Gissurarson: What Explains Denmark’s Success?

ECR conference in Rome 25 June 2022. In the panel from left: Gissurarson, Adela Mirza, and Antonio Giordano.

The relative success of the Scandinavian countries is not because of the welfare state constructed by social democrats in mid-twentieth century, but rather because of the solid legal and social framework offered by the nation state, supported by a strong third sector, and developed mainly in the nineteenth century, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson argued in a lecture at a conference on the third sector organised by ECR, European Conservatives and Reformists, in Rome 24–25 June 2022. Gissurarson recalled that two prominent European conservative liberals, Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, both had emphasised the third sector, or what is commonly called civil society, constituted by the family, locality, congregation, voluntary associations, sports clubs, schools and last but not least the nation with its history, language, law, literature, legends, myths, folk songs, folk dances and other customs. Individuals were not only consumers and producers entering into enforceable contracts with one another. They were also members of several communities, with ties, attachments and commitmens which followed from this. It was this that often gave their lives direction and meaning.

N.F.S. Grundtvig, a tireless champion of freedom. Painting by C.A. Jensen.

One reason Denmark fared well was the strength of civil society within the country, as American philosopher Francis Fukuyama observed in a recent book, The Origins of Political Order. Economic reforms in Denmark inspired by Adam Smith had in late 18th century created a large class of independent farmers who became in the nineteenth century loyal supporters of N.F.S. Grundtvig, the great conservative liberal widely seen as the most influential interpreter (or even creator) of Danish national identity. Grundtvig, a pastor, was not only a prolific author of hymns, but also the proponent of ‘happy Christianity’. He was a firm beliefer in religious freedom and free speech, also for those of whom he disapproved. His adage ‘Freedom for Loke as well as for Thor’ is widely known in Denmark: Loke was a devious heathen god, whereas Thor was a heroic god. Grundtvig also contributed much to the people’s high schools established in Denmark and other Nordic countries in the nineteenth century. These schools provided civic education to many who had neither the time nor the means to pursue university education. Grundtvig called them ‘schools for life’ whereas the grammar schools which emphasised extinct languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek were ‘schools for death’.

Denmark became a country of social cohesion and a high level of trust, and civic virtues such as honesty, politeness, punctuality, and industriousness. Danish society was, and is, characterised by reliability, mutuality, solidarity, accountability, transparency, and a low level of corruption. Paradoxically, Gissurarson submitted, Denmark’s military defeats in the nineteenth century when she had to give up Norway to Sweden and Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Danes followed the memorable advice of another poet, H.J. Holst, that what was lost outward should be regained inward. They abandoned futile dreams of military conquests and focused instead on trade, industry, and modern agriculture in which they became world leaders. Meanwhile, Danish civil society was strengthened, not only by individual entrepreneurship, but also by voluntary cooperation in many fields, for example in free congregations, local communities, dairies, consumers’ cooperatives, and private high schools.

According to Gissurarson, the three main factors explaining the relative success of the Nordic countries in general and of Denmark in particular were the rule of law, an open economy, and social cohesion. The Nordic countries thrived despite and not because of social democracy. However, social cohesion in Denmark had recently been challenged by the influx of people from cultures hostile to free speech and individual flourishing, Gissurarson added. These people formed enclaves where they tried to implement their own illiberal customs, while they abused the generous welfare provisions Denmark offered. Gissurarson recalled the 2005 conflict between Islamist fundamentalists and a Danish newspaper which had published some cartoons of Muhammad the Prophet. Some imams in Denmark had even travelled to Arab countries in order to encourage them to boycott Danish exports. It was a conflict between the Danish tradition of free speech, for Loke as well as for Thor, and customs alien to Danes. But despite such challenges, Denmark remained a peaceful, prosperous country with a vibrant civil society. She was by no means perfect but perhaps it was the combined strength of her economy and the third sector which had enabled her to escape relatively unscathed from the social democratic experiment and other challenges. Indeed, even the Danish social democrats had already in the 1930s abandoned their abstract internationalism and become Grundtvigians.

Gissurarson said that the three great conservative-liberal thinkers in the Nordic countries were Snorri Sturluson, Anders Chydenius, and N.F.S. Grundtvig. The ultimatum delivered to King Frederick VII of Denmark by the people of Copenhagen on 21 March 1848, resulting in the end of absolutism, was a loud and clear echo of the celebrated speech by Lawman Torgny to King Olav of Sweden in 1018, as retold by Snorri. It was not a coincidence that Snorri’s chronicle of the struggle between Norwegian kings and their subjects was translated into Danish by Grundtvig thirty years before the end of absolutism.

The Danish Constituent Assembly of which Grundtvig was a member wrote a liberal Constitution for Denmark, signed by King Frederick VII on 5 June 1849. Grundtvig wanted to confine welfare provisions to orphans, the sick and the elderly instead of wasting taxpayers’ money on helping those who could help themselves. Painting by Constantin Hansen.

Gissurarson Slides in Rome 25 June 2022

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Gissurarson: Nationalism, Good and Bad

Photo: Stefan Kirkegaard Sløk-Madsen.

A distinction can be made between nationalism good and bad, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director, submitted at a CEPOS summer school in Copenhagen 12 June 2022. Good nationalism recognises the nation as a ‘daily plebiscite’, in Ernest Renan’s words, constituting a community to which an individual wants to belong, and the collective will to preserve its values and traditions, such as a common language, a literary heritage and a shared history. The reason the Norwegians separated from Sweden in 1905 was that they were and wanted to remain Norwegians, not Swedes. The reason the Finns separated from Russia in 1917 was that they were and wanted to remain Finns, not Russians. The reason the Icelanders separated from Denmark in 1918 was that they were and wanted to be Icelanders, not Danes. The same could be said about the Baltic nations, the Slovaks, the Slovenes, and many other nations, big and small. This kind of nationalism is first and foremost a reaffirmation of a shared collective identity shaped by history and circumstances and does not entail any rejection of or hostility towards other nations. It presents the nation state as a home, neither a prison nor a fortress.

It was true, Gissurarson conceded, that many nation states were quite small. But nevertheless they were quite feasible. The economic integration in the last few decades had facilitated political disintegration, or the breaking up of large political units into smaller ones. This was because ‘the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market’, as Adam Smith observed: by their access to a large global market, small political units could benefit from the international division of labour. Small countries were also often more homogeneous and therefore more cohesive, with a higher level of trust, than large countries.

Bad or aggressive nationalism has however caused great harm, Gissurarson added, not least in the twentieth century. It was a false and pernicious feeling of a group’s superiority and a desire to humiliate, insult, subdue and oppress other groups, and it almost invariably went with a distorted account of the past. It was about conquest, not trade. Gissurarson suggested that one reason for the relative success of the Nordic countries was paradoxically the defeat of Sweden by Russia in 1721 and the defeat of Denmark by the German Federation in 1864.  After these defeats, Sweden and Denmark abandoned their futile dreams of military conquests. These two countries moved from the battlefield to the marketplace. Swedish poet Tegnér exclaimed that Sweden should make up for the loss of Finland by harnessing the natural forces within her borders, while Danish poet Holst exhorted his countrymen to gain inside Denmark what had been lost outside, by developing industry and trade.

Gissurarson argued that in Ukraine today the conflict was between good and bad nationalism. The Ukrainians wanted to maintain a sovereign nation state. They were reaffirming their collective identity. Thus, they were non-aggressive nationalists. Putin’s clique in Moscow however had imperialist ambitions and wanted to extend their rule to at least parts of Ukraine through military aggression. The only peaceful resolution of the conflict was to invoke Renan’s concept of the nation as a plebiscite: Those who really wanted to be Russians, should be Russians, and those who wanted to be Ukrainians, should be Ukrainians. There was a workable blueprint for this, the plebiscites in Northern Schleswig in 1920, where one region voted overwhelmingly for belonging to Denmark while another region voted overwhelmingly for belonging to Germany. Accordingly, the borders were moved. Gissurarson pointed out that the problem of minorities remained however after any such plebiscites. He quoted Lord Acton’s remark that a society should be judged according to how it treated its minorities. There was also a workable Nordic blueprint for this, the way in which Finland had accommodated the Swedish-speaking minority in the Aaland Islands.

Furthermore, Gissurarson distinguished between positive and negative populism. Every competent politician had to be a populist to some extent, he said, not only presenting arguments, but also playing on emotions and interests, and identifying and serving possible political constituencies, as Ronald Reagan had successfully done in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. This was positive populism, Gissurarson suggested. Why should the devil have the best tunes? For example, Thatcher gained many votes by selling council houses to their tenants on favourable terms. Negative populism was however when a demagogue sought to rally large parts of a country’s population against some of its other parts, often an unpopular or vulnerable minority. Left-wing populists usually targeted the wealthy, whereas right-wing populists stirred up hostility towards groups portrayed as alien, as the Nazis did towards the Jews (and Gypsies and gays), and some European politicians nowadays against immigrants. Gissurarson said that he, like other classical liberals, supported free immigration (and emigration for that matter), but that there were three undesirable groups of immigrants: criminals; religious zealots who wanted to impose their beliefs (about the inferiority of women, for example) on the rest of society; and loafers who came to the West in search of welfare benefits without any intention of contributing. Most immigrants were however hard-working people in pursuit of a better life, and they should be welcomed. Gissurarson quoted the holy book: ‘You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ The difficult but not impossible task was to design tests for distinguishing between them and the gatecrashers.

In the summer school which lasted from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, Gissurarson went through some themes in his recent book, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, in two volumes. He said that in his opinion Friedrich von Hayek was the most profound modern political thinker. He told the students about his personal encounters with five of the thinkers discussed in the book, Hayek, Karl Popper, Milton Friedman, James M. Buchanan and Robert Nozick. They had all been fascinating characters as well as men of great intelligence and integrity, ‘sans peur et sans reproche’. It was crucial, Gissurarson added, not to conceive of classical or conservative liberalism as only an Anglo-Saxon project, although some of its ablest thinkers certainly had been British, the Scotsmen David Hume and Adam Smith; the Englishmen John Locke, Herbert Spencer, Lord Acton, and Michael Oakeshott; and the Irishman Edmund Burke. For example, the two Nordic thinkers he discussed in his book, Snorri Sturluson and Anders Chydenius, had presented some intriguing ideas and arguments. Indeed, there was a strong conservative-liberal tradition in the Nordic countries, embodied in institutions, customs and conventions and also articulated by philosophers and economists, most of whom were little known in the Anglosphere, unfortunately but understandably.

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Gissurarson: Conservative Insights, Liberal Principles

In the spring of 1983, Friedrich von Hayek visited Oxford where a few students had recently founded the Hayek Society, for discussions about classical liberal principles. At a dinner on that occasion, Hayek gave a short speech where he expressed his delight that young people were taking interest in his ideas. But he wanted to extract a promise from them: That they would not become Hayekians, because he had observed how much worse the Keynesians were than Keynes and how much worse the Marxists were than Marx. One of the those Oxford students, RNH Academic Director Hannes H. Gissurarson, recalled this story in his lecture to the European Resource Bank conference in Stockholm 7 June, co-sponsored by Svensk Tidskrift and the Swedish Taxpayers’ Union. He said that he had not always being able to fulfil this promise, as he indeed thought Hayek was the most profound thinker of what he had identified as the conservative-liberal political tradition in his recent book, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers. The question Hayek had posed was how man could accomplish so much whereas each individual knew so little. His answer was that he (or she) was able to utilise the knowledge of others, in the marketplace through the price mechanism, and between generations by respecting traditions, the accumulated cultural capital of a society.

Gissurarson also recalled several debates inside the Mont Pelerin Society, founded by Hayek in 1947. In St. Moritz in 1957, Hayek criticised American writer Russell Kirk (who was present), arguing that fully-fledged conservatives could not provide any guidance about what direction to take, only about how to resist change. In Sydney in 1985, Gissurarson himself discussed conservatism and liberalism with British scholars John Gray and Kenneth Minogue who both seemed to suggest that liberty was not only the product of a long tradition in the Anglo-Saxon nations, which might be plausible, but also that it could hardly be extended to other nations, or at least with great difficulty. Gissurarson argued on the contrary for universalism—that liberty could be a condition fit for all human beings, not only the Anglo-Saxon nations—and for progress, which manifested itself in the immense reduction of poverty in the world in recent decades, improving living conditions and increasing opportunities, as Johan Norberg had observed in his contribution to the conference. Conservative liberalism was, Gissurarson submitted, a combination of conservative insights and classical liberal principles.

Gissurarson slides in Stockholm 7 June 2022

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Gissurarson: Nordic Solutions in Ukraine

The history of the Nordic nations shows that the conflict in Ukraine could be solved, RNH Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, said in an interview by Magnus Thor Hafsteinsson at the radio station Utvarp Saga on 24 May. First, there should be a ceasefire, followed by plebiscites in the contested territories, in particular Donbas and Luhansk, on whether the inhabitants want to be citizens of Russia or Ukraine. This is the Danish solution: In 1920, contested territories of Southern Jutland or Northern Schleswig were divided up into territories with the inhabitants in each territory voting between Denmark and Germany. The northernmost constituency voted for Denmark, but the other two ones for Germany. The borders were rearranged accordingly. Second, although Ukraine certainly was a sovereign state with the right to apply at will for membership in international organisations such as NATO and the European Union, perhaps it would be wise not to provoke the Russians. But Ukraine could become a member of the EEA, European Economic Area, and thus enjoy economic cooperation with the West without considerable political commitments. This is the Icelandic-Norwegian solution: These countries are members of the EEA, which gives them access to the European internal market, and not of the EU, which means that they stay out of European politics. Thirdly, the rights of minorities had to be protected both in Russia and Ukraine. This is the Finnish solution, because the Swedish-speaking inhabitants of the Aland Islands once wanted to join Sweden rather than Finland, but after the Finnish authorities granted them autonomy, they have no desire to leave Finland.

Is the gender gap mainly because of motherhood?

As a Professor of Politics at the University of Iceland, Gissurarson was also asked about academic freedom in the era of cancel culture and wokeism. He said that it was certainly a worry. Most university teachers and students in the humanities and social sciences seemed to belong to the radical left. They were trying to impose what they considered ‘political correctness’ on academia. Some topics were almost forbidden at universities, such as rational explanations of the income gender gap in terms of individual career choices rather than any evil ‘patriarchy’ or the patent failure of development aid where, according to Gissurarson, the alternatives were really development without aid, as in Hong Kong and South Korea, or aid without development, as in Tanzania and the Cape Verde Islands. He took an example from his own experience. In the discussion in his political theory class on victimless crimes he had pointed out a humanitarian argument for prostitution. It was that perhaps grossly obese, very ugly or severely handicapped people might not be able to attract sexual partners by relying on choice alone. Their only way of having sex with others would therefore be to pay for it. Because of this speculative argument (which did not necessarily reflect his own opinions) Gissurarson was reported by feminist extremists to the university authorities for ‘fatism’ or prejudice against obese people, although nothing became in the end of the issue, as few took it seriously.

Professor Gissurarson was asked about the book of poems which had been published about him by Sigfus Bjartmars and about the two plays staged in Reykjavik with him as a main character, one by Bragi Olafsson in the National Theatre, the other one by Mikael Torfason and Thorleifur Orn Arnarson in the City Theatre. He replied that the poems by Bjartmars were amusing and well-constructed but that they showed a profound misunderstanding of the fascinating idea presented by conservative liberalism that the profit of one need not be the loss of another, and that order could be established in society without commands from above. The play by Torfason and Arnarson had been moderately interesting, and occasionally quite lively, but unfortunately the play by Olafsson had been a total failure, not only artistically but also commercially. He himself had not even bothered to see it. Gissurarson expressed the hope that if leftwingers wanted to write plays about him, as they were certainly free to do, they should at least be entertaining.

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Gissurarson: Property Rights for Indigenous People

From left: Gissurarson, Gunnlaugsson, Roos, Giordani, and de Chevilly. Photo: Lukas Schweiger.

Indigenous People in the Arctic regions should not be treated like museum pieces; they wish to be regarded as nations, not as the keepers of national parks, RNH Academic Director Hannes H. Gissurarson said at a seminar on Arctic Policy, held by Brussels think tank New Direction in Reykjavik on 23 May 2022. He discussed in particular the question of whaling. The Icelanders harvest whales against the vehement protests of American preservationists. But what those preservationists are really demanding is that the Icelanders feed the whales for them, without having any right themselves to utilise the resource. This was as if a truculent farmer would drive his cows to a meadow owned by his neighbour and let them graze there, but not allow the other farmer to utilise them in any way, such as milking them or using the meat and the hide. The two whale stocks in Icelandic waters, the minke whale and the fin whale, were in ample supply and certainly not in any danger of extinction, Gissurarson said. Indeed, in the Icelandic waters whales each year consume according to estimates about six million tonnes of seafood, such as krill and small fish, whereas the Icelanders themselves harvest a little more than one million tonnes of fish. If the American preservationists wanted the Icelanders to feed the whales for them, then they should pay for it.

Whaling was and is a traditional practice among indigenous peoples in the Arctic. Gissurarson suggested that these peoples should be given private property rights to whale stocks and to other marine resources in their vicinity, not unlike the individual transferable quotas that have been developed in the Icelandic fisheries which consequently are both sustainable and profitable, unlike most other fisheries in the world. As the recent offer by U.S. President Donald Trump to buy Greenland was brought up in the discussion, Gissurarson recalled five attempts to sell Iceland. Danish King Christian II tried twice and King Christian III once to sell her to English King Henry VIII; Danish King Christian IV tried once to sell her to Hamburg merchants; and soon after the United States purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward studied the possibility of buying Iceland and Greenland from Denmark. Then, the proposal was ridiculed in the American Congress where little need was seen to add glaciers in Greenland and geysers in Iceland to the United States. This showed however, Gissurarson submitted, that interest in small and remote countries could vary over time. Nobody wanted Iceland in the past; everybody wanted her during the Second World War and the Cold War; nobody wanted her again after that; but now there was anew much interest in some military presence of the Western powers in Iceland as China and Russia seemed jointly to be starting a new cold war against the West.

Soini and Thordarson. Photo: Lukas Schweiger.

Several other Icelanders participated in the seminar. Professor Baldur Thorhallsson argued that Iceland had to develop her own security forces. The country could not be totally defenceless as she has been since the Americans abandoned their military base in Keflavik in 2006. Former Prime Minister Sigmundur D. Gunnlaugsson deplored the modern tendency to regard animals and plants as somehow morally superior to human beings. He suggested that the Northeast of Iceland would be an ideal location for a large port serving the Arctic Ocean. Professor Ragnar Arnason described the cooperation at present between Arctic and sub-Arctic nations about utilisation of straddling or migratory fish stocks. He commented that it might cause great trouble if one of the most important participants in this process, Russia, would turn her back on it and start harvesting fish indiscriminately. Environment Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson pointed out that Icelanders used mostly renewable energy sources, geothermal and hydroelectric power. Iceland had to prepare herself for climate changes, although the sea level probably would not rise much in Iceland if the glaciers of Greenland would largely melt away. Antonio Giordano, Secretary General of ECR Party (European Conservatives and Reformists) gave welcome remarks at the seminar. Other speakers and participants included Timo Soini, former Foreign Minister of Finland, Dr. Harry Nedelcu at Rasmussen Global, a consultancy operated by Anders Fogh-Rasmussen, former Danish Prime Minister and NATO General Secretary, Professors Doaa Abdel-Motaal and Alan Riley, Rob Roos, Dutch MEP and Vice Chairman of the ECR Group in the European Parliament, Witold d’Humilly de Chevilly, Executive Director of New Direction, and Robert Tyler, Senior Policy Advisor at New Direction.

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Gissurarson: the Nordic Conservative-Liberal Tradition

Anders Chydenius

While American and European leftwingers often single out Sweden and the other Nordic countries as examples of successful socialism, in fact there is a strong conservative-liberal tradition there, embodied in institutions and articulated by able and persuasive thinkers, RNH Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, argued in a talk to a conference of Nordic conservative students in Oslo 21 May 2022. He pointed out that Snorri Sturluson had in Heimskringla, his history of the Norwegian kings, expressed sympathy with the ancient ideas that kings were subject to the same laws as their subject and that they could be deposed if they violated those laws. Indeed, in the speech he composed in the name of an Icelandic farmer, Snorri even suggested that it was best to have no king but the law. Again, the Fenno-Swedish writer Anders Chydenius presented a theory about the mutual benefit from trade, eleven years before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published. It was also little known, Gissurarson added, that the 1814 Eidsvoll Constitution of Norway, the most liberal constitution in Europe at the time and still in force, was heavily influenced by two personal friends and disciples of Adam Smith, the Anker Brothers.


According to Gissurarson, the conservative-liberal tradition could be defined as the support of private property, free trade, and limited government, combined with a respect for spontaneously developed traditions. Gissurarson mentioned the liberal Nordic statesmen of the nineteenth century who implemented wide-ranging and sweeping liberal reforms, Johan August Gripenstedt in Sweden, Anton Martin Schweigaard in Norway and many others, and the strong liberal tradition in Swedish economics in the first half of the twentieth century, defined and developed by Gustav Cassel, Eli Heckscher, and Bertil Ohlin. Many Nordic thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were also individualists even if they could perhaps not be characterised as conservative liberals, for example N. F. S. Grundtvig, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Georg Brandes, and Knut Wicksell. In Gissurarson’s own country Iceland, Brandes and Ibsen made a great impact, and Cassel inspired Jon Thorlaksson, the founder of the Independence Party. Gissurarson argued that the relative success on most criteria of the Nordic countries was despite, and not because of, the political dominance of social democrats in the twentieth century. It could be attributed to a firm tradition of the rule of law, including the protection of private property, a commitment to free trade, and a high level of trust and social cohesion, while the strong conservative-liberal tradition had acted as an intellectual and political constraint on socialist schemes.

Scruton. Photo: Pete Helme.

The panel in which Gissurarson participated was moderated by philosopher Øyvind J.V. Evenstad. The conference was sponsored by the Brussels think tank New Direction and the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation and mainly devoted to the ideas of British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton who passed away in January 2020. The topics discussed in panels reflected his many and diverse interests: sexuality, courtship, and marriage; Western civilisation; the crisis of modern architecture in Europe; green conservatism; Nordic conservatism; and sovereignty and the nation state from a European perspective. Professor Gissurarson recalled his conversations with Sir Roger and pointed out that over time he became more sympathetic to Friedrich A. von Hayek’s political position, as could be seen in his contribution, ‘Hayek and Conservatism’, to the Cambridge Companion to Hayek (2007). Hungarian Professor Ferenc Hörcher gave a talk at the end of the conference about the life and legacy of Sir Roger. Another highlight of the conference was when painter Øde Nerdrum gave a keynote talk about Western civilisation. The singer Countess Elizabet Torolphi Mörner entertained the participants at the closing dinner, with Ase Mathiesen Palm on the piano. On that occasion, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, former Prime Minister of Iceland and an admirer of Sir Roger Scruton’s work, gave the after-dinner speech. The conference was ably organised by Petter Kirkeholmen, Knut Haraldsen, and Haakon Teig, with around 150 paying participants. It was taped and is available online.

Gissurarson Slides in Oslo 21 May 2022

Photo: Robert Tyler.

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