Half a century ago the American economist Carl G. Uhr described Anders Chydenius as the Finnish “predecessor of Adam Smith”. As early as the mid-1760s, Uhr argued, Chydenius had presented in a preliminary form the essence of Smith’s grand theory, stressing particularly the importance of freedom of contract and the dynamic role of competition and division of labour. Furthermore, Chydenius had identified the search for individual gain as the foundation for public wealth and happiness. In contrast to Smith, however, he had not based his version upon a systematic moral or social philosophy. Instead, it was grounded in common sense and founded upon a democratic attitude arriving naturally from a man from the periphery.1 Uhr was, however, not the first biographer of Chydenius to compare him with the great Scotsman. This tradition was started by the Finnish medical doctor Frans Johan Rabbe, writing in 1857.2 Some years later, in 1880, the liberal writer and politician E.G. Palmén stated that, in particular, Chydenius’s pamphlet The National Gain, published in 1765, although much more condensed, should “be placed alongside the famous Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations published eleven years later”.3 More than 50 years later this was still the view of the Swedish economic historian Eli F. Heckscher, who found a “striking similarity” between Smith’s and Chydenius’s conceptualizations of social society, although they had arrived at their views from very different origins. Heckscher stressed that Chydenius was not a theoretician but rather a self-taught man who through sound instinct had come to the conclusion that economic freedom should be regarded as a general principle, and that the “invisible hand” was the best available analytical tool for understanding economic life in general.4
However, especially in Palmén’s eyes, Chydenius was something more than just a precursor of liberal economic doctrine. Palmén was a great admirer of Chydenius and was writing in 1880, when there was still hope that Finland would be able to retain its independent status within the Russian Empire and gradually develop its economy and polity in a more liberal direction, hence his interpretation of the eighteenth-century writer was clearly biased. According to Palmén, Chydenius was a Finnish patriot as well as a forerunner of economic, political and religious liberal thinking in the nineteenth-century meaning of the word. In the same vein, he was a democrat living well ahead of his time. Georg Schauman, too, another biographer writing around the turn of the twentieth century, emphasized that Chydenius was “the first precursor of modern democracy in Sweden and Finland”.5 The patriotic side of Chydenius had already been strongly underlined by Rabbe in the 1850s. A practising physician himself, he especially stressed the enlightened role Chydenius had played in introducing vaccination against smallpox as early as the 1760s.6 Rabbe implies that the efforts to introduce modern methods of treating illnesses went hand in hand with Chydenius’s democratic and liberal attitudes. In the eyes of later interpreters and biographers, the role he played in the introduction of the Swedish Ordinance on Freedom of Writing and Printing in 1766 made him a prototype of a “modern” democrat. Lastly, his pivotal contribution to the passing of the Ordinance on Religious Freedom at the Diet of 1778–9 further contributed to such a characterization. On the other hand, Chydenius’s rather conservative Lutheran outlook and his dislike of Voltaire perhaps do not seem a perfect fit with the image of an enlightened modern man, as was noted particularly by Georg Schauman.7 Nevertheless, most of his biographers have insisted that in general he was far ahead of his time.
Too often, the writing of history in terms of predecessors and anticipations of more “modern” doctrines leads to anachronisms. As we have indicated, Chydenius’s posterity has not avoided such a fate.8 On the contrary, he has often (intentionally or not) been used in order to illustrate the progress of liberal views and attitudes, particularly in economic thinking. In this field he has been hailed as an early and radical opponent of the old dirigisme and the doctrine of mercantilism, paving the way for the new liberal synthesis of Adam Smith and classical political economy. Moreover, in a general sense Chydenius has been used to demonstrate the triumph of liberal doctrines and modernization. In particular, the suggestion that Chydenius’s ideas and views were home-grown and based upon empirical common sense was explicitly used to bolster the rationale of economic and political liberal doctrine and policy as a logical step in the march of civilization. The way in which he combined liberal views on the economy as well as in polity and religion seemed to fit especially neatly into this picture.
However, such anachronisms most often lead us to misconceive and take out of context what historical actors – writers of economic pamphlets, for example – really wanted to say and argue. Hence, it is not possible to comprehend what a writer and political activist such as Anders Chydenius said and meant if we merely acknowledge him as a predecessor to something that arrived only later. Instead, we must stress that he most certainly was a man of his own time. As such, he took part in contemporary debates and political struggles clearly aware of what he wrote and what his intentions were; neither was he the “unconscious” tool of common sense suggested by later interpreters such as Heckscher and Uhr.9 Hence, it is highly unfruitful to interpret his texts as immediately reflecting practical matters of the day. Instead, Chydenius was clearly involved in the intense intellectual discussions taking place during his time, for example with regard to moral philosophy. To emphasize that Chydenius was not a nineteenth-century democrat (or for that matter a Finnish patriot in its late-nineteenth-century meaning) does not diminish him or his work. As we will see later on, he was a radical even when seen in his own historical context. Moreover, we can still acknowledge his great intellectual qualities at the same time as we insist on placing him within his own historical and intellectual context. A man of great gifts he surely was; one contemporary, the Swedish historiographer royal Anders Schönberg, characterized him as “[t]his clergyman who was born with more wits than are needed in a chaplain’s head”.10