June 29, 2022

The ‘Adam Smith of the North’: Meet Finland’s Founding Father of Classical Liberalism

Anders Chydenius championed freedom of the press, free trade, and equal rights before the law regardless of race, and freedoms of speech and religion.

February is the month in which Anders Chydenius was born (1729) as well as the month in which he died (1803) at the age of 73. I recommend that the Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland hereafter celebrate February as Anders Chydenius Month. It would be a great way to honor a man who arguably was the most notable “classical liberal” from that region of the world.

Classical liberalism should not be confused with liberalism in today’s American political context, which is virtually its opposite. The classical variety is historically the genuine article from which the name derives—a perspective that champions freedom and free markets. It supports a civil society that arises voluntarily and spontaneously, not an artifice that arises from some planner’s political edicts.

Classical liberals support liberty. American liberals mostly don’t; their ideological forebears stole the term as cover for a mostly anti-liberty agenda.

Intellectually a product of the Enlightenment, Chydenius was a Lutheran priest from Finland who served in the legislature of Sweden. (Finland was a part of Sweden until 1809, as was Norway until 1905). He was also much more, enough to earn him the description of “Renaissance Man” in some quarters. Aside from being a pastor, politician, and writer, he was a scientist, inventor, musician, eye surgeon, a vaccination pioneer and founder of a respected orchestra. A 2010 post at the Acton Institute in Michigan noted,

Known as the Adam Smith of the North, Anders Chydenius laid out his economic prescription for mercantilist [Sweden-Finland] in The National Gain in 1765, suggesting a concept of spontaneous order eleven years before Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations: “Every individual spontaneously tries to find the place and the trade in which he can best increase National gain, if laws do not prevent him from doing so.” For Chydenius, freedom and diligence were the foundations of an economically prosperous nation; direction from the government only gummed up the gears of a natural system of human interaction.

Among economists, the best-known work of this Nordic notable was his 1765 pamphlet, The National Gain. It was reproduced in its entirety, along with other works of the author plus commentary, in a 2016 volume titled Anticipating Adam Smith: The Selected Works of Anders Chydenius edited by Maren Jonasson and Pertti Hyttinen.

As a legislator ahead of his time, Chydenius once proposed making northern Swedish towns a kind of enterprise zone—in his words, a “free state” where private property and individual freedom would be the norm:

Inhabitants could choose whatever profession, freedom of trade would be complete, there would be no privileges, regulation or taxes. Bureaucracy would be nonexistent, and the only officer would be a judge who would oversee that no-one’s rights would be suppressed.

True to form as a classical liberal, Chydenius championed liberty of the press, free trade, equal rights before the law without regard to race or income, abolition of special privileges from government, freedoms of speech and religion, as well as transparency in public entities. Those ideas were radical in his day, popular a century later.

Lars Magnusson, in Anticipating Adam Smith, says that in the Nordic culture of Chydenius’s day, workers were expected to “serve their masters” because they were a kind of sub-class, a perspective Chydenius fiercely attacked. His “more humane attitude,” observes Magnusson, “followed from his very consistent interpretation of natural rights doctrine (as well as from his faith).”

Perhaps if Nordic countries had remembered this remark from Chydenius, they might have avoided the costly welfare state they erected in the mid-20th Century and later scaled dramatically back:

The more opportunities there are in a Society for some persons to live upon the toil of others, and the less those others may enjoy the fruits of their work themselves, the more is diligence killed, the former become insolent, the latter despairing, and both negligent.

Ideas, the French author Victor Hugo famously wrote, “are more powerful than all the armies of the world.” When we consider the explosion of human freedom in the 19th Century (accompanied, not coincidentally, by the greatest sustained economic growth in history), we must not forget the men and women whose enlightened ideas prefaced those developments.

Anders Chydenius was clearly one of them.

Neither Finland nor Sweden have forgotten Chydenius, fortunately. His image appears on some bank notes as well as on at least one commemorative coin. Places in both countries are named for him. That’s great as far as it goes. But hey, Finland and Sweden, you can surely do better than that.

This article, The ‘Adam Smith of the North': Meet Finland's Founding Father of Classical Liberalism, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.