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«ECON JOURNAL WATCH 12(3) September 2015: 400–431 Classical Liberalism and Modern Political Economy in Denmark Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard1 LINK TO ...»

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A distinctive trait of this group of younger, ideologically driven liberals was a great attention to history of political thought and the roots of liberalism. This was particularly evident in the coverage in the magazine Libertas—articles not only on thinkers such as Locke, Smith, Jefferson, James Madison, Herbert Spencer, Hayek, Friedman, Rand, Buchanan, and Nozick, but also some less well-known writers such as Etienne de La Boétie, the Levellers, the French radical liberals, Bastiat, Lysander Spooner, Max Stirner, Rothbard, Johannes Hohlenberg, Gerard Radnitzky, Anthony de Jasay, and David Gress. Topics and themes have included pre-liberal quasi-liberalism, feminism, public choice theory, monetarism, Christianity, constitutional theory, the Danish constitution, international relations, immigration, moral relativism, conservatism, and anarcho-capitalism. Policy issues have ranged from the mainstream—privatization of state enterprises, financial regulation, insider trading, the Iraq war, globalization, the environment—to Bitcoin, Buddhism, civil disobedience, and anarchic societies.14 At the beginning of the new millennium, Libertas faltered somewhat as an organization, due to a lack of willing individuals to take on leadership positions,

13. For the positive evaluation of Libertas’s influence, see Kristiansen 1990; Hergel 1990; Bistrup 1994;

Thomsen 1996. For the negative judgments, see, e.g., analysis by Ritzaus Bureau, October 6, 1994.

14. As of March 2015, Libertas had been published in 60 issues (some double) since 1986.



plus the evolution of the Internet and its potential for producing new forms of interaction. Partly as a consequence and partly for other reasons, a number of new, more ephemeral forums appeared. The hard-core libertarians organized the Internet portal Liberator.dk (founded 2001 by economics students Thomas Breitenbach Jensen and David B. Karsbøl), while the more academically oriented created the blog Punditokraterne.dk (from 2005).15 However, many liberals also gravitated toward the creation and operation of the first, full-scale, successful attempt to create a center-right think tank in Denmark.

Center for Politiske Studier (CEPOS) In late 2003 a number of center-right intellectuals and former politicians decided to create a think tank. The project was launched in 2004 with businessman and former Conservative MP and Minister of Defense Bernt Johan Collet (b. 1941) as chairman and prime mover.16 He headed a rather prominent list of founders drawn from politics, the business sector, the media, and the arts—as well as worldfamous soccer player Michael Laudrup. The Libertas circle provided several of the founders (e.g., Arzrouni, Foss, Kurrild-Klitgaard, Edith Thingstrup), as well as later employees (Brøns-Petersen, Henrik Gade Jensen). Board members have subsequently included public intellectuals such as Mikael Bonde Nielsen and university professors such as Anders Wivel, Christian Bjørnskov, and Ole P.


By the following year, 2005, enough funds had been raised to ensure the operation of the Center for Politiske Studier (CEPOS), which since then has been headed by economist Martin Ågerup. While not formally adopting a clear ideological label other than “borgerlig-liberal” (“bourgeois-liberal”), CEPOS has become the single most important forum for free-market ideas in Denmark at any point since the 1970s and possibly much longer.

With approximately 20 employees and an annual budget of three to four million dollars, CEPOS has published a large number of books, including about liberal thinkers (Jensen 2008), conservative thinkers (Andersen and Jensen 2009), the history of the Danish welfare state (Elbjørn and Gress 2006; Jensen 2011),

15. Editors and contributors to Punditokraterne.dk have included, among others, economics professors/ economists Christian Bjørnskov, Otto Brøns-Petersen, and Niels Westy Munch-Holbek, law professors/ lawyers Jesper Lau Hansen and Jacob Mchangama, political science professors/political scientists Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard, Jørgen Møller, Jens Ringsmose, Casper Dahl, and Henrik Fogh Rasmussen, and independent writers such as David Gress and Mikael Bonde Nielsen.

16. On the founding of CEPOS and Collet’s role therein, see Kurrild-Klitgaard 2012; Jensen 2013. Collet was the 2013 recipient of the Danish Adam Smith Prize.



Danish political thinking after the fall of the Berlin Wall (Gammeltoft and Jalving 2010), the Danish constitution (CEPOS 2013), freedom of speech (Mchangama 2012), differences between Denmark and the United States (Rasmussen 2007), as well as hundreds of reports and thousands of commentaries and op-eds. CEPOS also occasionally publishes translations, such as a new edition of Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose (2012/1981) and a Danish translation of Niall Ferguson’s Civilization (2014/2011).

The history and philosophy of liberal ideas By the 1970s there was very little explicit free-market liberal thinking among Danish university scholars. While the left had organized dramatically—reaching the point where a prominent law professor, Ole Krarup, publicly advocated that only Marxists should be given tenure—the right was withering away. And those who were center-right seemed to be either non-ideological (or, even moderately social-democratic) or status quo-‘conserving’ conservatives, rather than being liberal. There were, however, two prominent exceptions among philosophers.

One was the internationally prominent Danish philosopher Justus Hartnack (1912–2005), who had been professor of philosophy at the University of Aarhus from 1954–72, but left it in disgust with student rebellions and Marxism. Hartnack subsequently became a professor at City College, New York, until 1982.

Hartnack—once a military officer who had actively fought the German invasion of April 9, 1940—had primarily been interested in empiricism and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and, later, Hegelian philosophy. Over the years, however, he came to be more of a Kantian moral philosopher. While he was an impartial academic more than an explicit proponent of liberalism, he was certainly sympathetic to freedom and rights, as evidenced by his 1980 book on Nozick and Rawls, Menneskerettigheder (“Human Rights”), published by Forlaget i Haarby.

The other exception was Mogens Blegvad (1917–2001), a professor of philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. He had a strong interest in liberal ideas, which he promoted indirectly as a scholar of political thought. Among Blegvad’s writings that preserved some liberal thinking in an otherwise illiberal period were works on John Stuart Mill (e.g., Blegvad 1962; 1969), as well his edited Danish collection of Mill’s own works (Mill 1969). Later Blegvad would return to the thought of Mill, as well as scholars such as David Hume, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, James Buchanan (e.g., Blegvad 1979; 1992; 1996). He also initiated a radio lecture series on 20th century political thought, subsequently published as the book Samfundstænkning i 100 år (Blegvad 1984). This little book contained introductions accompanying selections from a number of classics, including 411 VOLUME 12, NUMBER 3, SEPTEMBER 2015


Herbert Spencer, but also modern liberals—not only Rawls but also Nozick, Hayek, and Karl Popper, who here received perhaps the most mainstream attention they ever had from Danish academics.

Blegvad’s greatest impact came from being a teacher and colleague of other Danish philosophers, who came to take an interest in liberal thought. According to one of his students, Blegvad was an exceptional academic in the 1970s and early 1980s because he dared to teach students using texts by Hayek, Nozick, Buchanan, and Thomas Sowell. He did so without ever ‘pushing’ particular points of view in public or engaging in political discussions, always remaining neutral and scholarly.

His more prolific students included philosophers such as Knud Haakonsen (b.

1947, later internationally acclaimed professor of philosophy at Boston University and University of Sussex, a scholar of natural law and natural rights) and Flemming Steen Nielsen (b. 1937, for many years associate professor of philosophy at the University of Copenhagen and a Popper specialist). A third student, Henrik Gade Jensen (b. 1959), taught philosophy at the universities of Copenhagen and Roskilde, but later worked at the think tank CEPOS, as a newspaper columnist, and as a parish priest. Jensen is an eclectic thinker, with strong conservative values but also quite radical libertarian positions and research ideas (including private law enforcement), who has published many articles, books, and edited volumes on the history of liberal and conservative thought (e.g., Jensen 2008; Andersen and Jensen 2009; Jensen 2011).17 In the late 1980s Blegvad became peripherally involved with the Libertas circle. There he met a group of younger, liberal students, mostly in law, economics, and political science, who were influenced by his emphasis on the history of liberal thinking. Subsequently some of the same people co-produced the first book published by a Danish academic press dealing specifically with classical and modern liberal thought, Etik, marked og stat: Liberalismen fra Locke til Nozick (Foss and Kurrild-Klitgaard 1992).

A third figure is the historian David Gress (b. 1953), who has described himself as a Christian, part conservative traditionalist, part liberal, and part anarchist (see Gress 2011). Gress became known in the 1970s as a gifted, young, right-ofcenter intellectual, who left Denmark to study at Cambridge and Bryn Mawr and to work, among other places, at the Hoover Institution. Gress was influenced by the writings of the ‘New Right’ of the 1980s and became markedly more libertarian in his political positions, while generally reasoning from a critical conservative view of society. In the late 1990s, having returned to Denmark, Gress became a prolific public debater and writer, working as a newspaper columnist, university teacher, and senior fellow of CEPOS, which he helped co-found in 2004. As an academic,

17. Blegvad’s career and contribution has been assessed by Jensen (2001).

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Gress’s main work is the international bestseller From Plato to NATO (Gress 1998).

Here Gress criticized the conception of “the West” as often found in 20th century popular versions of history of thought. What is uniquely Western is not a simple, straightforward product of ancient Greece plus Rome plus Enlightenment, but rather a much more complex mixture of those elements and Christianity, Germanic tribal society, feudalism, and other elements. Gress’s most recent works—only published in Danish—are more straightforwardly normative and deal with the historical development of the concept of freedom (Gress 2005) and the cultural and institutional roots of prosperity (Gress 2007).

A final figure who may be counted in this camp is the now-retired professor of economics at the University of Copenhagen, Hector Estrup (b. 1934). In his three decades as full professor he did much to promote an interest in the history of economic thought including the works of Adam Smith and other liberals (e.g., Estrup 1992; 1998a/1991; 2002) and topics of clear relevance to free-market ideas, e.g., through his article on “Economic Liberalism” for the Danish National Encyclopedia (Estrup 1998b).

Political economy and public choice Just as in philosophy, there were very few liberals in Danish economics and political science in the years ca. 1968. One of the few university economists to engage in political debates from a free-market perspective was one who actually ended up leaving academia. Steen Leth Jeppesen (b. 1938) was trained as an economist, then became assistant professor at the Department of Economics of the University of Copenhagen and associate professor at the Department of Political Science, and then full professor at the National School of Public Administration from 1974 to 1984. In these positions Jeppesen taught economics and economic policy to students of political science and public administration, and he produced a number of textbooks for the field (Jeppesen 1979/1967; Henningsen and Jeppesen 1973; Jeppesen 1979/1971). He left academia and for two decades was CEO of the insurance companies’ professional organization. Before, alongside, and after his academic career Jeppesen has worked as economics editor at several newspapers, and as a freelance editorial writer at Finanstidende and today Børsen. Jeppesen has also been chairman of the Tax Payers’ Association and a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Party (Venstre). Through his career as a writer Jeppesen has been one of the most consistently pro-free market voices in Danish debates on economic policies—although often without a byline.



The Chicago school A point of influence for liberal ideas might have been interest in Milton Friedman, ‘monetarism,’ and the Chicago school. However, such interest has been at the same time broad and quite limited—broad because Friedman has been influential on debates, but limited in that very few have acted as champions of Friedmanite economics.

A good example is the Harvard-educated monetary scholar Niels Thygesen (b. 1934), who is widely seen as the most internationally influential Danish economist of the late 20th century. On several occasions he has published on Friedman, monetarism, and the Chicago school (e.g., Thygesen 1998). Thygesen, while a full professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Copenhagen, ran for the European Parliament as a candidate for the Liberal Party in 1979, but otherwise he has never been very outspoken.

A much more vocal exception has been the economist Lars Christensen (b.

1971), external lecturer at the University of Copenhagen and sometime secretary of Libertas. Christensen, who has had a high-profile position as chief analyst at Danske Bank, has written extensively on Friedman and Chicago economics, including a book on Friedman (Christensen 2002) and a variety of academic articles. His blog, “The Market Monetarist,” arguably is the most widely read Danish economics blog of the second decade of the new millennium.

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