Madrid, September 2023: Advancing Freedom

Peter Hefele, Marko Milanovic Litre, Harrison Pitt, and Gissurarson.

The Brussels think tank New Direction each year helps organise a Think Tank Central where representatives of various think tanks in Europe, North America and elsewhere get together and share ideas, arguments and evidence. The 2023 Think Tank Central was held in Madrid 21–22 September under the title ‘Advancing Freedom’. One of the main issues discussed at the conference was whether classical liberals and conservatives could work together. In a session on the first day, Dr. James Orr, UK Chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation and Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at the University of Cambridge, and Dr. Yaron Brook, Chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute, explored the differences between those two positions.

Orr argued that conservatism was about what was closest to people, such as the family. Individuals in a civilised society had many ties and attachments, but the weakest one was the nation; it was however not just an aggregate of people happening to occupy a land mass, but rooted in a shared history. True freedom was always ordered, respecting a plurality of authorities. Society was not a wasteland of isolated individuals.

Brook observed that the last 150 years had seen amazing achievements in the West, innovations, economic growth and vastly improved living standards, and this was because traditions had been rejected and human reason been adopted as a guide in science, technology and industry. Unfortunately, the so-called national conservatism was a branch of collectivism, whereas the real opposites were individualism and collectivism.

In a session on the second day, RNH Director Hannes H. Gissurarson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Iceland, commented on the debate between Orr and Brook. He pointed out that the main thinkers in the classical liberal tradition, John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith, had all supported not licence, but liberty under the law. Edmund Burke—who had been quoted approvingly by Orr—had been a Whig, a classical liberal, but he had also stressed the need for collective identity. It was not only important what people could have, but also what they were or aspired to be.

Gissurarson recalled a debate he had had in Sydney in 1985 on conservatism with two distinguished scholars, John Gray of Oxford University and Kenneth Minogue of the London School of Economics. Gray and Minogue had been liberal conservatives, asserting that a competitive market was necessary, but not sufficient for individuals to flourish. Gissurarson had however presented what he called conservative liberalism, which was the classical liberalism of Locke, Hume, and Smith, but with the added insight of Burke, and of Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville, that a free society had to be based on a shared morality and a strong civic spirit.

The two differences between liberal conservatism and conservative liberalism were, according to Gissurarson, that unlike hardcore conservatives, conservative liberals believed that freedom could eventually be extended to the whole of mankind, although possibly some might at present be unprepared for it, and that progress was possible and desirable, at least material progress. The task was, Gissurarson submitted, to combine conservative insights into the human condition and the three classical liberal principles which had proved their worth over centuries, limited government, private property and free trade.

Gissurarson took issue with Orr’s assertion that the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ showed the inadequacy of capitalism. The tragedy of the commons was essentially that open access to natural resources led to their over-utilisation. The way out was, Gissurarson argued, the definition of private property rights to natural resources. This had in essence been done in the Icelandic fisheries, for example, where private and transferable extraction rights had been allocated to fishing firms on the initial basis of catch history. Now, the Icelandic fisheries were sustainable and profitable. Thus, the problem of capitalism could at least sometimes be solved by more capitalism.

Gissurarson also rejected Orr’s assertion that the weakest attachment an individual had was that of the nation. Every individual also had an attachment to the whole of mankind, to the ‘universitas hominum’ of the Catholic Church. While this attachment included the moral right to trade at will with citizens of other states, it mostly required that foreigners should be left alone except in extreme circumstances.

Some participants at dinner 20 September.

The other participants in the session with Gissurarson were Peter Hefele from the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and Harrison Pitt, Senior Editor at the European Conservative. Pitt’s introductory remarks can be read here. The session was chaired by Croatian MP Marko Milanovic Litre. A highlight of the Madrid conference was the Margaret Thatcher Dinner where Dr. Robin Harris, Thatcher’s former speechwriter and author of a best-selling book about her, gave a speech, where he discussed both her personality and her policies. She was, Harris said, both kind and tough, and she passionately believed in old-fashioned virtues such as hard work and patriotism.  At the Margaret Thatcher Dinner, Dr. Barbara Kolm gave the Dragons’ Den Prize for the best free-market project of the year to Ely Lassman of Prometheus Foundation. In Madrid, Gissurarson used the opportunity to have dinners with old friends, including Dr. Kolm, Dr. Brook, Lassman, Robert Tyler, and Terry Anker.

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Four Icelandic Sagas

On the occasion of the retirement in early 2023 of Hannes H. Gissurarson as Professor at the University of Iceland, the Public Book Club, Almenna bokafelagid, published in one boxed set the four condensations he has made in English of some Icelandic sagas, intended to be a handy and convenient present to foreigners interested in the Icelandic cultural heritage. The four works are 1) The Saga of Burnt Njal: The Greatest Saga of the Icelanders; 2) The Saga of Gudrid: The Icelandic Discovery of America; 3) The Saga of Gudrun: Her Four Husbands and Her True Love; and 4) The Saga of Egil: The Story of the Viking-Poet.

The Saga of Gudrun: Her Four Husbands and Her True Love has often and rather misleadingly been called the ‘saga of the people of Salmon River Valley’ (Laxardalur), but it is mostly about the beautiful and strong-willed Gudrun Osvifsdaughter, the great-granddaughter of Rollo the Walker, Normandy’s conqueror (while Rollo was the great-great-great-grandfather of English king William the Bastard, later called the Conqueror). The Saga of Gudrun is the most romantic of the sagas, about love, passion and honour.

The Saga of Gudrid: The Icelandic Discovery of America is Professor Gissurarson’s own merger of two Icelandic sagas about the well-documented discovery by the Icelanders of America in the year 1000 and the subsequent attempt to establish a settlement there, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red. Gudrid Thorbjornsdaughter is really the main protagonist in both of them. She tried with her husband Thorfinn and some other people to establish a settlement in America (probably where Manhattan is now) where she gave birth to the first European baby in America, Snorri Thorfinnsson, but the mission was abandoned after fierce attacks by native Indians. After her return to Iceland she went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Gudrid must have been the most widely-travelled person of her times.

The Saga of Egil: The Story of the Viking-Poet is probably written by one of the descendants of Egil Skallagrimsson, the chronicler Snorri Sturluson. It is quite hostile to the Norwegian royal family, as it describes a feud between it and Egil’s family. It is also remarkable for its description of Egil as a true individual with a rich inner life, expressed in his poetry, while outwardly an almost grotesque character.

The Saga of Burnt Njal: The Greatest Saga of the Icelanders is about the resolution of conflicts in a society ruled by law, but without government. In the Icelandic Commonwealth (930–1262), the law was privately enforced. Professor Gissurarson has expressed the opinion that one inspiration for the Icelandic sagas may have been the challenge to an Icelandic identity from the Norwegian kings who sought with increasing intensity in the thirteenth century to turn Iceland, a free commonwealth formed in 930 by mostly Norwegian settlers, into their tributary. The Icelanders wanted to stress their own identity, not being Norwegians, although they succumbed to pressure in 1262 and became subjects of the Norwegian king, while continuing to insist on their own laws and language.

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London: 300th Anniversary of Adam Smith

Gissurarson with Foreign Secretary Cleverly. Photo: Lord Hannan.

Adam Smith, the father of economics and also one of the most respected philosophers of all times as well, had his 300th birthday in June 2023. It is unclear when he was born, but he was christened on 16 June 1723. On the present occasion, Jamie Borwick, the fifth Baron Borwick, held a well-attended reception in the Cholmondeley Room at the House of Lords in Westminster Palace on 28 June, with the participation of the Adam Smith Institute. The Right Hon. James Cleverly, British Foreign Secretary, addressed the meeting and said that Adam Smith’s message of free trade was now as timely as ever. He reminded the audience that Smith was a realist in international affairs: he knew that freedom had to be defended not only by words, but also in action.

RNH Academic Director Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson attended the reception and had the opportunity to meet not only with the Foreign Secretary but also with old friends such as the two founders of the dynamic Adam Smith Institute, Dr. Madsen Pirie and Dr. Eamonn Butler, and with Daniel Hannan, the Lord Hannan of Highclere, and Matt Ridley, the fifth Viscount Ridley and a best-selling author on science. All four of them have given lectures in Iceland, and in 2008 when the British Labour government imposed an anti-terrorist law on Iceland, Hannan and Butler publicly protested. At the reception, Gissurarson also had the opportunity to chat with Friedrich A. von Hayek’s granddaughter Catherine Hayek, who expressed her great satisfaction with the recently published first volume of her grandfather’s authorised biography by Professor Bruce Caldwell and Hansjoerg Klausinger.

Dr. Butler, Lord Borwick, and Lord Forsyth.

In the chapter on Adam Smith in Gissurarson’s book, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, it is pointed out that Smith had significant influence in the Nordic countries, not least through three Norwegian friends and disciples of his, the brothers Peter and Carsten Anker and Andreas Holt. They had the Wealth of Nations translated into Danish two years after the English original was published, and as high officials in the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway they undoubtedly played a large part in the decision by the Danish government in 1787 to abolish the monopoly trade with Iceland and Finnmark. Moreover, one of the Anker brothers provided the house, Eidsvoll,  in which the liberal Norwegian constitution of 1814 was drafted and accepted. In Gissurarson’s book it is also pointed out that still many people do not understand Adam Smith’s two profound insights: that the gain of one need not be the loss of another; and that order can be achieved without orders, through reciprocal dealings, without commands from above.

In Iceland, Gissurarson has also promoted the Atlantic rather than the Continental option in Icelandic foreign policy. He has argued that Iceland, outside the European Union like Norway and Great Britain, should cooperate closer with those two neighbours, and with Canada and the United States, instead of joining the EU. It was important, as Adam Smith would have been the first to recognise, to engage in free trade with the whole world and not only within the EU. Europe should be an open market, not a closed state.

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Eskilstuna: Nordic Conservatives as Classical Liberals

From left: Tyler, Gissurarson, Hallén, and Toje.

In a panel on Nordic conservatism at the Young Leaders Academy, held in Sundbyholm Palace near Eskilstuna 16–18 June by the Brussels think tank New Direction, the Swedish think tank Oikos, and the Swedish Conservative Student Association, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director, posed two questions.

The first question was: Why should conservatives support the free market? Gissurarson’s answer was: Because the free market is the indispensable forum in which they can respect, cultivate and nurture their values and traditions. On the other hand, government by its intrusive and aggressive behaviour destroys those values and traditions. The free market is a force for stability and continuity, although it allows the changes and adjustments which are always necessary. Consider the family. You are born into a family, with your parents and siblings. But sooner or later you usually form another family, with your spouse and your children. Consider your country. You have ties and commitments to it, but you should also be free to leave. Your nation has to be put to the test of choice. As Edmund Burke said, if you are to love your country, your country has to be lovely. The nation is a daily plebiscite, Ernest Renan said in the same vein. New nations are formed, like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, all made up of immigrants. Change is to be tempered, not feared.

Most importantly, conservatives and classical liberals both recognise one fundamental fact of life, according to Gissurarson. It is the limits of individual reason, man’s inevitable ignorance, his frailty and weaknesses. The free market copes with ignorance by transmitting information through the price mechanism. The generations cope with ignorance by transmitting knowledge by traditions. What is essential is the spontaneous evolution of institutions and traditions facilitating choice and diversity. The only remedy for freedom is more freedom.

Oikos Director Mattias Karlsson, Dr. Asle Toje, and Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson at the opening reception.

The second question was: Why should Nordic conservatives support classical liberalism? Gissurarson’s answer was: Because being a Nordic conservative is to be a classical liberal. It is the reaffirmation of a long conservative-liberal identity and tradition, the tradition originating with the sturdy peasant who insists on his liberties and rights against arrogant kings, aristocrats and officials. This sturdy peasant refers to and trusts the good, old law. Long ago Tacitus described the German tribes that were essentially self-governing. There is evidence of assemblies from 852, in Björkö or Birka, close to Stockholm, according to the Legend of Ansgar. In 885, Rollo the Walker and other Norse Vikings were on the banks of Eure in Normandy. When they were asked who was their leader, they replied: We are all equal. In 1018, Swedish Lawman Torgny gave his famous speech to the Swedish king, reminding him of his obligation to keep the peace and allow farmers to trade across borders, threatening him to be deposed otherwise. In his history of the Norwegian kings, the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson tells the story of the conflict in Norway between the old idea of government by consent and the new idea of absolute rule by the grace of God. In the preamble to the Law of Jutland in 1241 there is an emphasis on liberties and justice and custom. The English had their Magna Carta, but the Nordic people had their charters, usually when a king took power. In the Rules of Judges by Olaus Petri, written in the 1520s, which are in all Swedish and Finnish law books there is the same emphasis on justice and liberties and custom. It is the law that governs, rather than individual kings. The law has to be acceptable. It is not at the sole discretion of the king. In the 18th century, Anders Chydenius presented the case for free trade eleven years before Adam Smith and also argued for freedom of speech. The Swedes passed the most liberal freedom of speech law in 1766. The Norwegians wrote a relatively liberal constitution in 1814, indeed under the direct influence of Adam Smith. In the 19th century, Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig articulated the common identity of the Nordic nations and emphasised the freedom of association and the necessity of education for all in a free society.

This Nordic tradition has withstood two attacks, Gissurarson added, first by the kings who to some extent succeeded in introducing absolutism for a while, and later by the social democrats who believed they held power by the grace of the People rather than by the grace of God. It is this Nordic tradition which explains the success of the Nordic countries: the rule of law, free trade, and social cohesion, brought about spontaneously, with a corresponding high level of trust. Needless to say, this social cohesion is now being threatened by those immigrants who refuse to accept Nordic customs and traditions.

Other participants in the panel were Robert Tyler from New Direction, Arvid Hallén from Oikos, and Dr. Asle Toje, Vice-Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Other speakers at the Academy included John O’Sullivan, Director of the Danube Institute in Budapest, Juan Soto, International Director of the institute Disenso in Madrid, Diana Furchgott-Roth of the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC, and Catarina Kärkkäinen of the institute Timbro in Stockholm. Lady Sophie Scruton gave the dinner speech at the Roger Scruton Dinner on 17 June.

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York: Enlightenment Thinkers on Commerce

Leonidas Zelmanovitz (Liberty Fund), Professor Spyridon Tegos (University of Crete), Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson (University of Iceland), and Professor María A. Blanco (University of San Pablo, CEU, Madrid).

On 1–4 June 2023, RNH Academic Director Hannes H. Gissurarson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Iceland, attended a Liberty Fund Colloquium at Middlethorpe Hall in York, England, about commercial society in the works of four Enlightenment thinkers, Montesquieu, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Benjamin Constant. Montesquieu for example held (The Spirit of the Laws, Bk. 20, Pt. 4, Ch. 9, Cambridge ed.) that ‘It is competition that puts a just price on goods and establishes the true relations between them’. He did not favour (Bk. 21, Ch. 7) ancient Athenian democracy where ‘the common people distributed the public revenues to themselves while the rich were oppressed’.

David Hume taught that the rule of law was crucial for developing and sustaining commercial society (Essays, Pt. I, xiv, p. 118): ‘From law arises security: From security curiosity: And from curiosity knowledge.’ He also wrote (xiv, p. 119), ‘That nothing is more favourable to the rise of politeness and learning, than a number of neighbouring and independent states, connected together by commerce and policy. The emulation, which naturally arises among those neighbouring states, is an obvious source of improvement: But what I would chiefly insist on is the stop, which such limited territories give both to power and to authority.’ Hume explained how the division of labour benefits nations as well as individuals (Essays, Pt. II, v, p. 315): ‘But would we lay aside prejudice, it would not be difficult to prove, that nothing could be more innocent, perhaps advantageous. Each new acre of vineyard planted in FRANCE, in order to supply ENGLAND with wine, would make it requisite for the FRENCH to take the produce of an ENGLISH acre, sown in wheat or barley, in order to subsist themselves; and it is evident, that we should thereby get command of the better commodity.’

Hume used similar arguments against protectionism as his friend Adam Smith (Essays, Pt. II, v, p. 324): ‘But this general ill effect, however, results from them, that they deprive neighbouring nations of that free communication and exchange which the Author of the world has intended, by giving them soils, climates, and geniuses, so different from each other.’ Much discussion at the colloquium was devoted to Smith’s denunciation of slavery (Wealth of Nations, Bk. III, ii, p. 387): ‘The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible.’

The colloquium was directed by Professor David Womersley of the University of Oxford, whereas Simon J. D. Green of the University of Oxford was discussion leader and Leonidas Zelmanovitz the representative of Liberty Fund. Professor Gissurarson pointed out that David Hume seemed in his Essays to have anticipated both monetarism and the Laffer Curve. He observed that Montesquieu derived the liberties enjoyed by Englishmen to their ancient German heritage (The Spirit of the Laws, Bk. XI, Ch. 6, Stewart translation): ‘It suffices to read the excellent work by Tacitus on the ways of the Germans to see that the English got from them the idea of their political government. This elegant system was discovered in the woods.’ Montesquieu in fact went further and said (Bk. XVII, Ch. 5) that Scandinavia had ‘that great prerogative that should place the nations living there above all the peoples on earth, which is that they have been the resource of liberty in Europe, which is to say of almost all there is of it today among men.’


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AB Annual Meeting

From left: Thordis Edwald, Jonas Sigurgeirsson, Karitas Kvaran, Armann Thorvaldsson, Hannes H. Gissurarson, Kjartan Gunnarsson, Sigridur Snaevarr, Baldur Gudlaugsson, and Rosa Gudbjartsdottor.

The Public Book Club, Almenna bokafelagid, AB, held its annual general meeting on 26 May 2023. AB was founded on 17 June 1955 in order to counter the disproportionate influence of the communist-dominated book club Language and Culture, Mal og menning, supported by Soviet money, the notorious ‘Russian Gold’. AB is now a publishing company rather than a book club, however. AB’s Director, Jonas Sigurgeirsson, gave a report about last year for the other shareholders, Kjartan Gunnarsson, Baldur Gudlaugsson, and Armann Thorvaldsson. Also present was the Academic Adviser to AB, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson. One of the most-discussed books published by AB in 2022 was A Banker’s Reckoning (Uppgjor bankamanns) by Larus Welding who was Director of Glitnir Bank when the Icelandic banking sector collapsed in October 2008. He describes the collapse, and the long and brutal criminal investigations to which he was subsequently subjected. The other book was The Impeachment Case Against Geir H. Haarde (Landsdomsmalid) by Hannes H. Gissurarson who argues that the process was deeply flawed by which Haarde, Prime Minister at the time of the bank collapse, was indicted and ultimately acquitted of anything except an alleged minor formal lapse (not putting the impending bank collapse on the agenda of government meetings). Even that conviction which did not entail any punishment, and with the state being ordered to bear all the costs of the process, was based on very weak legal grounds. Gissurarson has written in English a summary of the book which has been published in parts 1, 2 and 3 in the European Conservative.

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