Bristol: Meaningful Life in a Free Society

From left: Dr. Eamonn Butler, Craig Biddle, Professor Richard Teather, Gissurarson, and the moderator Ely Lassman.

In what kind of society are people likely to be happy? was a question posed at a seminar at Bristol University on 17 April 2023. Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson replied that perhaps we should not try to seek happiness, an elusive and contested concept, but rather to avoid or reduce unhappiness, because then we know better what we are doing. Sources of unhappiness are for example poverty, violence, wars, and diseases.

There were two ways of tackling poverty, Gissurarson observed. One was to try to make poverty more bearable by helping the poor directly, as leftists wanted to do. The alternative was to try and enable people to get out of poverty by creating opportunities for them, as conservative liberals suggested. The system of private property, free trade, and limited government provided most such opportunities, as the history of the two last centuries has amply demonstrated.

To deal with violence, the state had to be strong, but limited by the rule of law, Gissurarson submitted. It was more sensible to keep criminals in check by robust law enforcement and strict punishments than to try and talk them out of their errant ways.

The liberal democracies of the West did not want to wage war on anyone: they were not about conquest, but about trade across borders from which everybody benefitted. Nevertheless, the world was at present not without grave military threats, as the recent Russian attack on Ukraine and China’s noisy sabre-rattling showed. Therefore Western countries had to maintain strong defence forces and to be active members of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Gissurarson quoted the ancient Romans: Si vis pacem, para bellum, if you want peace, prepare for war.

Many diseases had been almost eliminated in the last few decades, Gissurarson recalled, while life expectancy had dramatically increased. But there were always new challenges, and they should be met by utilising the creative powers of capitalism. Public health was best improved by high living standards and by flexible, transparent, service-orientated and cost-conscious health services.


Gissurarson pointed out that according to international surveys the Nordic nations were the most content or ‘happiest’ nations in the world. This was, he submitted, because they were quite successful, and their success rested on three pillars, a strong tradition of the rule of law, a firm commitment to free trade, and social cohesion, combined with a high level of trust. Gissurarson added that the Danish poet and writer N.F.S. Grundtvig had in his many writings well articulated the Nordic spirit of voluntary associations, societies, schools, cooperatives and other spontaneously developed communities which enabled individuals to gain a sense of belonging and to live a meaningful life.

Other speakers were economists Dr. Eamonn Butler, Dr. Barbara Kolm, Dr. Daniel Mitchell, and Professor Richard Teather, entrepreneur Mark Neild, and writer Craig Biddle. The event was ably organised by Ely Lassman for the Austrian Economic Centre in Vienna and Prometheus on Campus, and formed a part of the Free Market Road Show.

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