Gissurarson: Vices, Not Crimes

At a conference on policing and crime at Akureyri 6 October 2021, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director, argued that some vices should not be crimes. In his support he quoted St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, I, ii, Question 96, Article 2): ‘Now human law is made for the multitude of men, and the greater part of this multitude consists of men who are not perfected in virtue. And so not all the vices from which virtuous men abstain are prohibited by human law. Instead, the only vices prohibited are the more serious ones, which it is possible for the greater part of the multitude to abstain from—especially those vices which are harmful to others and without the prohibition of which human society could not be conserved. For instance, homicide and theft and other vices of this sort are prohibited by human law.’

Gissurarson discussed four disreputable activities, prostitution, pornography, insider trading and tax avoidance. Radical feminists hold that prostitution and pornography are not victimless: on the contrary, they say that both these activities involve the degradation and exploitation of women and should be banned. Gissurarson agreed with them that that prostitution was degrading, but not only for women but rather for all who participated in them. But this did not necessarily mean that it should be banned. Probably, the consequences of banning prostitution and pornography were worse than the consequences of tolerating and monitoring these activities. Gissurarson also pointed out that the internet had largely removed the rogue intermediaries who had in the past oppressed prostitutes and porn actors: now the sellers of sex were often in direct contact with their customers online. This at least weakened the argument from exploitation. The limited resources of the police should be spent on suppressing vices which were harmful to others, as Aquinas had said.

According to Gissurarson, the widely-held idea that insider trading was harmful was not necessarily true. How could you lose money on stock you did not own? It was wrong, Gissurarson submitted, to conceive of it as a loss for someone if he or she did not make the same profit from trading in stocks as an insider did. Of course the insider information should be obtained legally and not fraudulently, not by breach of trust. Moreover, it could be argued, Gissurarson added, that insider trading increased efficiency in that it hastened the adjustment of the market to new information. It tended to correct situations in which some companies were valued below or above their real worth. Gissurarson mentioned a famous example Aquinas used about a merchant from Alexandria who arrived in Rhodos after a famine. He brought a lot of desperately needed wheat on his ship, but he knew unlike the islanders that more ships were on their way. Did he have to reveal this ‘inside’ information? Aquinas said: No. He would be generous if he did so, but he did not act unjustly by not disclosing his educated guess that the supply would soon increase.

Gissurarson emphasised the distinction between tax evasion and tax avoidance. While tax evasion was usually both immoral and illegal, there was nothing wrong with tax avoidance when it simply meant that you tried not to pay more in taxes than you were obliged to do. It was no more wrong than when you wanted to travel and you searched for the best airfare online. Those who criticised it seemed to assume that the level of taxation was optimal which was hardly ever the case. Indeed, the possibility to move from one country to another was an indispensable source of information about the preferences of taxpayers, how much they wanted government to provide of public goods. It was also a necessary constraint on government. Tax avoidance was not only about the mobile rich transferring assets to low-tax countries. It was also about ordinary people responding to a heavy tax burden by switching from work to leisure. The main reason, for example, that the Europeans worked fewer hours than the Americans was that their income was taxed much more. Excessive taxation shrunk the tax base. Gissurarson concluded that tax avoidance was not only useful, but that it was also a virtue rather than a vice, because it was an instance of thriftiness.


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Gissurarson: How the Right Should Respond to the Left

Dr. Barbara Kolm and Professor Gissurarson.

The Left has made significant gains in the West over the last few years, especially among young people, despite the total failure of the socialist programme, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson pointed out in a panel at a New Direction conference in Lisbon 22–25 September 2021. The main theme of the conference was how conservatives and classical liberals could cooperate to meet this new challenge.

Gissurarson identified four reasons for the relative success of the Left: the common enemy that had united the Right in the Cold War had suffered an ignominous defeat; with the general acceptance of capitalism the Right has been deprived of its strongest argument against the Left; an ever-larger proportion of voters have become dependent on government for their livelihood; and the Marxists, in various guises, have taken over the media and the schools, producing a new left-wing generation susceptible to wokeism, ecofundamentalism and other fantasies.

Gissurarson said that the Left’s triumph was not inevitable, however. The Right need not retreat. China had started a new cold war which required the West to unite; many of the more fanciful spending programmes of the Left would utterly fail, and be seen to fail; in countries where the Right comes into power, it should try to reduce the number of government employees and beneficiaries, as the need for welfare benefits has greatly diminished with increased prosperity; and even if the Right should not try to limit the Left’s freedom of speech, it need not subsidise its propaganda in the media and in schools out of taxpayers’ money. But first and foremost, the Right must meet the intellectual challenge with arguments and evidence for the four principles which defined it: private property, free trade, limited government and respect for tradition. In particular, Gissurarson mentioned the huge global network of active and effective free-market think tanks which demonstrated time and again that government was more often the problem than the solution.

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Gissurarson: The Conservative-Liberal Tradition

Modern conservatives and classical liberals, and most libertarians as well, are members of the same political tradition of the West, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson argued at the Summer University of New Direction and Fundación Civismo in El Escorial near Madrid 14–19 June 2021. In two talks, on 14 and 18 June, Gissurarson discussed themes from his recent book in two volumes published by New Direction on twenty-four conservative-liberal thinkers, from Snorri Sturluson to Robert Nozick. Gissurarson pointed out that the ideas of government by consent and the right to rebellion were present in both the medieval thinkers he included in the book, Sturluson and St. Thomas Aquinas, although it was John Locke who presented the first systematic political theory in this tradition.

According to Gissurarson, conservative liberals supported the 1688 British Revolution and the 1776 American Revolution because they were made in order to preserve and extend existing liberties, whereas they opposed the 1789 French Revolution (as it evolved) and the 1917 Russian Revolution because they were made in order to reconstruct the whole of society by a small group of fanatics and to impose the values held by this group on the rest. The four leading principles of conservative liberalism were private property, free trade, limited government, and respect for traditions. Gissurarson said that in his opinion Friedrich A. von Hayek had offered perhaps the best synthesis of conservative insights and classical liberal principles with his theory of inevitable individual ignorance which could only be overcome by the discovery process of a free society.

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New Book Discussed on Television and Radio

F. A. von Hayek

On 7 April 2021, RNH Academic Director Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson was interviewed on television and radio on the occasion of his new book of 884 pages in two volumes, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, published in Brussels at the end of 2020 by the think tank New Direction. In Thjodmal, a television programme for subscribers to Morgunbladid, Gissurarson said to journalist Andres Magnusson that of the twenty-four thinkers in his new book he personally regarded Friedrich A. von Hayek as the most profound. He had reinforced the arguments for two seminal, yet little-understood ideas from Adam Smith: that one man’s profit did not necessarily mean another man’s loss; and that order could develop without anyone doing any ordering. Hayek had also strengthened the argument of Ludwig von Mises for the unfeasibility of socialism, pointing out that the dispersal of knowledge required the dispersal of power. Gissurarson added that an important message of his book was that the free market was a necessary and not a sufficient condition for a free society: what was indispensable was a moral foundation, respect for ancient traditions and virtues.

Snorri Sturluson

In The Mirror, a news-related radio programme of the government-owned National Broadcasting Service, Gissurarson explained to reporter Bogi Agustsson why he included Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson in his book. Snorri had presented two medieval ideas which John Locke had developed further in his defence of the 1688 Glorious Revolution: that kings were subject to the same law as others and that they could be dethroned if they violated their unwritten contract with the people. In Heimskringla, Snorri described the conflict between the ancient law based on fellowship, Genossenschaft, and the modern law based on lordship, Herrschaft: this was essentially the contrast between law by common consent and royal decrees. In a famous speech by Einar from Thvera Snorri had in fact been expressing his own view that the Icelanders should be the king’s friends, not his subjects. Gissurarson noted that Snorri was also the author of a saga about poet-warrior Egil Skallagrimsson who had plausibly been called the first individual in a modern sense, having a rich emotional life, and asserting himself in a feud with the Norwegian royal family. One reason why the celebrated Icelandic sagas were written down, or perhaps composed, was that the Icelanders may have felt the need to redefine their identity as the Norwegian kings were trying to subdue them and to turn Iceland into a tributary. Gissurarson said that the evaluation of Snorri had to some extent been negatively influenced by his cousin, historian Sturla Thordson, a committed royalist.

In the Market, the televised business programme of Frettabladid, Gissurarson agreed with economic journalist Thordur Gunnarsson that a left-wing wave might be rising among young people. But this was a common tendency of any new generation, he observed, with the exception of the 1980s and 1990s when socialists everywhere had been almost incapicitated by the abysmal failure of socialism in Russia and China, at the same time as Thatcher and Reagan, inspired by Hayek and Milton Friedman, had implemented ambitious and successful programmes of liberalisation. When challenged about Friedman’s controversial theory on the social responsibility of business, Gissurarson expressed his agreement with Friedman. Company managers should not use the profits they were earning for their shareholders to subsidise causes they themselves personally liked. Instead they should pay out full dividends and allow individual shareholders to allocate their own money as they pleased. But of course business had to operate within the limits of the law, including the unwritten law of customs, traditions, habits, manners, and precedents.

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Newspaper Interviews on a New Book

Photo: Mbl./Eggert

The three largest newspapers in Iceland have all published interviews with Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, RNH Academic Director, on the occasion of his new book, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, being published by the think tank New Direction in Brussels in two volumes at the end of 2020. In the online journal Visir on 27 March 2021, Gissurarson said that the distinction between avarice and enlightened self-interest was morally crucial, but that the magic of the market, demonstrated by Adam Smith, was to harness both sentiments for the common good. The publisher of his book was connected to the European conservative and reformist parties, but it should be recalled that many of the thinkers in the book had been politically active. Snorri Sturluson served as Iceland’s Lawspeaker for a long period; Edmund Burke was a member of the British House of Commons; Benjamin Constant, Frédéric Bastiat and Alexis de Tocqueville were all members of the French legislative assembly, and Tocqueville served for a while as Foreign Minister; Lord Acton was an adviser to Gladstone; Carl Menger was a member of the Upper Chamber of the Austrian Parliament; Wilhelm Röpke was an adviser to Adenauer and Erhard; and both Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman were advisers to Thatcher and Reagan. Other thinkers had however preferred the tranquillity of monasteries or universities, trying to understand rather than to change the world. Gissurarson categorically rejected the common assertion that the 2007–9 financial crisis had sounded the death knell for conservative liberalism or ‘neoliberalism’. Indeed, Hayek’s interpretation of economic crises, that they were usually caused by a prior monetary expansion, seemed appropriate in this case; and the worldwide response to the crisis was to provide banks with liquidity, whereas Friedman’s main criticism of the United States Federal Reserve Board during the Great Depression had been its failure to do so.

In Frettabladid on 30 March, Gissurarson defined a conservative liberal as someone who wanted to conserve liberty as the hard-won product of Western civilisation while recognising that in principle it could be extended to and enjoyed by all. He mentioned that he had been personally acquainted with five of the thinkers in the book, Hayek, Karl R. Popper, Friedman, James M. Buchanan and Robert Nozick. They had all been impressive personalities. In particular, Friedman had been witty and lively. Gissurarson added that he felt Snorri Sturluson and St. Thomas Aquinas both belonged in this group, even if conservative liberalism as a political position really only began to emerge with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in the United Kingdom. Both Snorri and Aquinas had advocated limited government, the former with reference to the old German tradition of consent, the latter by applying the concept of natural law.

In Morgunbladid on 31 March, Gissurarson recalled that he had thirty-five years earlier written his doctoral dissertation at Oxford on Hayek’s conservative liberalism. He had since then modified his views in two ways. First, he was now more sympathetic than some thinkers in the liberal tradition to the idea of nationality, the respect for one’s cultural heritage and the will of a nation to build her own state, as did the Norwegians in 1905, the Finns in 1917 and the Icelanders and the three Baltic nations in 1918. Secondly, he felt even stronger than before that political reforms should facilitate the mutual adjustments of individuals, instead of imposing upon them designs from above. Conservative liberals wanted evolution, not revolution. Gissurarson said that conservative liberalism did not depend on a utilitarian calculus. Man was a choosing agent, not a maximising machine, and there was more to life than material goods. A competitive economy was necessary, but not sufficient. What was also required was honesty, hard work, thriftiness, prudence, civility, punctuality and other traditional virtues. Life had to provide continuity and some predictability, at the same time as it should produce challenges and reward creativity. Thus, within the conservative-liberal tradition there was a fruitful tension between tradition and innovation. Gissurarson stressed that mankind had never had it so good as today, because of freedom, but that hopefully modern man would not only come to appreciate it if he, or she, lost it.

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Gissurarson meets with Iceland’s President

RNH Academic Director, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson, met with the President of Iceland, Dr. Gudni Th. Johannesson, at his residence, Bessastadir, on 30 March 2021 and gave him a copy of his recent 884 pages book, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, published by the Brussels think tank New Direction in two volumes. The book is also available free of charge online. Of the thinkers included two are Nordic, Snorri Sturluson and Anders Chydenius. Gissurarson was personally acquainted with five of the thinkers, Friedrich von Hayek, Karl R. Popper, Milton Friedman, James M. Buchanan, and Robert Nozick. Afterwards, Gissurarson and the President had a long chat on history. Before he was elected President, Dr. Johannesson, a professional historian, participated in some RNH events: for example, he chaired a lecture given in 2012 by Professor Bent Jensen on Nordic communism, and he read a paper on new evidence on the 2008 bank collapse at a seminar in 2015.

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