Would Alfred Nobel have wanted the Swedish tax payers to finance a prize in economics in his name?


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In 1887, Ludvig Nobel asks his then 54-years-old little brother to summon his life for the family chronicles. Alfred Nobel writes “Alfred Nobel –miserable half-life, should have been smothered by a humane physician, when he screaming made his entry into life. Biggest accomplishments: To keep the nails clean and to never have been a burden to anyone.  Biggest faults: Not having a family, a good mood and a good metabolism.”  

Ten years later, Bertha von Suttner, who was awarded the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote a letter to Alfred about her first meeting with him: “A thinker, a poet, a man both kindly and bitter, unhappy and light-hearted given to superb flights of mind and to malicious suspicions, passionately in love with the far horizons of human thoughts and profoundly distrustful of pettiness of human folly, understanding everything and hoping for nothing, so you seemed me. And twenty years have done nothing to efface that image.”

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Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm and moved to St Petersburg, Russia when he was 9 years old. Alfred’s father was an engineer and inventor. Bankruptcy forced him to move to Russia where he built a successful business in St Petersburg, selling naval mines, at that time wooden casks filled with gun powder.

As a young boy Alfred was interested in literature and poetry, he had a keen ear for languages, by the age of 17 he knew Swedish, Russian, French, English and German.  Alfred’s father though, wanted all his sons to become engineers.  Young Alfred was sent to Paris to study chemistry.  There he met with Asciano Sobrero, an Italian who discovered nitroglycerine.

Since that time Alfred Nobel became interested in developing nitroglycerine as an explosive.  In Stockholm 1864 an experiment with the highly explosive and unstable nitroglycerine went wrong and Alfred’s brother Emil and several others died in a massive explosion that is still called the Nobel Big Bang.

In 1865 Alfred found that mixing nitroglycerine with silica would turn the liquid into a paste which could be shaped into rods that where much safer to handle, his factory in Germany soon exported large amounts of nitroglycerine products to other countries in Europe, American and Australia.  He patented this new material in 1867 under the name dynamite.  Alfred also invented a detonator, that combined with the dynamite revolutionized the cost of blasting rocks, drilling tunnels, building channels and other types of construction work.

Alfred travelled and worked all over Europe with factories and laboratories in Stockholm, Hamburg, Ardeen (Scotland), Paris, Karlskoga (Sweden) and San Remo (Italy). He invented other chemical products as well such as synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk, by the time of his death in San Remo 1896 he had 355 patents.  Alfred Nobel was a paradox though, at the same time as he was working hard and travelling extensively he was sickly and spent a lot of time in treatment for various diseases.  

He is described in the book Svenska Uppfinnare by Karlsson/Erseus: “Creativity is his best psycotherapist. Always curious, always thirsting for new knowledge…He is pale as a snow drift, this son of the North. Sickly, probably hypochondriac, he had his whole life been visiting spas and specialists to cure sore muscles, sudden fainting, nose bleeds, rheumatism, migraine, insomnia, cold sores, bad stomach, and heart problems. He disappears for days, weeks and returns with sunglasses and bandaged head.”

Alfred Nobel died in San Remo at the age of 63. When his will was opened, it came as a surprise to everyone that he had donated the major part of his fortune, then 33 million Swedish kronor (today’s value estimated to one trillion Swedish kronor) to be used for prizes to the most important research within the fields of in physics, chemistry and physiology, as well as prizes for literature and peace. The executors of his will were two young engineers, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Liljequist. They formed the Nobel Foundation as an organization to handle the financial assets.  

Ragnar Sohlman himself brought the money from a secret safe to the Swedish Consulate in Paris, protecting the money with a loaded gun. The money was then sent in small packages to Sweden.

The will of Alfred Nobel was not popular with everyone, the Swedish king, Oscar II, found the last wish of Alfred Nobel to be unpatriotic and tried to make the donation to be considered for Swedish citizens only.

 It is unknown but far from uncontroversial how the Swedish Riksbank managed to get the right to use the Alfred Nobel name and procedures for awarding an annual prize for economics at the same time as the Nobel Prize Ceremony takes place.  In 1968, to celebrate the 300 year anniversary of the Swedish Riksbank,  the bank managed to persuade the Nobel Foundation Committee  to approve the Swedish Riksbanken’s Prize for Economics in Memory of Alfred Nobel.  Sveriges Riksbank is Sweden’s central bank and public authority under the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament.  

The Riksbank covers all the expenses for the prize, such as prize money of 10 million SEK per year, an annual grant to the 6.5 million SEK to the Nobel Foundation for administrative expenses as well as 1 million SEK to include information about the prize on the Nobel Foundation’s Internet Museum.

Obviously it is a relevant question whether a Swedish public authority should use taxpayer’s money for a prize in economics.  Did anyone ever ask the taxpayers if they wanted to sponsor such a prize that by some is be considered a marketing ploy for an already overpaid group of quasi-scientists.

Secondly it can be argued if economics can be considered a science, looking at the over the last years one can understand why the price sometimes is called the Stockholm-Chicago Express as mostly neoclassic thinkers from that school has been rewarded and economists from other parts of the world have been grossly neglected.    

The most important question though, is if Alfred Nobel would have approved such prize to be given in his name. Obviously he did not express such a wish in his will. He did not seem to trust banks at the time of his death as money was stored in secret safes and where not distributed via banks.  During his lifetime Alfred Nobel also did what more investors should do today, he invested in research and production of goods.  He also foresaw the perpetual need for research and education within chemistry, physiology and medicine, as well as the importance of good literature and for peace.

The Prize of Economics is an insult to Alfred Nobel and should be called for what it is, a socialist prize to capitalistic promotors suffering from the Entitlement Syndrome.

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