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A philosophy of natural liberty

The historiographer royal, Anders Schönberg, called his friend Chydenius a “Swedish Rousseau”.1 Misleading as a general characterization, it is perhaps true in a more specific sense: like the famous philosopher living in Geneva, Chydenius was a “spirited democrat”.2 Like Rousseau, Chydenius took part in the broad intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment that flourished during the eighteenth century. There is in general no agreement among scholars concerning how broad the span of this movement was, but surely it included some who remained loyal to the Christian faith (as Chydenius did). In most of his texts he refers to “natural liberty” as a guiding policy for economic policy. It is to this liberty, which every man is born with, that he refers when he emphasizes that servants should have the right of movement and to be free members of society. Something he calls “natural liberty” is also a cornerstone when he argues that tenant farmers should have the right to sell their merchandise freely. Almost always it is with this weapon in hand that he attacks the regulatory system of the Cap regime.

As Carola Nordbäck suggests, when Chydenius refers to “natural liberty” or “the individual’s right of happiness”, such concepts must be understood in relation to his theology. “Natural liberty” was a state created by God, and by pursuing such a goal and striving for happiness, men fulfilled God’s plan.3 At the same time, his reference to “natural liberty” places him within a broad trend of European moral philosophy of natural rights based upon great authorities from the previous century such as Grotius and Pufendorf. As pointed out, a natural-rights-based discussion forms a link between early forms of civic humanist thought and the development of the radical visions of the Scottish Enlightenment: from Machiavelli and the Florentine tradition to David Hume and Adam Smith. Without doubt, both Grotius and Pufendorf had been well known to Chydenius since his early student days in Turku and Uppsala. However, concepts such as “natural rights” and “natural liberty” were open to very different interpretations from which, too, different policy conclusions were drawn. They could be used in order to defend absolute monarchy (as was for example the case in Denmark4 ), but also other forms of government. In Sweden, natural jurisprudence was used by those who wrote the new constitution after the downfall of absolutism in 1718 in order to argue for a social contract between the king and his subjects. Moreover, in the economic discussion during the Age of Liberty a natural rights vocabulary was used in order to defend dirigisme and strict regulation – but also to argue for more freedom of trade. In fact, the heated debates between the “mercantilists” and “reform-mercantilists” to a large degree took their point of departure from different interpretations of concepts such as “natural liberty” or “social contract”.

Broadly speaking, there were at least two conclusions that were drawn in the moral philosophy discussion during the Age of Liberty. Both referred to a common base (except for a very few atheists): that God had created a natural order of the world which included minerals, plants, animals as well as men in perfect harmony with each other. Through empirical investigation it was possible to detect this “natural order” and decipher its codes. This broad ideological discourse, which dominated especially during the first decades of the Age of Liberty, is referred to as “physico­theology”. An important influence regarding the breakthrough of such thinking in Sweden was the Prussian professor of philosophy Christian Wolff, whose programme to register and make a classificatory order of God’s creation – Voltaire, who disliked him utterly, called him a pedantic collector of odds and ends – greatly impressed many Swedes, including the natural scientists Anders Celsius and Samuel Klingenstierna. Carolus Linnaeus too was influenced by him.5 Wolffian philosophy was also a great stimulus to leading economic writers such as Anders Berch and J.F. Kryger. In his dissertation in philosophy De felicitate patriæ per oeconomiam promovenda (1731), which argued for the establishment of economics as an academic subject in Sweden, Berch followed Wolff quite closely (most of the dissertation was probably written by Celsius).6 Even more apparent is the influence of Wolff with regard to Kryger, especially in his Naturlig theologi (“Natural theology”), published in three volumes between 1744 and 1753. Kryger explicitly speaks of “the system of nature” as a divine order uniting conflicting desires and interests to a concord which makes them “linked as in a chain”.7 As Tore Frängsmyr has pointed out, this was also the basis of the concept Oeconomia Divina, which Carl Gustaf Löwenhielm was the first to use in a lecture at the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences in 1751.8

With Berch and Kryger, as we have seen, such views were entirely compatible with a rather authoritarian interpretation emphasizing the role of state regulation in pursuing economic and public prosperity. Hence, only a responsible statesman serving the public good was able to detect and draw the right conclusion (perhaps with the help of the impartial economist) concerning how this natural order was structured. As ordinary men fallen from Grace, they were not always able to understand the ways and means of the Creator. Hence, they needed steady advice from a visible and regulatory hand. Also, those who had read their Pufendorf would most probably agree upon the role of the state as an intermediator. In his version of natural law theory the state was a moral person who, for the good of all, established positive laws based on the knowledge of the laws of nature. From this it was of course easy to draw the conclusion that the economy must be governed in a fashion that fitted God’s plans.9

However, this is not at all how Chydenius interpreted “natural law” or “natural liberty”. Rather, he draws the opposite conclusion that men should not interfere in the natural order of things. As Forsman has pointed out, this was the “radical” interpretation of physico-theology. From the starting point of such a vision it was easy for Chydenius to condemn the bulk of economic legislation at his time, including the “unnatural” support for manufactures, the prohibitions against free exportation, etc. Such critical views based upon an alternative view regarding the implications of natural law discourse were shared by others among the “reform-mercantilists” and thus paved way for more liberal attitudes. This was certainly also the case with Anders Nordencrantz, who from the end of the 1750s developed a radical critique of the Caps based upon natural rights theory. On the other hand, one should not make the mistake of believing that Chydenius’s insistence upon natural liberty as a ruling principle in economic policy was based upon an optimistic view of man and his social capabilities. On the contrary, he was a pessimist, emphasizing that man was corrupt by nature and driven by selfish interests and passions. In this regard he was far removed from an older “utilistic” view shared by the followers of Wolff and Oeconomia Divina. Hence, according to Nordencrantz the state was no impartial server of the common good; on the contrary, it was a promoter of private interests (perhaps not a strange conclusion to be drawn by somebody who saw the Hat government as a disguise for such private interests). This was also the reason why state power must be limited and checks and balances introduced in order to prevent corruption. Yet the absence of an omnipotent state did not mean that there should be no state at all. On the contrary, Nordencrantz and, perhaps especially, Chydenius saw the role of government as guaranteeing peace, order and religion. According to the latter, a ruler must be driven by the love of mankind. This also meant that that he must defend the poor against the rich and powerful.10

There is no doubt that Anders Chydenius to quite a large extent accepted Nordencrantz’s critique of private interests and his fear of corruption (which would especially hurt the poor). As we have seen during the Diet of 1765–6, he was perhaps even more eager than his teacher to condemn the practices of evil speculators and speak out for harsh punishments. Late in life, he still continued to talk about the danger of “aristocratic conspiracies”.11 Such ways of thinking are most probably also the key to his sharp critique of special interests and his strong favouring of public participation in public affairs, even to the point that some were apt to call him an “enthusiast” or even “fanatic for democratic principles”.12 His pessimistic view of man can be detected in many of his texts. For example, in 1765 he wrote, in response to a critique of his “The Source of Our Country’s Weakness”: “The heart of Man is according to his nature a battlefield of numerous black vices which always and everywhere seek an opportunity to pop up.”13 It is perhaps accurate to say that such passages stem directly from his reading of the Bible; but that they also refer to the moral philosophy of Pufendorf (and Nordencrantz) seems beyond doubt.

Moreover, within the natural rights discussion during this period the question of the nature of man and his relation to state and society was especially pertinent. In the grand European debates, different views about the state of nature were often the starting point for such controversies. According to the theory of contract – which had also inspired the fathers of the constitution that was in operation during the Swedish Age of Liberty, as we have seen – men were born free. But in the state of nature they were primitive and apt to become victims of hunger and fear. While few would agree with the far-reaching conclusions Thomas Hobbes drew from this concering the need for a Leviathan, they were in general ready to accept that by joining an orderly society men had to give up some of their natural liberties. Social society could only be developed upon a restriction of liberty “in order to avoid strife and bloodshed”, as for example J.F. Kryger pointed out in the Swedish discussion.14 However, gradually an alternative view on the natural state developed during the eighteenth century, a view that had quite different implications. It was not so much Rousseau’s vision of the noble savage and society as an enemy to natural man that became the main pathway; a well-read person like Nordencrantz in Sweden as well as most participants in the discussion on moral philosophy during the middle of the eighteenth century were explicitly critical of Rousseau. Rather, it was an interpretation based upon Pufendorf and later developed by David Hume and the Scots that would emerge as a main alternative: men did not have to give up their natural (God-given) rights when entering society because they were social already from birth. Hence, sociabilitas was part of their nature; they were born with a passion for forming societies for mutual cooperation as well as a passion to “trade and barter”, as Adam Smith would emphasize so strongly in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). The implication of this was clear enough: it was not necessary to establish the state in order to tame its subjects in order for them to become more social. More effectively, governance should be established which stimulated citizens to freely cooperate with each other. Men were born with both “good” and “bad” passions and sympathies. They were no angels; instead, they were prone to self­love and selfishness. However, by allowing men to compete with each other – freely and without fetters – their private vices could be turned into public benefits. The danger of corruption always lurked behind a strong state. The eighteenth-century natural rights moral philosophers condemned corruption as strongly as did the civic humanist tradition going back to Machiavelli; they saw it as the main reason for national decay and loss of happiness and prosperity (an obvious example here is Edward Gibbon15 ). This was certainly also Nordencrantz’s view, based upon what he had read, and some of this he transferred to Chydenius. According to Nordencrantz, man is driven by a “natural” selfish instinct for private gain. Governments are prone to serve special interests and become corrupted (as became the fate of the political system at large during the Age of Liberty). Hence, a good constitution must be established which prevents certain men and interests from becoming too powerful.16 Against this background the ideal society of Nordencranz was a small community of free men who minded their own business without much interference from bureaucracies and politicians; hence, he often nostalgically looks longingly back towards the old times when regulations were few and men uncorrupted. At the same time, we must emphasize that Nordencrantz was no republican. On the contrary, he gave a more elevated role to the Prince than was admitted under the constitution of 1720. In this respect too, Chydenius would follow in the footsteps of his old master – as we soon will see.

Lastly, it is commonplace to refer to Chydenius as an enlightened thinker influenced by new ideas from abroad emphasizing toleration and more freedom. To a large extent this is of course true: although he intensely disliked Voltaire for his alleged “deism” (or even “atheism”), and for the same reason remained critical towards belletrists such as Johan Henrik Kellgren and others among the Stockholm intelligentsia, he nevertheless favoured most parts of the broad Enlightenment programme. Hence, when Nils von Rosenstein sent him a copy of his programmatic defence of leading Enlightenment ideas, Försök til en afhandling om uplysningen (1793), Chydenius wrote a letter of thanks in which he emphasized that he had done his best all since 1765 to “work for enlightenment”. Here he could of course especially point to his successful campaign to establish the Ordinance on Freedom of Writing and Printing in 1766 as well as the act on religious tolerance a decade later.17 Moreover, as we have seen, his moral philosophy and emphasis on natural liberty rather point forward to ideas that became common after 1760 with the emergence of the Scottish Enlightenment as well as radical ideas propounded during the decades before the revolution in France. His critical points towards the role of special interest and corruption seem far removed from the perhaps more naive “utilism” dominating the scene earlier during the Age of Liberty.

  1. Schauman, op. cit., p. 273.
  2. Ibid., pp. 235, 273.
  3. Nordbäck, op. cit., p. 346f.
  4. K. Haakonssen and H. Horstbøll (eds), Northern Antiquities and National Identities: Perceptions of Denmark and the North in the Eighteenth Century, Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2007, ch. 10 and ch. 12.
  5. T. Frängsmyr, Wolffianismens genombrott i Uppsala: frihetstida universitetsfilosofi till 1700-talets mitt, Uppsala, 1972, ch. 1; Liedman, op. cit., p. 30f.
  6. G. Schauman, Studier i Frihetstidens ekonomiska litteratur: Idéer och strömningar 1718–1740, Helsinki, 1910, p. 52.
  7. Cited from T. Frängsmyr, “Den gudomliga ekonomin: Religion och hushållning i 1700-talets Sverige”, Lychnos, 1971–2, p. 230.
  8. Ibid., p. 222.
  9. On Pufendorf, see, for example, L. Krieger, The Politics of Discretion: Pufendorf and the Acceptance of Natural Law, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965; and R. Tuck, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. On Pufendorf in Sweden, see B. Lindberg, Naturrätten i Uppsala 1655–1720, Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1976.
  10. Cf. Nordbäck, op. cit., p. 366.
  11. See pp. 32–3. LINKKI
  12. G. Schauman, Biografiska undersökningar om Anders Chydenius, Skrifter utgifna af Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland 84, Helsinki: Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland, 1908, p. 329.
  13. A. Chydenius, Omständeligt Swar, På Den genom Trycket utkomne Wederläggning af Skriften, Kallad: Källan til Rikets Wanmagt, Stockholm, 1765.
  14. J.F. Kryger, Tankar wid lediga stunder, andra delen, Stockholm, 1763, p. 160.
  15. For an analysis of Gibbon and his interpretation of the decline of the Roman Empire, see J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, vol. 1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  16. For this interpretation, see L. Magnusson, “Corruption and Civic Order”, op. cit., vol. XXXVII: 2, pp. 78–105; cf. also I. Hont, “The Language of Sociability and Commerce: Samuel Pufendorf and the Theoretical Foundations of the ‘Four-Stages Theory’”, in A. Pagden (ed.), The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 253f.
  17. Schauman, op. cit., p. 412.