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Anticipating The Wealth of Nations: The Selected Works of Anders Chydenius (1729-1803)

Author(s):Jonasson, Maren
Hyttinen, Pertti
Reviewer(s):Eloranta, Jari

Published by EH.Net (November 2012)

Maren Jonasson and Pertti Hyttinen, editors, Anticipating The Wealth of Nations: The Selected Works of Anders Chydenius (1729-1803). Translated from the original by Peter C. Hogg. London: Routledge, 2012. xxv + 382 pp. $130 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-55133-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jari Eloranta, Department of History, Appalachian State University.

?Freedom never exists without causing us to desire it once we know of it: our desires guide us in all our actions? (Anders Chydenius, 1763, p. 101 in this volume)

Anticipating The Wealth of Nations
is a collection of the most important writings of Anders Chydenius, eleven texts in total, while a full five-volume set of his complete works (about 85 texts in total) will be published in the coming years in Finnish and Swedish (and later online). Who was Anders Chydenius? He was an eighteenth-century Finnish-Swedish clergyman, writer, and political philosopher, whose ideas are often compared to those of Adam Smith. The texts are aligned with some of his key interests, such as Swedish politics of the time, freedom of information, occupation, and religion, as well as broader economic issues of the time. Moreover, the book features an excellent introduction by one of the best known Nordic economic historians, Lars Magnusson. Each of the original texts is followed by a brief commentary by him as well.

As Magnusson points out in the introduction, Chydenius is often, unfairly so, solely compared to Adam Smith and his monumental achievement, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), especially since Chydenius? writings preceded Smith?s. In fact, both were influenced by eighteenth-century economic and political thought, for example the French Physiocrats, with Chydenius more so than Smith. There are many similar themes in their writings, ranging from ideas about freedom of thought and liberty to more practical economic issues and policies. However, as a whole, Chydenius? writings are less theoretical by nature and perhaps also a bit more practical as policy statements.?

This review can only scratch the surface of these works, presenting some examples of the economic ideas in the writings (especially the text called The National Gain). For a fuller picture, I urge all scholars of the history of economic thought to peruse the book on their own. Moreover, I will not go into great detail about the life and personal history of Chydenius, beyond a brief biography, since that is also not the main contribution of this volume.

Anders Chydenius was born in 1729 in Sotkamo, Finland, to a middle-class family, as his father was the rector of a large parish in Northern Finland. Anders also became very accustomed to a rural lifestyle; something that profoundly influenced his worldview in later life. Finland at the time was a part of Sweden, a state of affairs that had lasted for over 500 years. This was also the heyday of mercantilism, an ideology aimed at maximizing exports over imports and emphasizing the state?s control over economic affairs in the realm. In this case that meant that all foreign trade had to go through the so-called staple towns, and Finland only had a few of those in the south and Northern Finland had none until 1765. This was often perceived to be an unjust system in the more peripheral parts of the nation, and certainly influenced Chydenius? thinking on economic policy, up until his death in 1803.

Politics became a natural outlet for Chydenius after his university studies. Eighteenth century Sweden was a fertile ground for ideological debates, given the expansion of the universities and the more flexible ideas about democracy, not to mention the intense competition between the two main political parties (the so-called Hats and Caps). University life exposed him to new and radical ideas, and he concentrated on the study of philosophy and religion. Ultimately this led to his selection of profession and employment as a preacher, initially under his father?s supervision, and later his own appointment as a chaplain and finally the rector of a parish.

Anders became fluent in both Finnish and his native Swedish when growing up, which helped him during his political and religious career, and exposed him to a wider circle of influences. His political awakening seems to have culminated in the early years of the 1760s, when he had secured an occupation for himself in the clergy. For example, he participated in essay writing contests that brought him some attention. When he participated in the Diet (the Swedish Parliament) in 1765-66, he garnered even more attention as a keen writer and supporter of economic and political freedoms. This also got him in trouble with some powerful political players (particularly due to his views on monetary policy) and he was expelled from the Diet. Chydenius? political career remained tumultuous up until the late 1770s. However, during the later years of his life he remained politically active and occasionally was a member of the Diet as well.

Why was Chydenius controversial? Some of his writings certainly hit a nerve as far as the ruling parties were concerned, for example on the issue of censorship. Chydenius was himself a target for censorship on several occasions, which made him an even more ardent supporter of free speech. As he wrote in 1765, ?the liberty of a nation is preserved not only by the laws but by public information and knowledge as to how they are being administered? (p. 221). He wanted to make sure that no single individual would be given the singular power to censor political discourse. His fairly practical solution to this was to expand the number of individuals engaged in censorship by forming a larger body, scientific or literary, to make the decisions. This is the issue that also got him in trouble with some of his peers and political opponents.

While he expressed his views on economic issues in several essays (for example, in the essay on why Swedes were emigrating from the country, see the quote in the beginning of the review ? he also warned societies of not focusing too much on armed enemies rather than enemies within, see p. 124), The National Gain is the most important of his writings in regards to his economic philosophy. The National Gain was presented to the Estates in 1765, and it contained many themes similar to Smith?s 1776 masterpiece. There were, however, important differences as well. First, Chydenius? ideas were less clearly articulated as a cohesive theory; in contrast, he presented an interesting mix of rather abstract principles and certain clear policy recommendations. Second, Chydenius was much more influenced by the French Physiocrats, and his opposition to the staple towns was tied to the idea of giving rural communities a more equal footing in the economic system.??

?That every individual nation pursues profit as the chief aim of its economic and political regulations is incontrovertible, but if we consider the means that each has adopted to achieve that, we observe an incredible variety? (p. 142). Is this the famous ?invisible hand,? in its preliminary form? Not quite, at least explicitly. Chydenius did articulate some ideas that would feature prominently in the writings of Smith and David Ricardo. For example, he discussed the idea of an absolute advantage in similar terms, highlighting 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? (p. 145). He frequently discussed ?free enterprise? and ?industriousness? as useful forces in shaping an economy, although he did not advocate completely free markets rather than ?order;? i.e. less invasive, yet firm governmental oversight of the economy (p. 156). For him, allowing the freedom of occupation and enterprise would lead to beneficial outcomes, as for example merchants would know best how to conduct their business ? if they were to try to extract exorbitant rents, their competitors would drive them out of business (p. 158).

Chydenius argued that freeing up trade and occupations would increase ?national profit? as well, going directly against the existing mercantilist orthodoxy. Freedom for all occupations would, in his view, guarantee the largest ?national profit,? since profit-seeking in all occupations would lead to the greatest efficiency; even though he did not use the word ?efficiency? directly (p. 162). While Chydenius? thinking emanated from a fairly practical place, namely the aim to improve the rural economic communities and existence (similar to Physiocrats, who were against luxury consumption and profit, the latter being one of the favorite themes of Chydenius as a beneficial force), he formed an abstract synthesis that was in many ways similar to Smith. Both were influenced by eighteenth-century thought and writings, which makes this less surprising. However, it is quite interesting that Chydenius articulated many themes and concepts similar to Smith prior to 1776. While that is important, we should not confine Chydenius to some sort of a footnote of history, a ?pre-Adam Smith.? His writings addressed many societal and economic themes, often going beyond the moral philosophy of Smith. On the other hand, he did not present a coherent philosophical construct like Smith, which explains why his influence was much more limited (and language certainly played a role as well).

On the whole, Chydenius was an important eighteenth-century contributor who offers us a window into Nordic economic and political thought and helps us understand why and when The Wealth of Nations was created, giving us a more nuanced view of the time period. I would recommend this volume to all those interested in eighteenth-century economic thought and theory. This book is well organized and thought out, and the commentaries by an expert will help non-Nordic readers by providing more context to the texts. The future publications of the full volumes will certainly give us an even better view of Chydenius and the time period. Hopefully many of those texts will be made available in English as well, so a broader audience will be exposed to these writings.

Jari Eloranta is an Associate Professor of Comparative Economic and Business History at Appalachian State University. His publications include several articles and edited volumes on military and government spending, trade and conflicts among smaller nations, and Nordic economic and business history. He is currently working on several projects related to these research areas.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century