Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson

Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson

Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson (born February 19, 1953) is a professor of political science at the University of Iceland, a frequent commentator on current affairs in the Icelandic media and a known, but controversial, spokesman for the "free market" and for neoliberalism or classical liberalism.

Education and Career

Gissurarson was born in Reykjavik. Graduating from the Reykjavík Grammar School in 1972, Gissurarson completed his B. A. in philosophy and history and his M. A. in history from the University of Iceland, before going on to study politics at the University of Oxford where he received his DPhil. in 1985 for a thesis on “Hayek’s Conservative Liberalism”. At Oxford, he was in 1984-5 the R. G. Collingwood Scholar at Pembroke College; and he founded, with some like-minded friends, the Oxford Hayek Society. From 1988, Gissurarson has taught at the University of Iceland, becoming professor of political theory in the Faculty of Social Science in 1995. In 1984, he became a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, serving on its board of directors in 1998-2004. He is also a member of the board of the Central Bank of Iceland. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, UCLA, George Mason University in Virginia, Tokyo University of the Fisheries, LUISS in Rome and International Centre for Economic Research, in Turin. He has twice been a Fulbright Scholar in the U. S. A. and once a Sasakawa Scholar in Japan. In 2005, Gissurarson organised a regional meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Iceland, devoted to “Freedom and Property in the 21st century”.


Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson was an assistant to the editor of "Eimreiðin", a magazine published in 1972-5 by a group of young classical liberals or libertarians in the Independence Party. The group included Davíð Oddsson, Þorsteinn Pálsson, Geir H. Haarde, Baldur Guðlaugsson, Brynjólfur Bjarnason, Kjartan Gunnarsson and Magnús Gunnarsson. The group became very influential within the Independence Party in the late 1970s and onwards, Þorsteinn Pálsson being party leader in 1983-91, Davíð Oddsson in 1991-2005 and Geir H. Haarde since 2005. The group is widely seen as having made the Independence Party much more libertarian than it used to be. Gissurarson is a personal friend of Davíð Oddsson and served as his informal adviser during his 13 years as Prime Minister of Iceland, 1991-2004 (after which Oddsson was Foreign Minister for one year, and since then Governor of the Central Bank).

In 1979, Gissurarson, with a few young friends, founded the Libertarian Association in Iceland which operated for ten years. It brought about visits by the three Nobel Laureates Friedrich Hayek, James M. Buchanan and Milton Friedman in the early 1980s. Those visits were widely discussed in Iceland and had quite an impact on the discussion of ideas. Also, the Libertarian Association published, in 1980-1988, a magazine called "Frelsið" which also had some influence, especially on young people.Fact|date=February 2007

In 1984, from 2 to 10 October, Gissurarson, with Kjartan Gunnarsson, operated an illegal radio station, to protest against the government monopoly of broadcasting. (At the time, the employees of the Public Broadcasting Service had closed it down, because of a wage dispute.) The police first searched unsuccessfully for the station, then raided it and closed it down. Gissurarson and Gunnarsson were indicted and later given a fine for breaking the law on broadcasting. But the operation of the station and the subsequent police raid on it turned many in the leadership of the Independence Party, previously reluctant in the matter, towards supporting the abolition of the government monopoly. The Icelandic parliament abolished the monopoly in 1985, and the law came into effect in 1986.

In early 1990, Gissurarson published a book on fisheries management, an important subject in Iceland whose main export article is fish. It was entitled "The Fish Stocks in the Icelandic Waters: The Property of the Nation or of the State?" There, Gissurarson advocated (as he had done in an article in the "Journal of Economic Affairs" in April 1983) a system of individual, transferable quotas, ITQs, in the Icelandic fisheries, where initially the quotas would be given free of charge to the owners of fishing vessels, in order to gain their support for what was tantamount to the enclosure of the Icelandic fishing grounds. This book probably had some effect on the leadership of the Independence Party who became the staunchest supporters of the ITQ system. The Independence Party has held the Ministry of Fisheries since 1991.In 2002, Gissurarson published a book under the title "How Can Iceland Become the Richest Country in the World?" There, he outlined the opportunities that Iceland would have as an international financial centre, offering low corporate taxes and a stable political environment. In the book, he discussed the example of Luxembourg and Ireland — two European countries in some respects similar to Iceland — and that of some small islands, such as the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Cayman Islands. Gissurarson’s initiative may have had some influence on the leadership of the Independence PartyFact|date=February 2007. At least, since the early 1990s, the corporate incomes tax in Iceland has been lowered from 50% to 18%, and the net wealth tax has been abolished.

The free-market reforms of the Oddsson years, 1991-2004/5, are commonly regarded as quite successful. Two commercial banks, large fishmeal factories and the Icelandic telephone company were privatised, as well as many smaller companies; corporate taxes were lowered; freedom in the financial markets was significantly increased; and the public debt was greatly reduced. The Icelandic economy is much more open now than it used to be. In this period, moreover, the purchasing power of the ordinary worker has risen by more than 30%. There is however no consensus on who is to thank, or to blame, for those changes. Some argue that it was the entry of Iceland into the European Economic Area (EEA) which was crucial in opening up the economy and unleashing the dynamism which is now apparent. Others say that it was the policy initiatives of Oddsson, and his advisers like Gissurarson, which were conclusive in bringing about those changes.


Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson has from the beginning of his public career managed to stir up controversy. It began when he first had a weekly radio talk show, at the Public Broadcasting Station, in 1976-7, introducing his audience to writers like George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Karl Popper. This radio show was harshly criticized in the Socialist newspaper "Þjóðviljinn". Later, in the early 1980s, Hannes and one of his former philosophy teachers at the University of Iceland, Þorsteinn Gylfason, had a very public feud in the newspapers where Þorsteinn called Hannes “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”, and Hannes responded by praising Þorsteinn as one of the “oldest and most promising philosophers in Iceland”.

In early 1984, Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson had a heated exchange with Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, then acting editor of the Socialist newspaper "Þjóðviljinn". Ólafur Ragnar had quoted articles in "The Guardian" in England to the effect that Milton Friedman, the “guru of the Icelandic libertarians”, had, in his manipulation of his statistical data, acted dishonestly. The reference, by "The Guardian" and hence by Ólafur Ragnar, was to a recent critical study of Friedman’s empiricial research, by David Hendry, a professor of statistics at the University of Oxford. Hannes wrote to Hendry who replied, saying that he had never accused Friedman of any dishonesty, and that their disagreement was one on methodology. The publication of Hendry’s letter ended the dispute in Iceland.

When, in the summer of 1988, the Minister of Education, Mr. Birgir Isleifur Gunnarsson (a leading member of the Independence Party), appointed Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson assistant professor of politics in the Faculty of Social Science at the University of Iceland, the Faculty and the University protested loudly, as the Faculty had strongly recommended to the Minister another applicant for the job. A special committee appointed by the Faculty had argued that Hannes was only partly qualified for the position, since his first University degrees were not in politics, but in philosophy and history. But the Minister of Education presented written reports by Hannes’ teachers in England, Dr John Gray, then of Jesus College, Oxford, later professor at the London School of Economics, and Professor Norman Barry of the University of Buckingham that Hannes was fully qualified for a job as a teacher of politics. Later, the Faculty of Social Science confirmed Hannes’ appointments, first as an associate professor, then as professor.

In the 1990s, Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson was a vocal critic of an Icelandic businessman, Jón Ólafsson, who was the chief owner of the private television channel, Stöð tvö. Jón Ólafsson was then seen by many as one of the bitterest enemies of Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson, Hannes’ friend and ally. In a paper (originally in English) to a conference of journalists in Reykholt in the autumn of 1999, Hannes made some disparaging remarks about Jón Ólafsson’s past, which he subsequently put on his homepage (in English, as in the original). In 2004, on the basis of those remarks on Hannes’ homepage, Jón Ólafsson took Hannes to court in England, for libel, and obtained a judgement of £100,000. (Jón Ólafsson had sold all his property in Iceland in 2003, and moved to England.) This was a judgement by default, as Hannes did not, on the advice of the Icelandic Ministry of Justice, and also the lawyer of the University of Iceland, defend himself before the English court. Hannes appealed this judgment, arguing that a correct procedure had not been implemented against him, since he had not been served the claim form, or writ, according to Icelandic rules. The Royal High Court of Justice in London ruled in Hannes’ favour and invalidated the decision against him on 8 December 2006. However, the case is far from over and a ruling in March 2008 allowed the case to continue before English courts.

When Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson informed the public, in the summer of 2003, that he was in the process of writing a three volumes’ biography of Halldór Kiljan Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel Laureate in literature, and the leading Socialist intellectual in Iceland in the 20th century, When the first volume of Hannes’ biography of Laxness was published in late 2003, Helga Kress wrote a long and critical review of it, arguing that Hannes was guilty of plagiarism since he had in his book drawn heavily on the accounts of Laxness’ childhood in his four volumes of memoirs, without, Kress argued, proper attribution. Hannes responded that he had clearly stated in the afterword to the first volume that he used Laxness’ accounts of his childhood. In late 2004, Laxness’ widow sued Hannes for an alleged breach of copyright. On 10 November 2006, Hannes was acquitted by the Reykjavík District Court. The judge held that while Hannes had indeed broken copyright by his extensive use of Laxness’ memoirs, no damage had been proved to the copyright holder. The Supreme Court did however find Hannes Hólmsteinn guilty of the copyrigt breach in 13 March 2008 and to pay substantial damages.

Main Writings

* "Hayek’s Conservative Liberalism" (doctoral thesis, in English). Garland, New York 1987.
* "Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn í sextíu ár" (The Independence Party in Sixty Years). Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn, Reykjavík 1989.
* "Fjölmiðlar nútímans" (The Modern Media). Stofnun Jóns Þorlákssonar, Reykjavík 1989.
* "Island" (Iceland, in Swedish). Timbro, Stockholm 1990.
* "Fiskistofnarnir við Ísland: Þjóðareign eða ríkiseign?" (The Fish Stocks in the Icelandic Waters: The Property of the Nation or of the State?) Stofnun Jóns Þorlákssonar, Reykjavík 1990.
* "Jón Þorláksson forsætisráðherra" (Prime Minister Jón Þorláksson, a biography). Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík 1992.
* "Frjálshyggjan er mannúðarstefna, Greinasafn" (Libertarianism is Humanitarianism. Collection of Essays). Stofnun Jóns Þorlákssonar,Reykjavík 1992.
* "Pálmi í Hagkaup" (Pálmi in Hagkaup, a short biography). Framtíðarsýn, Reykjavík 1994.
* "Hvar á maðurinn heima?" (Where does Man Belong? Essays in the history of political ideas). Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, Reykjavík 1994.
* "Íslenskar tilvitnanir" (Dictionary of Quotations). Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík 1995.
* "Benjamín Eiríksson í stormum sinna tíða" (Benjamín Eiríksson, a biography). Bókafélagið, Reykjavík 1996
* "Hádegisverðurinn er aldrei ókeypis" (There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch). Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, Reykjavík 1997.
* "Stjórnmálaheimspeki" (Political Philosophy). Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, Reykjavík 1999.
* "Overfishing. The Icelandic Solution." Institute of Economic Affairs, London 2000.
* "Fiskar undir steini. Sex ritgerðir í stjórnmálaheimspeki" (Twists in the Tales. Essays in political philosophy). Háskólaútgáfan, Reykjavík2001.
* "Hvernig getur Ísland orðið ríkasta land í heimi?" (How Can Iceland Become the Richest Country in the World?) Nýja bókafélagið, Reykjavík 2002.
* "Halldór. Fyrsta bindi ævisögu Halldórs Kiljans Laxness" (Halldór, first volume of a biography of Halldór Kiljan Laxness). Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík 2003.
* "Kiljan. Annað bindi ævisögu Halldórs Kiljans Laxness" (Kiljan, second volume of a biography of Halldór Kiljan Laxness). Bókafélagið, Reykjavík 2004.
* "Laxness. Þriðja bindi ævisögu Halldórs Kiljans Laxness" (Laxness, third volume of a biography of Halldór Kiljan Laxness). Bókafélagið, Reykjavík 2005.
* "Ísland og Atlantshafsbandalagið. Þrír heimildaþættir fyrir sjónvarp" (Iceland in NATO. script for three television documentaries). 1999.
* "Tuttugasta öldin. Átta heimildaþættir fyrir sjónvarp" (The Twentieth Century, script for eight television documentaries). 2002 (co-author).

External links

* [http://courses.wcupa.edu/rbove/eco343/040Compecon/Scand/Iceland/040129prosper.htm Article by Hannes Gissurarson on Icelandic economic miracle in "Wall Street Journal"]
* [http://accessible.iea.org.uk/record.jsp?ID=16&type=publication "Overfishing: The Icelandic Solution", by Hannes Gissurarson, in PDF format]
* [http://www.ioes.hi.is/events/conference_112001/conference_112001.html Tax Competition Conference in November 2001 co-organised by Hannes Gissurarson]
* [http://www.mps-iceland.org/ Mont Pelerin Society regional meeting in Iceland in August 2005 co-organised by Hannes Gissurarson]
* [http://www.hi.is/~hannesgi Hannes Gissurarson's website at the University of Iceland]
* [http://hannesgi.blog.is/blog/hannesgi/ Hannes Gissurarson's Icelandic blogsite]
* [http://www.hi.is University of Iceland]

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