The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 12 - Contributions on Political Economy

In every country there are always those who are willing to exert themselves and accept the responsibility of bold action in times of need, or able by clear thinking to accomplish desirable ends. To this class Swedenborg belonged. He took-his membership in the governing body of his country very seriously.

On his return from Holland and Germany, he heard of a plan to push through the Riksdag of 1723 a measure for inflating the Swedish currency by debasing its purchasing power. Now,, as one of Swedenborg's self-appointed objectives in going abroad had been to study the foreign markets for Swedish iron, he had discussed the currency with his countrymen abroad, notably with Ambassador Preis in Holland. He considered any further inflation of Swedish money very dangerous, since during the war years it had already undergone considerable depreciation.

Had Swedenborg been a good speaker he might have become a political leader like his distant relative Johan Rosenadler, secretary of the College of Chancery, who was so eloquent that he could convince people of anything he chose. Swedenborg, it is believed, in all his political life never made a speech. His weapon was the pen. As early as 1719 he had presented a memorial to the Committee of the Diet appointed to consider means for rehabilitating the Swedish currency. (See p. 57 Chapter VIII). During the summer of 1722 he wrote a pamphlet to express his views on the vital question of the currency, and he wanted his ideas to be presented to the public in full detail before the coming session of the, Riksdag. He called his pamphlet: Modest Thoughts on the Fall and Rise of Swedish Money.[131]

This pamphlet was published in November, anonymously, but in official circles it was well known who had written it. It seems to have circulated first among the members of the Board of Mines. So telling were its arguments against the debasement of the currency that it created quite a stir, as Swedenborg noted in a letter to an Amsterdam merchant who acted as his banker (Stockholm, November 7, 1722).[132]

In this pamphlet he argues that:

If the money of a country be the basis of its economy, nothing ought to be more important than having it well established. And then, after it has been set upon a good footing, it should be left undisturbed, because to derange the currency unnecessarily is to change the trade and commerce of the entire country, and to disturb each and everyone's business. To disturb the noblest thing that lies within one's custody is tantamount to undertaking the responsibility for each and every one who now or hereafter may come to suffer from it.

Take, for instance, iron and copper, from which the chief income of the kingdom is derived. The iron industry would be ruined by the devaluation of the coinage, so that not only would the iron trade be upset, but the public treasury also would suffer, and that is many times more important. Contracts in iron made on the basis of former prices would have to be broken; the very arteries of the country's well-being would be put in jeopardy; the foreign price of iron would rise, and the balance of trade would be disturbed, for this adjusts itself to the value of the money. Moreover, for salaried workers, such as all public servants and officials, depreciation of the currency would be equivalent to a reduction in salary, and this would endanger the pillars of the country's welfare.

"Therefore the highly esteemed Knights and Nobles, and also the Houses of the Clergy and the Peasants will hardly be willing, for the sake of private profit and a better income, to agree to a devaluation of the Currency." It is interesting to observe that nothing is said about the House of Burghers. It was mostly members of this Estate who would have profited by the change, namely those who imported wares into the country from abroad.

So powerful were the arguments Swedenborg marshaled against inflation that a political economist, writing forty-three years later, described this pamphlet in words of the highest praise. He is Anders Chydenius, a famous Finnish liberal. Since the booklet was anonymous, Chydenius was ignorant of the fact that Swedenborg was its author when he says, "He brings the matter out with such clearness and strength that it can hardly be improved upon, and needs merely to be adapted to the crisis in which we are now."[133]

Such arguments were certain to meet opposition. When Swedenborg applied to the Chancery Department for permission to publish the work some of the members had hesitated to allow the printing of the pamphlet, in which it was demonstrated how the kingdom would stand to lose several million dalers in revenue by the devaluation of the money. They based their objections on the fact that the income and expenditures of the whole country were enumerated by Swedenborg in his calculation. The first decision of the College was to postpone it, but this verdict must have been reversed for, as stated above, the pamphlet on Swedish Money appeared some time in November.

But not content with the publication and circulation of this propaganda leaflet among government officials, Swedenborg also wanted it advertised in the public announcement sheets, so that, as he said, "he might learn the opinions of others, and their objections to it, and thus get an opportunity to explain the matter more fully." This, however, met a snag in the chancery department, which carefully censored all approaches to the public ear. A search of their Acts has brought to light an interesting discussion of Swedenborg's case.[134]

Baron von Höpken opposed it. "Let him prepare his pamphlets and work them out as much as he pleases until the next Riksdag. The matter will then be decided by the Estates themselves"

Baron Brauner thought it presumptuous of a private individual to wish to publish a notification of this kind.

Mr. Rosenadler said: "He only asks for different views on a matter that concerns and applies to all, from the most insignificant beggar up to the most exalted personage. It therefore seems to me decidedly useful that so general a question be advertised among the people in advance, before the Riksdag convenes, in order that the matter may be so much the better decided."

Count Gyllenborg stated that he was of the same opinion as Secretary Rosenadler, for in a free state no one ought to be forbidden to discuss publicly subjects which concern all alike.

Von Höpken considered that this matter had already been so carefully investigated and decided upon by those who have it in hand that there is not a single argument in the book which has not been previously taken into account. "If Swedenborg has any further arguments to offer, let him bring them out when the matter is laid before the Estates."

Secretary Rosenadler replied that in a free state - especially in a matter of such general concern as the currency - no discussions ought to be secret. A private person cannot be denied the right to discuss it publicly. He regarded this matter of such importance that he was afraid of being held answerable to the Estates were he to forbid the author to publish his opinions on this question, lest otherwise those who wish to promote the devaluation of the currency at the Riksdag take the Estates by surprise. Authors ought to be allowed to publish their opinions as much as they please and the secretary did not dare to refuse them.

Such also was the custom in England, where everyone is permitted to publish little pamphlets of this kind through the press. It has the effect of making the people penetrate more deeply into such questions, thus becoming better informed on them.

Baron Cederhielm also was of the opinion that, in a free state, no one can be denied permission to print' their projects and sentiments with a view to public benefit. Nevertheless, it is advisable to hesitate before letting it come into the gazettes, since then people would think it was done with official approval:

Mr. Rosenadler objected that if the arguments brought ' out by Swedenborg were considered incorrect and misleading it would be well if the mistakes were pointed out in order to give him an opportunity to defend himself.

It was finally decided that the announcement might not be inserted in the Swedish gazettes since they are issued under official sanction and the advertisement would then be regarded as having official approval.

* * * * *

This was by no means Swedenborg's only contribution to the Riksdag of 1723. Early in February he had presented a memorial on The Balance in Trade which was read before the Committee on Commerce.

In this memorial Swedenborg deplores the fact that the country was importing more goods from abroad than she was able to pay for by her exports. This, he argues, was causing Sweden to sink into poverty and, if not guarded against, it would weaken the kingdom and impoverish all its citizens, making the country decline in the estimation of other nations. He referred to the time of Charles XI when Sweden was in its most flourishing condition with a trade balance of 4 1/2 million florins in her favor. This he contrasted with the present deficit of 2-3 million florins, partly due to the loss of revenue m the Baltic provinces. To infuse new life into commerce, and to promote a more favorable balance of trade, he recommended that they make up by industry those sums which they had lost through misfortune. He proved by statistical tables that Sweden's trade balance depended upon her production of iron, which amounted to 2-3 million rixdollars per annum. Next in importance came copper, with one million rixdollars. Only necessary and indispensable goods ought therefore to` be permitted to be imported from abroad and he recommended that, as much as possible, they be manufactured at home.[135]

Another memorial by Swedenborg On Noble and Base Metals, which was sent to the Committee on Mines and read on February 20, deplored the custom of favoring a noble metal at the expense of one less noble, so that a mine producing a large amount of iron might be injured by the discovery, in its vicinity, of a vein of silver that produced only a small quantity of this more precious metal. The iron-works, although not so noble or titled would, nevertheless, he argued, be of greater benefit to the country. "There is danger of the country losing many tons of gold from the production of iron merely for the pleasure of getting one eighth of it from a metal which is of a nobler quality." (The principle of class distinction seems to have been applied even to metals!)

The trouble was that the copper works were not getting enough charcoal for their smelteries. As they were not paying as much for their charcoal as the richer iron-works, the coal dealers did not so readily sell to them. During the discussion of this question in the House of Nobles, one member is reported as saying:

"If the copper works will pay as much for charcoal as the iron works; they will get charcoal enough." To which the President indignantly retorted, "Before the copper works suffer for lack of charcoal, the iron-works must got" And - true to their concept of nobility - three weeks later the House of Nobles instructed the Board of Mines to be particularly solicitous in carrying out the discrimination against iron in favor of copper which, "being a nobler and more precious metal," should be granted preference over iron.[136]

Swedenborg was now thoroughly aroused. Not only would he personally suffer from this enactment but the country's welfare, he thought, was at stake. He wrote another memorial proving at length, point by point, still more conclusively, how much more the country stood to benefit from the iron industry, and consequently how important it was to protect it against other metals "having lovelier titles" being given preference at the expense of iron.

This memorial On Encouraging the Production of Iron was read before the House of Nobles and two days later before the Board of Mines. The memorial traveled from committee to committee and two years later reached the Royal Council itself.[137]

Another memorial advocated the Establishment of Rolling Mills in Sweden, from which the public will derive benefit and advantage. The whole world knows that no country offers better opportunities for establishing factories than Sweden. Noting with regret how little is being done to promote them, Swedenborg presents a plan by which this may be remedied. Holland and other countries derive a handsome income from converting Swedish iron into various forms. If Sweden herself would furnish such things as iron bars and sheeting, she would gain a large market since the products which she makes are superior to those manufactured elsewhere. He asks that privileges and exemptions be granted to those who set up such factories and accompanied his memorial with a drawing of a machine used abroad to manufacture nails, rods, steel wire, gratings, blacksmiths' and locksmiths' supplies. This proposal was discussed by various branches of the government, and Swedenborg was made a member of the Committee on Commerce, Customs and Mines, for which he acted as secretary.[138]

He was in the lists to defend the iron industry, and he did not care against whom he broke a lance, continuing to tilt with the best of them. Among the latter, not least in influence, was a group of merchants who were planning to secure a corner in iron by having a law passed that no Swedish products could be carried in any but Swedish ships, this to take effect just as soon as a sufficient number of Swedish vessels were available, since they had been reduced during the wretched war years to the number of 177. Such a law was opposed to the interests of the iron industry, as it would discourage consumption and lower the price of the product. In order to enforce the regulation - which the merchants claimed was designed to keep profits in Sweden and prevent foreigners from sucking the life-blood out of the country - they insisted that all foreign trade in iron should pass through three staple cities alone: Gothenburg, Stockholm, and Karlskrona. (Monopolies could then easily be set up by a few merchants in those places I )

The iron industry found it much more to its advantage to trade with foreign purchasers directly; a free market provided by far the best sale for their product, thus holding up the prices. Referring to Swedenborg's memorial on this question Chydenius wrote, forty-three years later, when a proposal for excluding foreign merchant shipping came up for debate:

A worthy member of the Diet presented the matter with great clarity, power and zeal . . . He bases his thoughts on reason; he appeals to irresistible experience . . . He paints the consequences of the prohibition with lively colors ... He shows that it would be a severe invasion of the citizen's rights, which were sparred even during the time of autocracy, and should least of all be infringed in a free country; for industry, business and the state itself would thereby be destroyed and the property of one subject would be sacrificed for the property of others.[139]

Without wishing to overemphasize the value of Swedenborg's memorial, it is clear that he made a substantial contribution to political economy, as Chydenius pointed out, drawing a parallel between political and economic freedom unusual for the times.

to Chapter 13