This post is part of our original series on Poetic Justice Warriors.
Poetic justice spontaneously rewards virtue and punishes vice. Social justice is capricious and requires force. This series of articles from Center for Individualism will feature some of the unsung heroes of Western Civilization. They are champions of reason and peaceful human progress, armed only with the power of their ideas applied to reality. Our motivation is gratitude. We stand on the shoulders of these giants in economics, science, business, politics, the arts, and education.
No Statesman is yet found capable of stating positively which trade will give us the greatest National gain, and consequently the Legislator must remain irresolute as to what goal he should guide our workmen to by his laws. Who could be so stupid, someone will probably think, as not to know this?
These powerful words are from The National Gain, and its author is the parish priest Anders Chydenius. This pamphlet was published in 1765 in what is now Finland, but at the time it was part of the Swedish empire. And he wrote this before Adam Smith‘s invisible hand, Frederick Bastiat‘s The Law, and F. A. Hayek‘s knowledge problem. Chydenius was an original thinker with radical ideas, and largely unknown, in part because he wrote in Swedish.
In fact, he didn’t know English or French, so he was unaware of the Enlightenment ideas percolating through Europe. So even as a country parson, he is a giant among Enlightenment philosophers, and a self-taught economist in his own right. He visualized a future of natural rights and free markets for the least powerful citizens. He is a man of concrete principles, and a distinguished Poetic Justice Warrior.
Freedom of the Press and Economic Freedom
Anders Chydenius was born into a brief period of time in Nordic history known as the Age of Liberty. It began with the death of King Charles XII in 1718, and the creation of a parliamentary system. But even then, peasant farmers had no property rights, and Sweden was one of the poorest countries in all of Europe. Because of a mercantilist guild system, farmers were required to produce and sell according to the whims of economic central planners. As Chydenius explains in The National Gain:
Man thrives when he enjoys his needs and comforts, which, according to our ordinary way of speaking, are called goods. Nature produces them, but they can never be of use to us without labour.
Chydenius’ goal was to fight for the right of peasant farmers to sell their produce as they saw fit, meaning freedom of labor and property. In order to realize his free market principles in a pragmatic way, he entered politics. In 1765 Chydenius was elected to the Swedish parliament.
And he knew, that to accomplish this amazing feat of economic freedom, all citizens needed to gain political freedom. Because of his leadership, Sweden became the first country in the world to add freedom of the press to its constitution. This was 25 years before America’s Bill of Rights. But as the political hierarchy would have it, Chydenius was forced out of parliament in 1766 for his principled criticism of government monetary policy.
Natural Rights, Freedom of Religion, Immigration, and Identity Groups
In the realm of economics, Anders Chydenius was a firm proponent of peasants being able to choose for themselves how to specialize and what to produce. Even more outrageous, he advocated for employers and employees to be able to negotiate the price of labor among themselves, a man of reason against stupid minimum wage laws. After parliament was dissolved in 1772, Chydenius was recalled to government to assist the king with civil liberties and economic freedom for the king’s new program of Enlightened despotism.
During this time Chydenius also fought for freedom of religion and immigration. He liberalized migration to Sweden by Jews and Catholics, and loosened restrictions on their ability to practice their religion. As an example of the value Chydenius held for each human life, he wrote in his 1778 essay, Thoughts Upon the Natural Rights of Servants and Peasants:
Nature shapes them exactly like us. Their posture in the crib is the same as ours, their souls have the same reason as other peoples’, whereby it is plain to see that the Lord of creation also had intended them to have equal rights with other people.
And he had a similar understanding of modern day identity politics, this from his 1777 essay In Rural Trade:
Petty princes busy themselves with dabbling in matters they do not understand in order to satisfy their own or someone else’s prejudices, or in blindly following some minister’s advice. They gather together a great many of their subjects in separate flocks and bestow favors on them at the cost of the others, and these favors they elevate into fixed privileges.
And Chydenius was willing to fight for small victories. The solution to special interest groups, as proposed by Chydenius to the Swedish parliament for the poor province of Lapland to gain prosperity, reads as follows:
Free state, private ownership and individual freedom. 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.
Poetic Justice Served
When King Gustav reverted to autocratic rule, Chydenius returned to private life. As a peaceful and patient man of reason, Chydenius was also a scientist, inventor, and founder of an orchestra. He inoculated peasant farmers against smallpox, performed cataract eye surgery, and experimented with new breeds of animals and plants. When he died in 1803, at the age of 73, almost none of his economic reforms had taken hold, and Swedes continued to emigrate to other parts of Europe and America to escape regulation and poverty. As Chydenius had observed in his essay, What Are The Reasons for Emigration From Sweden?
Workers yearn for freedom. They would rather settle among people whose speech they do not understand but among whom they may move and act freely, and in their decision one reads this motto: a homeland without freedom and the chance for improvement is a great word with little meaning.
As Poetic Justice would have it, the very poor Swedes were very literate – 75% of Swedes could read and write, and in 1840 a non-violent revolution for classical liberalism began. Anders Chydenius’ common sense radicalism fueled a century of free markets, innovation and prosperity. So much so that by 1950 Sweden was one the wealthiest societies in the world. Infant mortality fell 85%, GDP per capita increased seven fold, and life expectancy increased by 26 years because Sweden had the lowest regulatory and tax burden in the developed western world. This had unleashed the power of the individual as our greatest natural resource, as Chydenius insisted it would.
The Road from Serfdom
The catalyst for the widespread adoption of Chydenius’ recipes for economic and political freedom was a newspaper – Aftonbladet, and its publisher, Lars Johan Hierta. Eventually the Swedish government had to back off its resistance against reform, and in 1848 King Oscar I appointed the entrepreneur and free trade advocate Johan August Gripenstedt to be his Finance Minister. Perhaps historian Charles Evans describes Chydenius’ economic philosophy best:
Peasants left to their own devices could run the economic activity of the nation better the nation’s best and brightest in positions of authority.
The printing press was the megaphone, Chydenius was the voice, and the political power of kings was replaced with the economic power of peasants turned entrepreneurs. Anders Chydenius was the Poetic Justice Warrior that inspired generations of new ones, and it is they who engineered the Swedish economic miracle. They are the individualists at the core of western civilization’s ideals. To learn more, please visit www.centerforindividualism.org/pjw.