Freedom of Information: You Have Chydenius To Thank for That

This short post was originally published on the now-defunct website Worldchanging.com, in 2007. The story of Chydenius serves as a good reminder of the importance of maintaining a free press and the right of public access to government information — principles that seem increasingly under attack around the world. The text has been slightly updated.

Anders Chydenius (Wikipedia)

In 2016, the Finland-based Anders Chydenius Foundation celebrated the 250th anniversary of the world’s first Freedom of Information Act. Sweden and Finland were one big empire in those days, and the Swedish-Finnish law — passed in 1766, two hundred years before a similar law was passed by the U.S. Congress and ensuring open access to all government papers and other kinds of information under a “principle of public access” — was largely the product of one man’s visionary ethical ideas.

Anders Cydenius was the Finnish political thinker and clergyman who proposed the “Law on Freedom of Information” as part of a set of political reforms that worked their way through the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) of its day.  Chydenius also wrote passionately about equality, free trade, universal human rights, liberal capitalism, and especially the rights of the poor. He is one of the most influential thinkers in the early development of the politics, economics, and values base for what has become known as the “Nordic Model.”

According to the short Wikipedia article about him, Chydenius “was also a scientist and skilled eye-surgeon, the maker of several inventions, a pioneer of vaccination in Finland and the founder of an orchestra.”

But apart from such short encyclopedia notices, it would be hard for an English-speaker to learn much about Chydenius. A modern biography by Finnish historian Pentti Virrankoski (Anders Chydenius: Democratic politician of the Enlightenment, 1986) appears not to be translated into English. Two books on Chydenius’s contributions to an open society and freedom of information have been published recently, by the relatively new Anders Chydenius Foundation; and these books (in Finnish and Swedish) include very short English summaries. But as one of the contributors notes, “there is no summary English account [of Chydenius work] directed toward an international public.”

I stumbled upon Chydenius while researching economic history. His work The National Gain (1765) preceded Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (widely considered the founding treatise of modern economics) by eleven years. Chydenius’ earlier work covered much of the same territory — including a description of the process that Smith would later call “the invisible hand.”

Even in this super-connected age, news sometimes travels slow.  While you probably never heard of him, Chydenius was an inspiring, world-changing figure. His ideas about openness and freedom have had a big impact on your life — and they continue to do so, especially every time you read the news.