The father of free trade

Today his ideas are mainstream, but in the 18th century he was s a radical revolutionist. Anders Chydenius is often called the Nordic countries’ Adam Smith, since his ideas about free trade once upon a time were so original.

Imagine a young, newly elected member parliament, who after only a year as a representative, has managed to introduce several radical socio-economic ideas and, in addition to that, a world-wide pioneering Freedom of the Press Act. Also imagine that this young man writes a work on free trade and market economy, which content-wise very much resembles Adam Smith’s classical work The Wealth of the Nations, but appears ten years before Smiths’ work saw daylight. All these achievements were attained by the Finnish priest Anders Chydenius during his lifetime.

Anders Chydenius came from Ostrobothnia in Finland and he was active in the latter part of the 18th century, when Sweden and Finland still was one country. Chydenius worked to promote large-scale economic reforms – he propagated free trade in a time when trade was strictly controlled by the state. At the same time he also spoke passionately in favour of freedom of speech and better conditions for the less fortunate in society. Chydenius was convinced that society would turn into a better place if everyone was free and had the opportunity to pursue their dreams without any involvement of the state.

Saying that Chydenius was ahead of his time would be an understatement, says Nils Erik Forsgård, who has written a book about him.

“When reading Chydenius’ texts, it is hard not to be amazed. How is it possible that this was written in the 1700s, even before the electricity was invented? That is how modern and radical his thoughts come across,” says Forsgård.

Chydenius lived most of his life in Ostrobothnia, in the city of Kokkola (in Swedish Karleby, earlier Gamlakarleby) on the west coast of Finland. During his lifetime mercantilism was the prevalent doctrine in society. That meant, among other things, that foreign trade was under strict control, and towns like Kokkola were not entitled to independently engage in foreign trade. When Chydenius entered the Riksdag of the Estates in Stockholm in 1765, after having been elected as the representative of the clergy, this was one of the anomalies he wanted to address. He also succeeded in his aim. It is hence perfectly justifiable to say that the market economy and the free trade in the Realm of Sweden were born in Ostrobothnia. It is also worth noting that Chydenius’ legacy still lives on in his region; contemporary Ostrobothnia is the region with the largest share of exports in the whole country.

“Saying that Chydenius was ahead of his time would be an understatement.”

Chydenius has often been called the father of Nordic liberalism. During his lifetime, currents of liberation moved across Europe, and he was naturally influenced by these ideologies.

“He was one of the most concrete thinkers of the age of enlightenment, someone who managed the heritage of freedom, equality and fraternity well. He was not, however, the only person of his time with the same ideals, but certainly one of the most eloquent and influential ones. Had he lived in the USA, I am convinced that he would have been one of those signing the American Declaration of Independence,” says Forsgård.

Chydenius’ ideas about free trade are in many ways similar to the ones presented by the significantly more famous Adam Smith. But Chydenius came before Smith – when Smith’s magnum opus The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, Chydenius had already, 10 years earlier, expressed the same philosophies in writing. There is no evidence that either of the gentlemen had read the other ones texts.

“When reading Chydenius’ texts, it is hard not to be amazed. That is how modern and radical his thoughts come across,” says Nils Erik Forsgård.
“When reading Chydenius’ texts, it is hard not to be amazed. That is how modern and radical his thoughts come across,” says Nils Erik Forsgård.

“One of the reasons why Smith has won wider acclaim than Chydenius is that he was a professor, and besides he wrote in English. Smith is also more of a theorist, whereas Chydenius is more down-to-earth and practical in his ideologies. He sees problems and proposes ideas for how to resolve them,” explains Forsgård.

It was not only the economy that Chydenius wanted to reform. When working for an economic liberalisation, he began to realise the significance of free access to information. This is from where his idea for a Freedom of the Press Act originated, and in 1766 he, together with some like-minded people, managed to push it through in the Riksdag of the Estates. In 2016, 250 years have passed since this ground-breaking reform, the first one of its kind in the world. Freedom of speech is something that is still highly valued in the Nordic countries.

Chydenius was also ahead of his time in terms of his social engagement for the less fortunate in society. He championed the rights for better conditions for maids and domestic servants, for example their rights to negotiate their salaries themselves and to take employment wherever they wanted. Everything in accordance with the ideology that free individuals know their own good and should have the right to act without involvement of authorities.

What kind of person was Chydenius then? There are not many sources available for finding out, however, after having read his writings, Nils-Erik Forsgård has at least a theory.

“I think he was highly intelligent and also aware of it. He was definitely not modest, instead he was opinionated and hot-tempered. An evidence for this is the fact that he eventually was excluded from the Riksdag in 1766 as a consequence of his radical ideas.”

After his death in 1803, Chydenius was forgotten, as a matter of fact to the extent that today there is even some uncertainty as to where he is buried. The 19th century saw a breakthrough of the nationalistic movement, which in many ways stands in great contrast to Chydenius’ ideas of the freedom of the individual and a state that, as little as possible, should get involved in the lives of its citizens.

Many people think that Chydenius has not received the acclaim he would deserve. He is briefly mentioned in schoolbooks and prior to Finland joining the euro, he was depicted on the 1,000-mark notes, but apart from that, he is not very well-known to the man in the street, neither in Finland nor in Sweden.

”As the radical thinker he was, Chydenius would definitely deserve to be remembered. Luckily there has been a small revival in recent years, partly because 250 years have passed since the Freedom of the Press act was passed,” says Forsgård.

Anders Chydenius’ economic political ideals in a nutshell:

  • The state should involve itself as little as possible in the economic life
  • All trade barriers should be abolished
  • Subsidies, privileges and different limitations are evil
  • All cities should be entitled to independently engage in exports
  • All individuals should have the right to independently negotiate salaries and make employment agreements
  • What is good for the individual is also  good for the whole society



One of the most important Finns of all times

Finland should still move more in the direction of Chydenius’ ideal society, says Risto E.J. Penttilä, CEO of the Finland Chamber of Commerce. For him Chydenius is an idol and a role model.

Few other philosophers have influenced Risto E.J. Penttilä to the same extent as Anders Chydenius. According to Penttilä, Chydenius features among the top-three most significant Finns of all times. Nevertheless, very few people are aware of how radical he actually was, and quite a number have a somewhat distorted image of him.

“Many people see him as an amiable old man with a strong societal engagement. In my opinion, he was more of a passionate idealist with a hot temper. I would say he was a mix of Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela personified.”

Penttilä thinks that Finland still today could learn a lot from Chydenius’ tenets.

“Economic policy in Finland has always hovered between a more market oriented and a more state oriented approach. I think that we still today ought to move in the direction of a more market conforming society, just as Chydenius advocated.”

“I would say Chydenius was a mix of Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela personified.”

Chydenius’ ideals about freedom have of course, to a great extent, already been implemented in Finland, yet Penttilä considers in particular the labour market regulations to still be too inflexible.

“Chydenius wanted to help less fortunate people thrive by giving them the freedom to sell their know-how and work in a free market. Strict regulations are not necessarily of advantage for those in a weaker position – just look at how many African countries try to get the industrialised countries to open their markets for agricultural products,” says Penttilä.

Penttilä feels that few people understand just how important Chydenius was, and that he has not quite received the recognition he would deserve. Some circles in Sweden have labelled him the father of Swedish liberalism, still he is fairly unknown for the general public.

“In Kokkola there is a university centre which carries his name, but this centre should rather be based in London instead. It is high time for a revival of Chydenius.”

Anders Chydenius

  • 1729 Born in Sotkamo in eastern Finland
  • 1753 Master of Arts at the Royal Academy of Turku. Pastor in Nedervetil congregation in Ostrobothnia.
  • 1755 Marries Beata Magdalena Mellberg, the couple remains childless.
  • 1765–66 Ostrobothnian representative in Stockholm for the clergy. Carries through the Freedom of Speech Act and an abolishment of the export restrictions.
  • 1766 Is excluded from the Riksdag of the Estates
  • 1770 Reverend in Gamlakarleby (Kokkola)
  • 1778–79 Representative of the clergy in the Riksdag
  • 1792 Representative of the clergy
  • 1803 Dies in Gamlakarleby

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