The 18th‐century writer, politician, and clergyman Anders Chydenius is one of the great founding fathers of Nordic classical liberalism. He played a crucial role in repealing restrictive economic policies, promoting religious toleration, and most importantly, abolishing censorship and protecting free speech.
Coming from the humble position of a rural clergy member, the Swedish Anders Chydenius shocked his contemporaries with his radical arguments in favour of the free market and a minimal state. Anders dedicated his life to defending the economic liberty of the least represented in society. During his life, he repealed backward economic policies, protected religious minorities’ rights, and played a crucial role in establishing the principle of free speech in law.
Nordic countries are constantly praised for their forward thinking policies and their inventive ways of dealing with economic issues. Sweden for example has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, a high quality of life score, a government that protects civil liberties, a high degree of equality between genders, and economic competitiveness. Sweden today sounds like an amazing place to live, but it was definitely not always this way, for a time, Sweden like many other countries were extremely poor and under‐populated. Today I will be discussing one of the founding fathers of Noridc liberalism, the great Anders Chydenius from the 18th century, a person who helped push Sweden towards liberal values through his passionate arguments for the economic freedom of all sects of society and his crusade against entrenched privileges unevenly distributed by the state.
Anders Chydenius was born on February 26th, 1729, in an area now part of Finland but then part of Sweden called Sotkamo, where his father Jacob Chydenius was a Lutheran chaplain. He was the second of eight children. Five years after Anders’ birth, the Chydenius family moved to Kuusamo in 1734, where his father took up a position as a rector for the small parish located in a harsh environment in what is today northern Finland. Despite his father’s new parish covering a colossal amount of ground, it was home to only 900 souls. As Anders grew up, he witnessed the poverty and hardship of the hardworking farmers amongst whom he lived. He sympathized with their plight but did not yet understand why they were poor or how their suffering could be alleviated.
Ander’s father was an excellent role model who diligently educated Anders and his older brother Samuel at home. Later in life, Anders would write that all that he had achieved was owed to God and his father’s instruction. Unlike many teachers at the time, Anders’ father saw no point in forcing children to memorize tracts of text; instead, he wanted to develop in his children what we now call critical thinking, the ability to think clearly and rationally while seeing the connection of ideas.
After being homeschooled by his father, Anders and his brother attended two different grammar schools and eventually began academic studies together at the Royal Academy in Turku, finally moving into Uppsala University. At Turku, Anders studied philosophy and theology, while at Uppsala, he studied philosophy and theology and mathematics, astronomy, Greek, and mechanics. He would later write his dissertation, in 1753, on American birch bark canoes, his idea being that this could hopefully benefit the rural parishioners among whom he grew up. This earned him the nickname Birch‐bark Andy among his fellow students. A constant theme of Anders life was his dedication to improving existing methods to usher in material and moral progress.
Anders was greatly influenced by Professor Henrik Hassel who introduced Anders to a scientific method of thought. Hassel believed that knowledge is based on experience gained through the senses and the application of reason; and saw no purpose in metaphysical speculations common to more scholastic philosophers. Akin to the English Francis Bacon, Hassel believed that the purpose of knowledge was to improve human affairs.
After finishing his studies, Anders decided that, instead of following his brother’s footsteps in an academic career; he would follow in his father’s, becoming ordained as a chaplain in 1754. His parish of Alaveteli was only twenty kilometers away from his father’s parish of Kokkola. In his old age, Anders’ father had begun to become hard of hearing, and Anders did his best to support and care for his father while also performing the relentless tasks of a chaplain, a position notable for its lack of glory.
Inspired by his father’s example, Anders dedicated himself to the 570 parishioners of Alaveteli, nearly all of whom were farmers. By 1755 Anders married Beata Magdalena Mellberg, the daughter of a merchant. Living off a meager stipend, Anders and his wife diligently worked to bolster their income by growing herbs and vegetables, rearing cattle, and selling tobacco. Quite the industrious couple. During this period, he wrote his first‐ever piece of published writing, two pamphlets, one on farming on moss‐grown fields and another on improving marshes. While not exactly the most exhilarating topic, both were awarded medals from the Royal Academy of Science, proving both the intellect and capability of Anders. Ever the man of science, he also taught himself the basics of practicing medicine, and for a time, was known as a reliable yet unlicensed medical practitioner. He inoculated many parishioners’ children against small‐pox and even successfully performed operations. Always eager to record his results Anders, published a report on his experience inoculating children against small‐pox.
And on top of all these practical considerations, Anders was by all accounts an excellent priest. His sermons became quite popular with people regularly travelling from outside his parish to hear Anders preach. Dedicated to people’s souls’ spiritual welfare, Anders even invited people to his home to give them spiritual advice. In short, Anders became a pillar of the community, and for seventeen years, he diligently served to the best of his considerable abilities.
Anders lived a diligent and virtuous life, completely separate from politics, but this was to change. By 1756 he had begun to read political pamphlets, especially ones on the topics of censorship, bureaucracy, and the unfair privileges granted to elites. In 1761 and 1762, Anders wrote his first political pamphlets but did not publish them, possibly nervous about their likely reception.
Both Anders and his father’s parishes were part of a province called Ostrobothnia. Since 1617, a sailing code had greatly restricted people’s rights from Ostrobothnia by only allowing two cities to export goods, Stockholm and Turku. This was a completely unfair system that gave places like Stockholm a monopoly on the export and import of products while depriving others of making a living trading. Ostrobothinians had tried numerous times to petition the Swedish government but to no avail. By 1763 Anders was asked to produce a written argument for why the Ostrobothnia restrictions should be lifted. Originally Anders intended his arguments to be anonymous and for another to present his writing. However, when no one was willing to deliver a speech, he stepped up to the plate and gave a rousing speech that made a lasting impression on observers. He argued that no special privileges should be given to some to the detriment of others. Free trade was an egalitarian policy that would greatly benefit the industrious, not the idle.
Quickly following this meeting, an essay competition was announced by the Royal Academy of Science on the question of why so many Swedes were emigrating and how to stop this phenomenon. The stock answer as to why so many Swedes emigrated was that they were lazy and wanted an easy life abroad, but Anders did not subscribe to this thinking. He explained that people left Sweden due to a lack of opportunity and that this lack of opportunity was not due to laziness but the fault of the law. He explained that there were too many regulations, restrictions, and taxes that curtailed people from generating a profitable livelihood. Because of the oppressive systems of restrictions, Swedes left their homeland to pursue the making of a living abroad where they worked unhampered by excessive laws. People are naturally productive, and the solution to most problems was not to constrain people but instead to allow them to be free and unleash their abilities.
What Anders wanted to articulate was that people were willing to leave their home, travel to a foreign land where they didn’t know the language or the customs, all to improve their lives. The reality is that the Swedish are not lazy; they are actually extremely diligent and industrious. It is the state’s fault because it restricts their talents by erecting barriers to entry to trades and businesses and excessive taxing any profits that they end up securing despite all of the hurdles in their way. He concluded that “A fatherland without freedom and livelihood is a big word that signifies little.” Anders’ essay was far too radical as it roundly condemned Sweden’s government for suppressing the ability of people to better their lives through an overly restrictive state that enriched a few at the expense of many, and because of this, Ander’s essay did not even get an honorable mention.
The economic situation had become unbearable, and parliament was forced to convene in 1764. Sweden, in the past, had been a major power but had lost many of its territories in wars against Russia, Poland, and Denmark. By 1721 Sweden was a shell of its former self, no longer a great power of the Baltic world. Sweden had a parliament, which was a mixture of four estates: the nobility, the clergy, burghers, and peasants. In parliament, there were two main parties: the Hats and the Caps. The Hats were composed of mostly aristocrats who wanted to restore what they believed to be Sweden’s glory days, while the Caps were tired of pointless wars and wanted Sweden to stay out of foreign wars and to focus on economic development.
The Cap party won the elections, and Anders became a representative for Ostrobothnia. Anders never intended to run for parliament, but he had become popular for his arguments in favor of free trade and his opposition to entrenched privileges, which were of extreme importance to the people of Ostrobothnia. Living in quiet rural Sweden all his life, the hustle and bustle of Stockholm must have been both a huge shock and a rush for Anders. He was now able to converse with the country’s brightest intellects and build up a network of contacts. But Anders was an outsider in Stockholm, he came from a quite humble rank of the clergy and would have been considered a bumpkin by many of his peers who had not yet experienced his intellect.
This was by far the busiest Anders had ever been. After working all day, he would stay up until midnight researching and writing. Arriving in Stockholm, Anders hit the ground running, publishing two pamphlets he had already written, the most important being about the trading rights of a city in Ostrobothnia; yet again, Anders argued in favor of the free market with this pamphlet being distributed to all sitting members of parliament. In 1765 he published yet another pamphlet entitled The Source of Our Country’s Weakness. Now a member of parliament, Anders, used his position to access all kinds of data and statistics on Sweden’s economy. He found that shipping ordinances passed in 1724 and 1726 crippled the Swedish economy. These ordinances mandated that imports must be transported only by Swedish ships and that ships from other countries could not transport goods between Swedish ports. Wholesale dealers in cities like Stockholm benefited enormously from these ordinances but at the expense of the rest of the Swedish economy, which bore shipping costs. The pamphlet was a hit, selling out within a couple of weeks.
Later in the same year, Anders published another pamphlet, one that went beyond addressing particular policy concerns in favor of a broader, more philosophical view. In his now most famous pamphlet known as the National Gain, Anders attacked the accepted wisdom of mercantilism, the idea that achieving a balance of trade favoring exports over imports was a national priority and that this was to be achieved by the state stringently regulating commerce through tariffs and subsidies for particular industries.
Anders argued that the state ought not to regulate commerce. When the free market is left to its own devices, the price mechanism naturally regulates the economy. Anders opens the National Gain by stating, “Our wants are various, and nobody has been found able to acquire even the necessaries without the aid of other people, and there is scarcely any Nation that has not stood in need of others” and that “The Almighty himself has made our race such that we should help one another.” According to Anders, raising barriers against trade was against God’s design for humans as sociable creatures that are interdependent and mutually rely upon one another. All humans are also naturally self‐interested beings. Anders explains that “Every man seeks his own gain. This inclination is so natural and necessary that all Communities in the world are founded upon it.” Therefore people will move into professions where they can earn the most money. The more profitable a profession is, the more people who will enter it, thus creating competition driving down costs, and ensuring a monopoly does not form. Echoing Adam Smith’s famous Invisible Hand, Anders writes that “each individual will of his own accord gravitate towards the locality and the enterprise where he will most effectively increase the national profit, provided that the laws do not prevent him from doing so.”
Influenced by Henrik Hassel while studying at university, he believed complete knowledge of human affairs was reserved for God. Human knowledge is imperfect and incomplete. The best way to regulate the economy is to leave it free to react to the vast amount of information conveyed through changing prices and preferences that no one person or group could ever possibly comprehend in their totality.
National Gain is a short essay, but it is packed with foreshadowing of future economic ideas. Similar to Frederich Hayek, Anders viewed the economy as a process as opposed to a given state of affairs. Like James Buchanan, the founder of Public Choice Theory, he questioned the supposed selflessness of politicians and public servants. Like Adam Smith, who wrote his seminal Wealth of Nations, he believed self‐interested individuals unintentionally improve one another’s material prosperity through commerce.
But Anders’s achievements were not solely relegated to political pamphleteering, not by a long shot. While in parliament, he argued for repealing restrictions on trade, and his pamphlets were instrumental in parliament passing laws allowing many cities to trade in foreign harbors. He even played a role in passing laws which implemented stricter controls on the government budget.
But the crowning jewel of Anders’ time in parliament was his defense of freedom of speech, which also resulted in the world’s first freedom of information act, allowing for a degree of transparency in government affairs unheard of in the 18th‐century. From 1760–1762, parliament had debated the issue of free speech, but no legislative action had been taken. Through reading other liberal writers, Anders had come to the conclusion that free speech was “the most precious possession of a free country.” He would later write that of all the issues discussed in parliament; he had dedicated his greatest efforts towards defending free speech. As mentioned before, Anders believed humans by nature could never achieve perfect knowledge like God; instead, humans need to rely on discussion and mutual exchange of ideas to reach enlightenment. Free speech was integral to moral progress because ideas had to withstand what he called the “competition of pens’. Further, he claimed, “No fortress can be praised more than the one that has endured the hardest sieges” if ideas cannot withstand criticism they ought to be discarded. Through his force of arguments yet again, Anders was one of the foremost proponents of an ordinance passed in 1766 which abolished censorship, secured freedom of the press, and secured citizens the right to access government documents to guarantee transparency.
Despite all of his success, Anders’ eighteen‐month stint in parliament was cut short when he published a pamphlet that criticized his own party’s (the Caps) monetary policy. He was probably also expelled because his radicalism had begun to scare the party’s more elitist members. He left Stockholm a few weeks later. But yet again, he was elected to parliament in 1769 though his election was invalidated due to a legal technicality.
Returning to his parish, Anders dedicated himself to the pastoral care of his parishioners, which after a promotion to rector, covered the entire province while also balancing writing a steady stream of pamphlets.
In 1772, the year after Gustav III had been crowned king, he successfully executed a coup concluding the supremacy of parliament and concentrating power back in the hands of the monarch. Thankfully, Gustav was of a reforming mind. Anders wrote several pamphlets throughout the 1770s to convince the newly crowned monarch of the benefits of the progressive and humane policies that Anders believed Sweden should follow.
In 1775, the Royal Academy of Gothenburg announced an essay competition on the question of whether rural trade, unrestricted by the then legal constraints, was generally useful or harmful to a country? As always, Anders advocated for peoples’ right to dispose of their labor however they saw fit and to trade with whomever they wished. Anders explained that all the reasons produced against rural trade were merely pretexts for merchants to protect their established privileges.
Later in the year, he published another pamphlet of a ‘bleeding heart’ nature entitled Thoughts Concerning the Natural Rights of Masters and Servants. In 1739 it was decreed that servants would have a fixed annual wage and would be allocated to employers at random. This infuriated Anders, who argued servants had a right to dispose of their services to whomever they wished and were entitled to negotiate with willing buyers instead of being forced to sell their services at a fixed price, over which they had zero control. Just like everyone else, servants had “the same rights that other men possess.”
By 1778 Anders was elected yet again to parliament, albeit quite a neutered one compared to its glory day with the king now watching over their affairs. In yet another display of his commitment to liberal principles, despite fears of being attacked by his fellow clergy members and society at large, Anders came out in favor of religious liberty for all faiths, including Catholics and Jewish people, who, at that time, were often viewed with great suspicion. Anders dreamed of a world where Sweden was a place of refuge “to all those unfortunates who already are or may in future be deprived of a sanctuary in their native countries and therefore yearn to move elsewhere in search of some protection from violence and oppression.” Converting people by force does not make truly religious people but it also just doesn’t work, Anders argued, “mildness, patience, enlightenment and a gentle instruction are the only means by which people who have gone astray may truly be converted.” No one was to be converted at gunpoint or through the arm of the law. All people have a right to live unmolested regardless of their religious beliefs.
Despite fierce opposition, he managed to convince the other three estates in parliament to pass a religious toleration act by 1781. King Gustav was especially impressed by Anders’s bravery in vigorously articulating his liberal principles commenting, “I am fairly audacious as well, but I would never have dared to do what Chydenius did.”
In 1792 Anders was elected a third time to parliament, a much weakened parliament that met for a mere month in the year. Unsurprisingly, not much was achieved and compared to his other stints in parliament, this term was relatively lackluster. This would be the last time Anders would directly take part in political affairs. After a dangerous journey home through the icy Gulf of Bothnia, Anders returned to his parish and resumed his duties as diligently as ever.
Anders kept writing his pamphlets, defending the rights of the poorest through economic freedom, but one of his most unique pieces of writing, in my opinion, is his essay entitled “Proposals for the Improvement of Lapland.” Lapland was, for the most part, a heavily forested area. inhabited by hunters and nomads. While slightly utopian in its overall tone and political feasibility, it gives us a good idea of what Anders thought how the ideal ought to act. Land should be freely given to settlers who can do whatever they wish with it, and they should be able to engage with other nations in commerce. All people would enjoy an equal set of rights with no special privileges afforded to any. The only interference from the state would be in Lapland’s initial settlement, where the Swedish government would help provide the clergy and a judicial system, but after this, Lapland was to be completely free of any state interference with no regulations, restrictions on trade, or licensing requirements. The ideal state for Anders is one in which a minimal government presence can be felt to enforce the equal rights of all and little else. In economic matters, people are to be at complete liberty as to how they earn their living, sell their goods, etc.
Even as Anders entered his seventies, with the dawn of the 19th century, he still kept himself busy writing sermons, political pamphlets, agricultural treatises, and his autobiography. After quite an eventful and full life dedicated to reform and progress, Anders passed away during February in 1803. He had no children and was survived by his wife, to whom he was married for nearly fifty years.
Anders Chydenius today is recognized as one of the founding fathers of nordic liberalism. As a reformer, his legacy is unparalleled. He played a crucial role in repealing restrictive economic policies, keeping the state accountable by forcing it to be transparent, securing freedom of speech while also abolishing censorship, and defending religious minorities’ rights. But what Anders achieved in government was only the tip of the iceberg of what he wanted to see implemented. Anders firmly believed in the equality of all people, and as we have seen, he never stopped defending the rights of the least represented people in society and their freedom to take their destiny into their own hands through thrift and hard work. Economic freedom for Anders is a god‐given right part of the natural and intended order God had created for humanity. All that was required to usher in prosperity and harmony was merely to unleash the creative energies of all people to drive forward progress. In many ways, Anders was a precursor to many modern economic ideas but his cultural isolation in Sweden meant he was not appreciated abroad until recently, thanks to translations of his work.
Many scholars refer to Anders as the Nordic Adam Smith, but I think this undersells his unique qualities as a thinker wholly independent from Smith. In some ways, Anders attacked the protectionist tenets of mercantilism in a much more sustained and holistic way than Smith. Overall, Anders Chydenius is a founding father of classical liberalism in the Nordic world, but his ideas are still just as forceful as they were nearly three hundred years ago. Anders wanted a world in which all were afforded the same natural right to improve their lives how they saw fit, free from the paternalism and particularism of a regulatory state.