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Response to a Finnish Scholar

Iceland: Not a Corrupt Country

Flags of Iceland in Videy, a small island close to Reykjavik. Photo: Wikipedia.

I felt that it was necessary to protest against baseless assertions about Iceland by a Finnish scholar...

In a recent article in Hufvudstadsbladet, Lars Lundsten asserts that Iceland is the most corrupt of the five Nordic countries, being in 17th place on the Transparency International corruption perceptions index whereas the other four countries are among the seven least corrupt ones in the world. Unfortunately, the data are flawed. As has been widely noted in Iceland, in six of the seven components of this particular corruption perceptions index, Iceland has a score similar to that of the other Nordic countries. It is only in one component that she has gone down steadily over the years. This is in the evaluation by two Icelanders of means available to reduce and tackle corruption. Those two Icelanders (one of whom is Lundsten’s colleague at the University of Akureyri) are left-wing intellectuals who seem to hold a grudge against their motherland, and there is no plausible reason for their continually downgrading Iceland. One of them founded a political party in 2013 with the aim of changing the constitution, but it only received 2.5 per cent of the votes and no parliamentary seat.

Corruption is difficult to measure, but the latest available study seems to be a comparative survey from 2008 of party patronage in fifteen European countries. The conclusion was that it was least common in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway, and most common in Greece, Austria, Italy, Germany and Hungary. This certainly does not lend support to the evaluation of the two Icelandic intellectuals. In this, as in so many other aspects, I think Iceland is rather similar to the other Nordic countries. She certainly does not bear the hallmarks of a corrupt society. She is one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, the most peaceful one, with the lowest crime rate, and also, according to Eurostat, with the lowest risk-at-poverty rate. Another interesting statistics, from the World Bank, is the proportion of total income enjoyed by the richest 10 per cent: It is 22.5 per cent in Iceland and 22.6 in Finland.

Of course, Iceland is not perfect, and Lundsten correctly observes that there are costs as well as benefits from the social cohesion and solidarity found on this windswept island in the North Atlantic. But the very smallness means that society is quite transparent which should reduce the possibility for corruption. Lundsten mentions that a large Icelandic fishing firm, Samherji, is being implicated in a bribe scandal in Namibia. But such an affair would no more be an indictment of Icelandic society than would the Brofors and Saab scandals be of Swedish society. Moreover, the case is still being investigated, and the Icelandic leadership of the company vehemently deny all charges, attributing possible irregularities to a disgruntled former employee. In another case, concerning the alleged violation of currency regulations, the company was recently acquitted of all charges.

In some ways, Iceland and Finland are the two outliers in the Nordic family of nations. From afar, I have always admired the Finns who have made the best of their circumstances in a world sometimes short of attractive alternatives. In a recent book about conservative-liberal political thinkers I devote a chapter to Anders Chydenius who from his parsonage in Gamlekarleby (Kokkola) anticipated many of Adam Smith’s findings. I also mention as an example of Aristotle’s magnanimous man Carl-Gustaf Mannerheim who never apologised for being the leader of a relatively small nation. The Icelandic nation is much, much smaller than the Finnish nation, but we need not, either, be apologetic. For example, in Iceland we have developed a sustainable and profitable system in our fisheries, and our recovery from the 2008 bank collapse has been no less than dramatic, although we, like all, could always do better.  

(Published in Swedish in Hufvudstadsbladet in Helsinki 6 April 2021. Lundsten was granted right of reply in the same issue. He used the opportunity to attack me personally, as was to be expected, but his only material objection was that I was wrong about the fishing firm Samherji having been acquitted of all charges in a recent case about the alleged violation of currency regulations, because, Lundsten wrote, the investigation of the firm was dropped as a result of legal uncertainty. This is not correct. Under the rule of law, of course you cannot receive a sentence, including an administrative fine, without a legal basis. In 2018, Iceland’s Supreme Court invalidated a huge administrative fine the Central Bank of Iceland had imposed on Samherji, because it had no legal basis. Meanwhile, the Prosecutor in cases of financial irregularities, after investigation of Samherji, had praised the firm in a letter to it for having striven to fulfil regulations on currency transactions. Recently, also, the reporter of the National Broadcasting Service, NBS, who has mainly covered the two Samherji cases was found guilty of a serious bias against the firm by a special ethics committee of the NBS.)

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