Gissurarson: Freedom of Expression in Social Media

From left: cyber security expert Prof. Eman El-Sheikh, Gissurarson, and Martina Colasante from Google.

The new social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, have gone too far in trying to censor content on their platforms, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson argued in his talk to a conference on digital freedom, organised by ECR, European Conservatives and Reformists, in Rome 10–13 December 2021. He recalled John Stuart Mill’s three classical arguments for freedom of thought and expression: that fallible censors might suppress sound ideas; that some ideas contained both errors and truths and that a free discussion was necessary to eliminate the errors; and that even if an idea was totally wrong, it would be a worthwhile exercise to try and refute it vigorously. Gissurarson added two further arguments: that in a democracy freedom of expression was an indispensable constraint on government and that it could also serve to vent off frustrations which otherwise would lead to violence.

Gissurarson agreed that the social media should adopt some restrictions on what could be expressed on their platforms, for example a ban on child pornography and on any incitement to violence. But the recent ban of President Donald Trump could hardly be justified in such a way. He had often been rude and offensive publicly, but freedom of expression was also the freedom to be rude and offensive. If the social media were strong enough to disconnect the leader of the most powerful nation in the world who had received almost 75 million votes in a recent election, how could they then treat others? Another example was the ban imposed both by Twitter and Facebook for a while on any speculation that the corona virus had escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan and not been transmitted from an animal to a person. This now seemed the most plausible explanation of the pandemic which had turned the world upside down for the last two years. This was a matter of vital importance, and yet the social media did not for some time allow their users even to mention it.

Gissurarson discussed the common response that Twitter and Facebook were private companies which could decide which rules to apply when offering their services. This was only partly right, he said: they were also common carriers like phone companies, private roads, and hotels. A phone company could not refuse to connect individuals because they spoke nonsense; the owner of a private road might charge a toll for its use, but he could not prohibit women from driving on it; a hotel could not refuse to serve people of colour. Moreover, Twitter and Facebook, and for that matter also Amazon, were so dominant in their fields of activity that there they enjoyed a near monopoly. You could go somewhere else if a newspaper refused to print your submission, but where could you go in cyberspace if Twitter and Facebook jointly decided to close your accounts and if Amazon refused to carry your books? Over the last few years all three companies had shown a left-wing bias. Either the social media had to define clearly some fair, narrow and transparent terms of use or they could risk losing the legal immunity that they enjoyed in the United States by which they were not held responsible for opinions and ideas expressed on the platforms they provided. Censors were fallible, including journalists and social media managers. The choice was between censorship and freedom of expression.

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Gissurarson: Snorri as a Conservative Liberal

Hannes speaking and Sverrir Jakobsson listening. Photo: Haraldur Bernhardsson.

The University of Iceland Centre for Medieval Studies (Midaldastofa) held a seminar 2 December 2021 on a theory, presented in Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson’s recent book, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers. It is that Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson could be seen as an early proponent of the conservative-liberal tradition in politics. Snorri (1179–1241) is probably the most famous Icelander who has ever lived, the author of the acclaimed Edda, on Nordic mythology and poems, Heimskringla, the history of the Norwegian kings, and Egil’s Saga, one of the best Icelandic sagas.

In his paper, Gissurarson pointed out that in Heimskringla (probably written between 1220 and 1237) Snorri clearly sympathised with two political ideas of the Middle Ages, that kings were subject to the law like everybody else and that if they broke the law, they could be deposed. Indeed, Snorri went further and said in a speech that he put into the mouth of farmer Einar of Thvera in 1024 that since kings were uneven, some good and some bad, it was best to have no king, as was the case in Iceland during the Commonwealth, between 930 and 1262. Moreover, Egil’s Saga was a celebration of individuality: the warrior-poet Egil Skallagrimsson was one of the first genuine individuals to step out of the mist of family, tribe, and region. According to Lord Acton, St. Thomas Aquinas was the first Whig, but it could be argued that it was rather Snorri who deserved that epithet. Likewise, Jacob Burckhardt had taught that individuality first emerged in Renaissance Italy, but it could be argued instead that it emerged with Egil. Gissurarson suggested that the Icelandic sagas were written when the Icelanders, challenged by Norway, had to reaffirm their national identity. Finally, Gissurarson asked whether Snorri’s political programme, to maintain friendly relations with Norway without Iceland becoming a tributary of the Norwegian king, was feasible. He pointed out that in late twelfth century, what is now Switzerland was forming in the Alps, an independent country without a king.

Professor Sverrir Jakobsson commented on Gissurarson’s paper. He agreed that liberal or anti-royalist sentiments could be detected in Heimskringla, but he questioned whether Snorri was in fact the author of Egil’s Saga, adding that in his lifetime Snorri did not really behave as an opponent of the Norwegian king. Gissurarson responded that the main source on Snorri’s life, his cousin Sturla Thordson, was obviously biased against him. It should be recalled, also, that Snorri was of course not hostile to the Norwegians. He wanted friendly relations with them, but not servitude under them.

Gissurarson Slides (Icelandic) Reykjavik 2 December 2021

Accounts of the discussion were published in Morgunbladid on 4 December 2021 and on visir.is on 5 December.

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Mont Pelerin Society Meets in Guatemala

The Nordic participants: Lars-Peder Nordbakken from Norway, Gissurarson and Nils Karlson from Sweden.

RNH Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, attended the special meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Guatemala City on 14–18 November 2021. The theme of the meeting was ‘Rising from the Crisis: Advancing the Future of the Free Society’. It was hosted by Universidad Francisco Marroquín which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. The University was founded by businessman and entrepreneur Manuel Ayau in 1971. Ayau, a leading member of the Mont Pelerin Society, was its President in 1978–1980. Some of the topics of individual sessions at the MPS meeting in Guatemala were: Is Freedom a Victim of or the Solution to a Pandemic? Is There a War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism? and: What Has Government Done to Your Money? MPS President Linda Whetstone gave a luncheon talk at the special meeting where she recalled that the Society was founded in 1947 by Friedrich von Hayek as an international academy of classical liberal scholars and men of affairs. In a special session set aside for MPS members to present their work, Gissurarson talked about his recent book in two volumes, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, published by New Direction in Brussels. Many of the thinkers discussed in the book were MPS members: Ludwig von Mises, Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke, Karl R. Popper, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Milton Friedman, and James M. Buchanan. The audience found of particular interest the photographs Gissurarson showed from past MPS meetings. The next MPS meeting will be in Oslo on 4–8 October 2022.

The closing dinner. From left: Terry Anker, Richard Bolton, Lord Borwick, Leonidas Zelmanovitz, Prof. Benjamin Powell, Prof. Hannes Gissurarson, Dr. Yaron Brook, Prof. Eduardo Mayora, Caroline Mühlfenzl, Dr. Nils Karlson.

Gissurarson Slides Guatemala 15 November 2021

From Gissurarson’s slides: The MPS 50th anniversary meeting in March 1997. James Buchanan and Rose and Milton Friedman in front row.

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Gissurarson: Recalling the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Marek Mutor, President of the Platform.

The Platform of European Memory and Conscience held its annual Council of Members on 11–13 November 2021 in Prague, alongside an international conference on the year 1991 in retrospect. The keynote paper at the conference was delivered by Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director, who argued that the failure of the Russian Revolution was not because the wrong people had made it, but because the Marxist project was unrealistic and therefore bound to fail. The reason was that without a capital market there was no way of making rational decisions about the utilisation of capital goods. The heroic Prometheus seizing fire from the gods, in Marxist mythology, therefore inevitably turned into the vicious Procrustes trying to force all his guests to fit in the same bed. Gissurarson recalled the failed coup attempt in the Soviet Union in August 1991 which provided an opportunity for the Baltic nations to reaffirm their independence after decades of occupation. Prime Minister David Oddsson of Iceland, long a firm anti-communist, used the occasion to resume diplomatic relations with the Baltic countries. Gissurarson emphasised that even if the Marxist project was bound to fail economically, it was by no means certain that communists would relinquish political power peacefully, as the coup attempt indeed showed.

At the meeting in Prague Marek Mutor, Director of the Remembrance and Future Centre in Wroclaw, Poland, was elected President of the Platform, and five organisations were admitted as full members: the Twentieth Century Memorial Museum (Czech Republic), the Georgian National Museum, the Jože Pučnik Institute (Slovenia), the UIPN State Archive (Ukraine), and the Museum of Communist Terror (United Kingdom). The Platform was the official partner of a film festival in Prague on twentieth century totalitarianism in Europe, held at the same time as the conference. Peter Rendek is the Managing Director of the Platform which has its main office in Prague. The Executive Board of the Platform has six members, Dr. Andreja Valič Zver from Slovenia, Toomas Hiio from Estonia, Dr. Wolfgang-Christian Fuchs from Germany, Professor Antoine Arjakovsky from France, Zsolt Szilágyi from Romania and Dr. Paweł Ukielski from Poland. The Board of Trustees includes Professor Stéphane Courtois and former MEP Tunne Kelam (who have both spoken at RNH events), former Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša.

Gissurarson Slides in Prague 12 November 2021

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Gissurarson: Thatcher as a Conservative

In a paper which Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson read to a meeting of the Danube Institute in Budapest 10 November 2021, he argued that Margaret Thatcher, Leader of the Conservative Party in 1975–1990 and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979–1990, was a conservative liberal, or what some (mainly left-wing) scholars call a neoliberal. Thatcherism meant support for the free market, but also for a strong state, albeit a limited one. Thatcher was not bent on imposing an abstract model on British society: she was rather trying to remove barriers to the spontaneous development of the economy, including breaking up monopolies, not only in heavy industry, but also on the labour market. To reinforce his argument, Gissurarson quoted Edmund Burke, regarded by many conservatives as their founding father: ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risque the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.’ What Thatcher did, Gissurarson said, was to reform in order to preserve. She wanted to defend the traditional liberties of the British people, gradually eroded for almost a century. For this she needed a strong state which was able to protect those liberties against militant monopolists such as Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Miners and against foreign aggressors such as Leopoldo Galtieri of the military junta in Argentina. But Thatcher not only won the Falklands War, but also, with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, the Cold War. She was, Gissurarson submitted, a world-historical figure in Hegel’s sense. The meeting was chaired by John O’Sullivan, a friend of and a speechwriter for Thatcher during her tenure as Prime Minister. A lively discussion followed Gissurarson’s lecture.

Gissurarson Slides on Thatcherism 10 November 2021

From left: John O’Sullivan, Gissurarson, Ferenc Hörcher and David L. Dusenbury.

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Gissurarson Presents his Book in Budapest

RNH Academic Director Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson presented his recent book in two volumes, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, on 8 November 2021 in Budapest, at a seminar organised by the Danube Institute, led by John O’Sullivan. In his introductory talk, Gissurarson said that he regarded John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith as the founding fathers of the conservative-liberal tradition with their defence of commercial society, spontaneously developed and based on free trade and private property. However, conservative liberalism as a separate tradition was only clearly articulated with the negative response to the French Revolution by Edmund Burke, Benjamin Constant, and Alexis de Tocqueville. The British Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776 were made to preserve and expand existing liberties, whereas the French Revolution of 1789 and, much later, the Russian Revolution of 1917, were attempts to reconstruct society according to the ideas of Rousseau and Marx, respectively. Such attempts were bound to fail, as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek cogently argued.

Gissurarson said that perhaps Hayek was the most distinguished modern representative of the conservative-liberal tradition. His theory of spontaneous order described how coordination without commands was possible and indeed indispensable, utilising both the price mechanism and time-tested practices. Another intriguing conservative-liberal thinker was Michael Oakeshott who argued that modern man had acquired the will and the ability to make choices and that accordingly the society fit for modern man was that in which government only enforced general rules enabling different individuals to live peacefully together.

Professor Ferenc Hörcher and Dr. David L. Dusenbury commented on Gissurarson’s presentation. They both criticised it from a conservative point of view, although they supported the suggestion that conservatives and liberals should stand united against socialism. It seemed to Hörcher that Gissurarson was really presenting classical liberalism rather than any kind of conservatism. What was lacking in classical liberalism was however a sense of community, an awareness of the many ties and commitments people had by virtue of their identity rather than their choices. In response, Gissurarson pointed out that especially Burke and Tocqueville were very much aware and in favour of such ties and commitments: they envisaged a vibrant civil society, not only an almighty state confronting separate and therefore powerless individuals. It was true, Gissurarson conceded, that commercial society destroyed or at least challenged some traditional communities, but at the same time it facilitated the formation of new communities. The best example was the family: there comes a day when you leave your old family and form a new one. Even in what appears to be a concrete, heartless jungle, for example New York City, there are many active communities, spontaneously formed, although not always visible at first sight.

Gissurarson Slides Budapest 8 November 2021

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