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Adam Smith at Eidsvoll

Norway’s (Classical) Liberal Tradition

The Constituent Assembly at Eidsvoll in 1814. Painting: Oscar Wergeland.

The spirit of Adam Smith was present at Eidsvoll in 1814....

Today, 17 May, is the national holiday of Norway. It was on this day in 1814 that a Constituent Assembly at Eidsvoll, north of Oslo, solemnly proclaimed the independence of the country and adopted quite a liberal constitution (in the old sense of the word ‘liberal’, before Social Democrats appropriated it for their own purposes). The constitution stipulated the separation of powers, religious freedom, freedom of the press and of assembly, as well as restrictions on government intervention in the economy. It is still in force, with minor changes, and is therefore the second oldest written constitution of the world, after the American one.

Indeed, it is a persistent myth that Norway and the other Nordic countries are socialistic. The tradition of freedom and individual responsibility has always been very strong in those countries, and their relative success can, I think, be attributed to three crucial features of Nordic societies: a strong tradition of the rule of law, including respect for private property, a commitment to free trade and open economies, and social cohesion, based on the homogeneity of these societies. Their success is despite, not because of, social democracy.

As I discuss in my recent Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson in his history of the Norwegian kings, Heimskringla, described the contrast between good and bad kings and the struggle in Norway between the bad kings and leading farmers. The good kings maintained peace and kept taxes low. The bad kings were warriors and imposed heavy taxes on the population. Some of the prominent Norwegian farmers who tried to put the kings in their place, for example Erling Skjalgsson and  Einar thambarskelfir, were quite impressive in their own right.

Norway was an independent kingdom until 1380 when she, and her North Atlantic dependencies, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Shetland and the Orkney Islands, were united with Denmark, as a young King of Denmark inherited the Norwegian crown. From then onwards, Norway was ruled by the Danish king residing in Copenhagen. In the 1470s she lost Shetland and the Orkney Islands to Scotland, and when Norway was handed over to Sweden in January 1814 as compensation for Finland which Sweden had lost to Russia, it was decided by the European powers that Denmark would keep the remaining North Atlantic possessions of Norway, probably because the United Kingdom felt that Denmark would be less of a force in the North Atlantic than would Sweden: The Royal Navy wanted to control Northern waters.

It was then that leading Norwegians rose up, with the support of the governor-general of Norway, Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark, abolished absolutism and elected a Constituent Assembly. It met at Eidsvoll in April 1814 and after a deliberation of six weeks wrote a constitution and proclaimed an independent kingdom with Christian Frederik as the king. The Swedes however resolutely rejected this bold initiative. They invaded the country and forced the Norwegians to recognise their king as King of Norway as well, but in order to placate the Norwegians they accepted the Eidsvoll constitution, although Sweden reserved the right to conduct foreign policy on behalf of the two kingdoms. Norway was thus in a personal union with Sweden until 1905 when she became again an independent kingdom, as she still is.

What is however little known is that the father of economic liberalism, Adam Smith, may have had some indirect influence on the liberal constitution adopted in 1814. When Smith still lived in Glasgow and had only published the Theory of Moral Sentiments he met three Norwegians who were travelling around Europe, Andreas Holt and his students, the brothers Peter and Carsten Anker who came from a wealthy merchant family. Smith wrote in a travel notebook which the Anker brothers had brought with them: ‘I shall always be happy to hear of the welfare & prosperity of three Gentlemen in whose conversation I have had so much pleasure, as in that of the twTo Messrs. Anchor &of their worthy Tutor mr. Holt. 28th of May 1762.’ In March 1764, the three Norwegians met the Scottish scholar again in Toulouse where Smith’s student, the Duke of Buccleuch, wrote in the travel notebook: ‘Having had the pleasure of meeting Messieurs Anchers & Mr. Holt at Toulouse. It is with the greatest satisfaction that I member myself amongst their acquaintance. Buccleugh.’

Holt and the two Anker brothers later became high officials in the Danish-Norwegian kingdom. Shortly after the publication in the United Kingdom of Adam Smith’s masterpiece, the Wealth of Nations, in 1776, the three of them arranged for its translation into Danish, which was also spoken by Norwegian intellectuals, and it came out in 1779–1780. Holt contacted his old friend to tell him about the translation, and Smith replied to him in October 1780, expressing his pleasure over it. While Holt passed away in 1785, the Anker brothers became prominent members of the Norwegian independence movement, and Carsten Anker offered his large mansion at Eidsvoll as venue for the Constituent Assembly in the spring of 1814. Undoubtedly, Smith’s two disciples had great influence on the writing of the constitution although neither of them was a delegate. Their close relative, Peder Anker, was however Speaker of the Assembly, and his son-in-law was also one of its leading members. Peder Anker served as Norway’s first Minister of State, from 1814 to 1822.

A Norwegian historian, Professor Oystein Sorensen, speaks about the ‘golden era’ of economic liberalism in Norway in the period 1814–1884. Although Norway was a democracy, the vote was rather restricted, but the ruling elite was strongly in favour of private property and free trade. The two leading liberals in mid-nineteenth century were Anton Martin Schweigaard, the first Norwegian Professor of Economics and Member of Parliament in 1841–1869, and Frederik Stang, Prime Minister in 1873–1880. In their heyday, the foundations were laid for the future prosperity of Norway. But economic liberalism was not confined to intellectuals and high officials. The long-serving leader of the farmers, Soren Jaabaek, was a staunch opponent of government intervention and high taxes, a modern counterpart to Snorri’s heroes in Heimskringla.

In the twentieth century, the social democrats gained intellectual and political hegemony in Norway, as in the two other Scandinavian countries. An eloquent voice of protest belonged to the economist Trygve Hoff, editor of a widely-read business magazine and author of two remarkable books, a doctoral dissertation on economic calculation under socialism (which was impossible, Hoff argued, with Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek) and a book on what should be done in Norway after the war, Fred og fremtid (Peace and the Future). Also, encouraged by Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, in 1947 some prominent businessmen established a fund to promote liberal ideas, fittingly called Libertas. It only had a limited intellectual impact, though. After some decades as a marginal idea, economic liberalism saw a revival in the 1980s and 1990s, not least under the influence of Hayek and his sometime colleague at the University of Chicago, Milton Friedman, a personal friend of Trygve Hoff. Today, liberalism, both economic and political, has again a significant presence in Norwegian life, not least through the liberal think tank Civita. The ideas of 1814 are still alive.  

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