On the occasion of Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson’s 70th birthday recently and his retirement as Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Iceland, a session at LibertyCon Europe, the annual conference of Students for Liberty Europe, held in Lisbon on 23 April 2023, was devoted to him. Robert Tyler of the Brussels think tank New Direction interviewed Gissurarson about his life and works, some of them still in progress.
Gissurarson recalled that Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago had made him an anti-communist, whereas Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies had turned him into a classical liberal, albeit with a conservative bent. Gissurarson and some Icelandic friends of his had founded the Libertarian Alliance on Hayek’s 80th birthday, 8 May 1979. In the spring of 1980, Hayek had visited them in Iceland and given two lectures which had stimulated much discussion. Gissurarson studied political theory at Oxford University in 1981–1985 and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Hayek. In the spring of 1983, Hayek came to Oxford and Gissurarson and his friends there asked him whether they could found a Hayek Society for the discussion of classical liberal and conservative ideas. Hayek allowed them to use his name, but only if they promised not to become Hayekians. ‘I have observed that the Marxists are much worse than Marx, and the Keynesians much worse than Keynes,’ Hayek said. The most active members of the Oxford Hayek Society had a memorable dinner with Hayek in London in the spring of 1985, and Gissurarson tells many anecdotes about it in the chapter on Hayek in his book about Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, available online.
Gissurarson also came to know personally the other main thinker of what is sometimes called (mostly by its adversaries) the neoliberal movement, Milton Friedman. Gissurarson first met him at the Stanford meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in the autumn of 1980, and in the autumn of 1984 Friedman and his wife Rose visited Iceland. Three left-wing intellectuals were invited to a television debate with Friedman. After a long discussion, one of them presented what was obviously meant to be a knock-out argument against Friedman. It was that an admission fee was being charged for his lecture at the University of Iceland, which was to be given at a luncheon the next day. ‘This has never been done before at the University,’ one of the leftists said. ‘This is not my idea of freedom.’ Friedman replied that this was a misguided complaint. When scholars had previously been invited to lecture at the University of Iceland, presumably their airfare and accommodation had been paid, meeting halls been rented and advertisements taken out. What the leftist was saying was that such costs should not be borne by those who attended the lectures but rather by those who did not attend. This was not his idea of freedom. The interesting and entertaining discussion is available on Youtube.
Gissurarson recalled that in the same autumn of 1984 he had, with some friends, operated an illegal radio station in protest against the government monopoly of broadcasting. The police tried hard to locate the transmitter which was moved from one place to another and finally, after eleven days of hide-and-seek, they managed to close down the station. Gissurarson was indicted and convicted for a violation of law. ‘This is the conviction of mine of which I am the proudest,’ Gissurarson declared at the Lisbon session. He added that this action had been successful because as a result of it the government monopoly of broadcasting had been abolished. He recalled many other incidents and battles both in and outside Iceland. His best friend, David Oddsson, Leader of the Independence Party, formed in 1991 a government which stabilised and liberalised the economy, cut taxes, strengthened the pension funds and developed further the Icelandic system of individual transferable quotas in the fisheries which made them both sustainable and profitable. ‘It is perhaps the best evidence of the success of these reforms how quickly the economy recovered from the financial crisis of 2007–9 which hit Iceland very hard,’ Gissurarson submitted. At the end of the session in Lisbon, he was asked what advice he would give to the young people in the audience. ‘Division of labour,’ Gissurarson replied. ‘Some of you should go into business, become rich and donate money to the cause. Some of you should go into academia and develop and strengthen the arguments and evidence for freedom. Some of you should become activists and try to make the idea of freedom accessible and attractive.’
More than 550 people attended the conference. Other speakers included The Lord Hannan of Kingsclere (Dan Hannan), Dr. Tom G. Palmer of Atlas Network, Professor George Selgin, Professor David D. Friedman, and Rod Richardson of the Grace Richardson Fund.