paper on green capitalism at the conference Weekend Capitalism in Warsaw 23–24 November 2019. Wise-use environmentalists want to utilise natural resources efficiently and therefore seek to reduce environmental damage such as pollution and overfishing. One of the most effective ways to do so, according to them, is to define private property rights (or exclusive use rights) to natural resources, thus appointing stewards, custodians or guardians. Protection requires protectors. Ecofundamentalists on the other hand believe that man and nature are in conflict and that the environment has independent rights against man.

Gissurarson pointed out that environmental conflicts are usually not between man and nature, but rather between different groups. One example was the whale in Icelandic waters. One group wanted to harvest it and eat it. Another group wanted to preserve it, even if whale stocks in the Icelandic waters are quite robust. For them, whales seem to be like sacred cows under Hinduism. Whales, however, eat more than six million tonnes of seafood in the Icelandic waters, including small fishes. The Icelanders, in contrast, only harvest a little more than a million tonne of fish. The demand by whale preservationists is therefore in fact that the Icelanders feed the whale for them withouth themselves being able to utilise it. They are like the insolent farmer who drives his cattle to his neighbour’s meadows, expecting him to feed them.

Another example analysed by Gissurarson was the rainforest in the Amazon. Ecofundamentalists wants to preserve it intact. The arguments for this are not strong, however, Gissurarson said. It is not correct that the rainforest produces a lot of oxygen, and biological diversity could be maintained in a much smaller area than the rainforest occupies at present. But let us assume that the arguments hold and that the Amazon forest is critical to man’s existence on earth. Then of course the rest of the world’s population should pay the Brazilians for maintaining the forest.

Gissurarson Slides in Warsaw 24 November 2019

Weekend Capitalism was organised by Tomek Kołodziejczuk for The Centre of Capitalism and for the Mises Institute Poland. It took place at the Warsaw Stock Market, and was sold out. The Freedom Lounge, a libertarian bar close to the Stock Market, in the former headquarters of the Polish Communist Party, was open in the evenings, offering cocktails with the names of libertarian and conservative activists. Gissurarson used the opportunity in Warsaw to see two old friends, Dr. Pawel Ukielski, Deputy Director of the Museum of the 1944 Rising, and Professor Leszek Balcerowicz, former Finance Minister and Governor of Poland’s Central Bank and the main author of the plan by which Poland escaped from the quagmire of socialism. Gissurarson’s participation in the conference formed a part of the joint project by RNH and ACRE, the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, about ‘Bluegreen Capitalism’.

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Jan Valtin in Poitiers

Richard Krebs (Jan Valtin)

One of the most telling documents on the Twentieth Century is the autobiography of Richard Krebs, writing under the pseudonym Jan Valtin, Out of the Night, published in 1941, RNH Academic Director Hannes H. Gissurarson suggested in a paper at a conference on Valtin in Poitiers 14–15 November 2019. Born in 1905, Krebs had been an agent of the international communist movement and a double agent inside the Gestapo before escaping to the United States in 1938. His autobiography, a best-seller in the United States, was hotly debated in Iceland in the summer and autumn of 1941, even before the first part was translated and published by the Icelandic social democratic book club, selling more than 4,000 copies in the tiny Icelandic book market. Stalinist writer Halldor K. Laxness wrote a vitriolic personal attack on Valtin, while economist Benjamin Eiriksson—whose earlier stay in the Soviet Union for more than a year had deprived him of many illusions—said that the book rang true. By their fierce campaign against the book, the Icelandic communists managed to delay the appearance of its second part until 1944, and then it was published by some individuals and not by the social democratic book club.

Modern research has shown that many of Valtin’s controversial assertions were true, Professor Gissurarson observed, for example about some Icelandic seamen being Comintern couriers and about the Danish labour leader Richard Jensen engaging in clandestine missions for the Comintern. Despite some inaccuracies and exaggerations, Valtin’s book is important for understanding twentieth century totalitarianism, Gissurarson concluded. In 2015, he edited a republication of the Icelandic translation in one volume, available both on paper and online, with an Introducation and Notes.

At the conference Swedish journalist Dennis Renfors discussed Jan Valtin in Sweden and the other two Scandinavian countries. As a Comintern agent, Krebs was being monitored by the security police in all three countries. In 1942, his book was published in Sweden, but out of consideration for Nazi Germany the chapters about his torture by the Gestapo were omitted. German historian Ernst von Waldenfels—who wrote a biography of Krebs in German, recently translated into English—summed up his research about Krebs, arguing that the heroic Jan Valtin of the book and its author, Richard Krebs, were not one and the same person, even if von Waldenfels would not go so far as to say that the book was a novel rather than an autobiography. Dr. Roger Mattson—who is currently writing a biography of Krebs in English—gave an account of the five last years of Krebs’ life, from 1945 to 1950. Professor Guillaume Bourgeois described the main findings about Krebs in the archives of the British secret service and in the dossier of French communist lawyer Joë Nordmann. The British files showed that Krebs had by no means exaggerated his importance as a Comintern agent. Professor Gildas Le Voguer analysed the interrogations of Krebs by the US House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Professor Bourgeois organised the conference which was lively, friendly and informal. Richard Krebs’ son Eric was present with his wife, reading out to the attendees in the evening of 14 November a selection of unpublished letters from his father. Papers delivered at the conference will eventually be published in a book. Gissurarson’s participation in the event formed a part in the joint project of RNH and ACRE, the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists, on ‘Europe of the Victims’.

Gissurarson Slides in Poitiers 15 November 2019

Mattson, Eric and Suzanne Krebs, Gissurarson, Le Voguer, and von Waldenfels in front of Poitiers City Hall.

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Vienna Conference: Hayek as a Conservative Liberal

Friedrich A. von Hayek’s political position can be characterised as conservative liberalism, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson argued in a paper at the VIIIth Conference on Austrian Economics (the School of Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises and Hayek) in Vienna 13 November 2019. It is conservative in its awareness of the limitations of individual reason and in its respect for tradition. It is liberal in its acceptance and indeed celebration of a concrete historical reality, the individualistic progressive civilisation of the West, built upon liberty under the law and bringing about human flourishing, not least in the exercise of entrepreneurship. A conservative liberal political tradition combining these elements can be identified to which David Hume, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and Lord Acton in the United Kingdom belonged, and Alexis de Tocqueville and Carl Menger on the European continent, besides von Hayek.

The strongest theoretical case for this position is provided by Menger and von Hayek, Gissurarson submitted, relying on the insights of Austrian economics. They can be interpreted as asking the ‘Kantian’ question how this progressive civilisation came into being without anyone designing it. The answer lies in spontaneous coordination, not only in the marketplace but also in the whole of society. Through the price mechanism and certain traditions such as money and the rule of law individuals can utilise much more knowledge than each and any of them possesses, while creating new knowledge in an experimental process. The free market order thus produces the mutual adjustment of different and often conflicting aims rather than the maxismisation of any one goal or value. This is an order which is purposeless without being pointless.

This research programme was outlined in Menger’s Untersuchungen, according to Gissurarson, and skilfully implemented in von Hayek’s works. With its help, conservative liberals can respond to the most persuasive arguments offered by conservatives: The free market may erode some traditions, but it also develops new traditions; it may lead to some suboptimal results, economically and morally, but within in much stronger self-corrective elements operate than in government. Again, von Hayek’s economics enables him theoretically to reject both comprehensive economic planning and extensive redistribution of income: Such planning is bound to fail because the planners cannot to a sufficient extent utilise the knowledge dispersed among individuals in society, including tacit knowledge and temporal and local knowledge. And an income distribution brought about by choices in the marketplace serves as indispensable information to individuals about where their different abilities and talents could best be utilised.

The conference was organised by Dr. Barbara Kolm and her staff at the Austrian Economics Centre in Vienna and took place in the premises of the Austrian Central Bank of which Dr. Kolm is a Board Member. Professor Erich Weede gave a keynote speech about geopolitics and international economics, observing that peace could be facilitated by free trade no less than by fear, with special reference to China. Other speakers included Professor Robert Murphy, Dr. Veronique de Rugy and Anders Ydstedt. Writer Tom Woods and entrepreneur Richard Stephenson received the Hayek Lifetime Achievement Prize. Gissurarson’s participation formed a part of the joint project of RNH and ACRE, the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, on ‘Bluegreen Capitalism’.

Gissurarson Slides in Vienna 13 November 2019

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Chydenius Pioneer of Nordic Liberal Thought

The Finnish-Swedish Lutheran priest Anders Chydenius expressed similar ideas as Adam Smith did in the Wealth of Nations, but eleven years earlier, claims Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, the Academic Director of RNH, in an essay on Chydenius which forms the latter part of his paper on pioneers of Nordic liberal thought, the former part being on Snorri Sturluson. The essays were published in the Swedish magazine Svensk Tidskrift. Born in 1729, Chydenius was a Swedish-speaking priest in Northern Finland who was elected to the Swedish Diet in 1765-1766. There he successfully proposed the abolition of a trade monopoly in Northern Finland and a law protecting the freedom of the press. He also published some pamphlets advocating free trade, including The National Gain (Den nationaalle Winsten), where he argued that the economy tended to establish a natural equilibrium if each and every citizen were left free to pursue their own objectives and interests. The pursuit of self-interest could therefore coincide with the public interest. Chydenius was however adamantly opposed to privileges and preferential treatment of individual classes or groups. When he was again a member of the Diet in 1778, he fought for better treatment of workers and put forward the idea that Lapland should be made a duty free zone. Chydenius passed away in 1803.

In the paper, Gissurarson also describes the successors of Chydenius who contributed to a robust conservative-liberal tradition in Sweden. Statesman Johan August Gripenstedt (1813–1874) implemented comprehensive liberal reforms in 1866–1976. Economists Gustav Cassel (1866–1845) and Eli Heckscher (1879–1952) not only were internationally respected scholars, but also firm supporters of free trade. Indeed, in 1947 Heckscher was one of the founders of the Mont Pelerin Society. In the heyday of Swedish social democracy, economist Sven Rydenfelt (1911–2005) was a voice in the wilderness. Gissurarson argues that the relative success of the Nordic countries is despite, and not because of social democracy. It rests, he says, on three main pillars, the rule of law, free trade and social cohesion, brought about by social homogeniety.

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