In times of Corona: Personal freedom, responsibility and security are in the Public Interest

Essay by Peter A. Fischer* held on 9 December 2021 at the 5th International CEPROM/ECAEF Conference in Monaco.

After two difficult years, HSH Prince Albert, the very able local , and ECAEF have made it possible that we are able to come to Monaco again to discuss matters of personal freedom, personal responsibility, the rule of law and the public interest. Topics of this conference that could not be more appropriate.

Changing test procedures and border crossing requirements by the day, cancelled or delayed flights would almost have prevented it. What was just a matter of routine two years ago, has become a nail-biting adventure: For too long we have taken the freedom to travel, meet and unite for granted. It was sort of a public good.

And all of a sudden, we were confronted with Covid-19, evidently originating in China.

Wuhan China Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market origin of_covid19
Wuhan, China: The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Ground Zero of the Covid-19 Pandemic in December 2019. Source: wikipedia.

I think we all have our own memories when the so-called pandemic started. I for my part was on holidays, skiing in the calm and endless wilderness of Northern Finland when in March 2020 Europe almost like a striking rod, enacted severe restriction and declared lockdowns. It took me as a surprise that something like that was possible. Already a week into the crisis, my return flight was cancelled and I was lucky I got an opportunity to return through Helsinki Airport.
Armed border guards controlled us. Gone was suddenly the esteemed freedom of Schengen, and the usually busy airport in Zürich was abandoned.

And even more striking was the next morning, when during the usual rush-hour I took the commuter train to my office – and found myself being the only one waiting for it on the platform.

Evidently, a society and an economy cannot work if everybody isolates him/herself. Risk-averse politicians overreacted. Life is dangerous, and there are many trade-offs. It turned out that this virus is particularly dangerous for the elder and the weaker. Out of the 11 200 persons that diseased from or with Corona in Switzerland so far, 22 were aged below 41.

Should we protect the elderly and weaker among us and leave it to the personal responsibility of the rest to protect them? Shouldn’t in a liberal (in the European sense) system every individual be a moral person, that is, she or he is free to choose and to act and is responsible for her or his conduct?

Personal Freedom, no doubt is of the utmost importance for any liberal minded person. Moreover, all the strong restrictions had so many unintended consequences, from preventing us to gather here and exchange our views to hampering future educational career prospects of school kids in closed schools and students at boarded up universities to forced psychological diseases and enormous economic and public costs.

However, I got convinced that a pandemic is an extreme example of individually rational behaviour deviating from the public interest. The reason is simple: if the pandemic exceeds a certain intensity, we all have reason to be frightened and to hide. Even if we are 30 years old and may not fear Covid itself at all, if hospitals are overcrowded with Corona-patients and may no longer treat us properly, we might unnecessarily die from a simple accident or a minor health problem. If the intensity of the pandemic exceeds a certain level, it seems to be in the public Interest that we all are somewhat restricted in our work and life. We would be better off, should everybody behave a bit more cautious and considerate than she or he feels to be in her immediate self-interest.

It might be rational to renounce vaccination and awaits being infected from an individual point of view – but we all would fare much better and this pandemic would more likely be under control if the very large majority of society voluntarily had agreed to be vaccinated.

Some people may disagree, but from my point of view this pandemic is an impressive illustration of what we economists call external effects of one’s own behaviour. It is in the public interest of security and wellbeing, that these external effects of our behaviour are reasonably internalised.

To the best possible extent, this could and should be done through market incentives. But as people are obviously rather binary in their behaviour and act either overly frightened or exceedingly careless, there sadly seems to be no other way than for the government and its institutions to define some mandatory rules that limit individual freedom and self-responsibility. This, I guess, it is in the public interest, as without, we most likely would not have been able to meet here tonight.

I am not in favour of overarching government interventionism. It seems to me clear, that extreme solutions are extremely costly and a zero-covid-policy is impossible in an open and democratic society.
I do believe that risk-averse administrations and politicians have often acted overly restrictive and neglected important trade-offs. I analysed health and economic costs of this pandemic in different countries around the world. One sees quite clearly, that the rule of diminishing marginal returns and increasing marginal costs of severe interventions applies to pandemic policy as well.

While wearing face masks in crowded places and adhering to sanitary and hygienic precautionary measures provides great returns at a low price, curfews are extreme limitations of individual freedom with rather little effect on security and public health. The liberal camp of states that include Switzerland could do without.

Stronghold Bavaria and scared Northern Italy that in their corona-policy joined the interventionist camp of states have not fared much better than Switzerland. Relatively liberal regimes provided people with better quality of life, more individual freedom to adapt to the difficult situation and superior economic performance than the strict lockdown policies of e.g. Germany.

The difficult challenge was and is to adhere to the public interest at lowest possible costs and with minimal necessary restrictions of individual freedom.

However, recent experiences provide ample food for thought, I believe. Let me just mention five of them.

First, it seems to me that public administrations around the world tend to be subject to distorted incentives. They have much more to lose if they take risks than if they act overly restrictive and risk-averse. In this spirit, they are generally badly prepared to efficiently interact with business and the private sector, something that would be of outmost importance in a situation as exceptional as a pandemic. I wonder: How could this be altered?

Second, many politicians have biased incentives because the money they spend is not theirs. The costs they impose to the public are not immediately obvious. The image of a protective strongman is likely more supportive to re-election than that of liberal restraint.
According to the IMF, Advanced Economies on average mostly debt financed additional spending of 12 per cent of GDP to fight the pandemic and provided another 11 per cent in equity, loans and guarantees. Obviously, this is hardly sustainable and represents a substantial burden on future taxpayers. I wonder: What institutional and other consequences liberal-minded societies should draw from that?

Third, I have of course Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in my mind. This pandemic experience with its unprecedent spending spray has fostered socialist and étatist attitudes. It increased acceptance of authoritarian restrictions of individual freedom and provided countries like China with excuses for policies that are truly Orwellian in nature. Even though I believe some interventions are in the very interest of security and the public, so is personal freedom. How are we going to get out of all this again?

Fourth, I recently met a colleague who was fully vaccinated but had survived a cancer and has a suppressed immune response. His doctor told him, that at current incidences there were too many unvaccinated around that posed a risk to him. Although rather unlikely, should he get infected, he had to fear for the worst. The doctor recommended him therefore no longer to visit restaurants or join crowds of people etc. Despite having behaved fully responsible, his freedom thus already is severely restricted again.

I had thought that once everybody who likes to has been vaccinated, consequences of the behaviour of the anti-vaccinators could be freely left to their individual responsibility again. But now I started to wonder: Do we want to have a society that is ruled by the law of the stronger? Or one that excels by solidarity and protection of minorities? To what reasonable extent?

Fifth, in Switzerland we have our binding public referenda. Recently, for the second time we voted on our corona law that entitles the government to require certificates of vaccination or recovery for certain activities. Even though people voted for the law, a bit more than one third rejected it. Moreover, the debate on it became increasingly uncompromising. It revealed a frightening degree of polarisation and extreme resistance. I wonder: what are the deeper reasons behind this bitterness and mistrust and how can they be overcome?

I believe an important contribution are conferences like this one.
These are opportunities to meet in person, to reflect, communicate, listen to each other’s and interact.

I guess, it is part of liberal wisdom to accept that especially in such unchartered territory nobody has perfect information, knows the absolute truth and is without errors.

But I believe that in small states, interaction between government and people and between people themselves is easier than in large, centralised states. Checks and balances usually work more directly, and freedom is better protected. It is easier to enact a relatively liberal set of rules that people accept.

I hope that our reunion tonight and our conference tomorrow is a vivid proof of all this. And that we all will be happy about it all along.

Therefore, first and foremost let me propose a toast to His Serene Highness Prince Albert II, to CEPROM the local organizers and to the ECAEF, which is responsible for the academic conception and arrangement of the conference. However, we all should also toast to liberalism, freedom and commensurability, to toast to personal freedom, responsibility and security. All these topics are in the personal interest.

*Peter A. Fischer is a native of Switzerland and studied economics, business economics, international law and political sciences at the Universities of Berne (CH) and Kiel (D). Currently he serves as Chief Economist of Neue Zuercher Zeitung (NZZ) in Zürich. Fischer obtained an Advanced Studies Certificate in International Economic Policy Research from the ‘Kiel Institute for the World Economy’ (D) and defended his PhD in Economics with summa cum laude in 1998 at the University in Hamburg. After working in academia for several years Dr. Fischer joined the economics department of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) in 1999 and was appointed its Bureau Chief for Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus Area in 2001. The Russian Association of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists awarded him the Presszwanie Prize for the best foreign economic coverage of Russia. In 2007 Fischer moved from Russia to China and became Bureau chief for the NZZ Beijing Office. His book ‘Quer durch das neue Russland’ was published in 2008 and is in face of the current affairs of special interest today. He returned to Zurich at the end of 2010 and served as Economics-editor-in-chief until the end of 2020. His countless publications focus predominantly on the important issues of migration, integration, and the problems of the new economic geography.

What the future of small states in Europe looks like

The 5th CEPROM/ECAEF Conference took place on 9 December 2021 at the Musee Oceanographique in Monaco.

Big size is often propagated as an answer to globalization. The success of Liechtenstein, Monaco or Switzerland, on the other hand, points in a different direction. But these small countries do not act alone in an empty space.

Does technological progress make borders disappear, and does this mean that the future belongs to the big players? No doubt small countries face big challenges. This perfectly explains why the Princely Houses of Liechtenstein and Monaco jointly organized a conference in Monte Carlo. CEPROM (Center of Economic Research for Monaco, MC) and ECAEF (the liberal think-tank European Center of Austrian Economics Foundation) teamed up to find answers to what future small states in Europe still have.

ecaef ceprom conference 2021
“People who intend only to seek their own benefit are led by an invisible hand to serve a public interest which was no part of their intention. I say that there is a reverse invisible hand: People who intend to serve only the public interest are led by an invisible hand to serve private interests, which was no part of their intention”. Milton Friedman (1912-2006)

In view of the current pandemic, yet again the subject of this year’s conference was highly topical. Can, should or must a state mandate its citizens to get vaccinated against Covid-19 in the Public Interest? Is it in the Public Interest to restrain a person’s freedom by infringing on some fundamental constitutional rights? Should governments finance the purchase of a rare painting, subsidize the export of wine or rescue a national airline in the Public Interest but at the taxpayer’s expense? Is the funding of higher education serving the Public Interest or is it more self-serving than altruistic? In other words, is the Public Interest always in the public’s interest?

Read the following introduction that Prof. Kurt Leube gave at this year’s CEPROM/ECAEF Conference (download PDF, 46kb) ->

What is the Public Interest and What does it Mean?
A brief introduction to the V. CEPROM/ECAEF Conference

Can Anyone Rule Cyberspace?

by John Perry Barlow (USA)

Foreword by Michael G. Leube (ES/A)

I am responsible for bringing one of the most eccentric personalities to the International Gottfried von Haberler Conference in Liechtenstein in 2017, and proud of convincing the organizers of this prestigious conference. John Perry Barlow was not a banker or economist, he was not schooled in the Austrian School of Economics and as far as I know did not even know much about it. Instead, he was a cowboy, poet, family man, philosopher, and ultimately, the bard of the digital revolution. I had four motivations for suggesting and inviting him as a speaker.

First and foremost, I was aware of Barlow´s brilliance and importance as the author of essays such as ‘The Economy of Ideas’ (1993) and ‘Manifesto of the Independence of Cyberspace’ (2006), for which he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2013. He was also founding fellow at Harvard University Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (, a civil liberties organization that has been protecting the free flow of information on the Internet since 1990. I find his ideas fundamental for an internet plagued by censorship and data mining through free-ware.

Secondly, I am proud to call Barlow a friend after meeting him about ten years prior to the conference. His daughter was my undergraduate student, he sat in one of my classes and afterwards I had the privilege to listen to stories of his wild life. In 2017, at the conference welcome dinner, I moved fast to sit at his table along with Hans Adam II, the reigning Prince of Lichtenstein, ex-president of the Czech republic Vaclav Klaus, and others to make the most memorable dinners I ever had.

Thirdly, I was convinced that Barlow, born in Sublette County, Wyoming in 1947, would shake up the conference with his counter-cultural attitude and demeanor. I simply wanted to see what a maverick whose heart and not mind was with the Austrian school would do to the spirit of this conference. Barlow has been writing about Cyberspace and its society since the late 1980s and indeed he was the first to apply that term. The world is no longer imaginable without an internet and thus I saw one of its premier thinkers a welcome addition to a conference on economic philosophy. He was also an entrepreneur as cofounder and executive vice president of Algae Systems, a revolutionary enterprise that transforms atmospheric CO2 into drinking water and carbon-negative transportation fuel, at lower costs than fuel and water produced by conventional systems and without competing for agricultural land and water.

Finally, I have to admit to a last, more egocentric reason for inviting Barlow. He was one of the chief lyricists of the Grateful Dead, a rock band that I near obsessively love. I always believed that this musical group´s approach of spontaneity, improvisation and open-mindedness fits well into a group cherishing liberty and freedom. Standing as one of the most important bands in the history of contemporary music, they also revolutionized the entire music industry through the creation of brand-loyalty by decriminalizing all recordings of their concerts and the creation of one of the most memorable logos. It is hard to say if Barlow, who sadly passed away in 2018, will be remembered more for penning classic songs such as Cassady or Estimated Prophet or for writing a manifesto of a free internet. When John Perry Barlow walked through the aisles and climbed up to the main stage, the room was silent. Here was a man proudly wearing cowboy boots, a leather jacket and Native American jade jewelry about to take the microphone at this prestigious conference. And by all means, he delivered one of the most exciting and remarkable statements in favor of individual freedom, self-responsibility and entrepreneurship. It was a plaidoyer for the freedom of the Internet.
All four of my motivations paid off when he delivered this brilliant paper that you can read here.

Can Anyone Rule Cyberspace?

by John Perry Barlow

In February of 1996, I spent five days at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, watching the most powerful representatives of the most powerful nations and institutions on the planet collectively (though parenthetically) acknowledge for the first time that, yes, there was something called the Internet and that, at minimum, it might be something to worry about.

Can Anyone Rule Cyberspace? Essay by John Perry Barlow ...
John Perry Barlow at the European Graduate School of Leuk, Switzerland in 2006. Source: wikipedia

Meanwhile, on the last day of the World Economic Forum, February 8, 1996, Americas pious President Bill Clinton signed into law the Communications Decency Act. This law imposed criminal sanctions, with stiff fines and jail terms up to ten years long on anyone who transmitted over the Internet any of a short list of words I’d heard frequently in the U.S. Senate Dining Room.

The folly of this legislation, in both its breathtaking hubris and unenforceability, moved me to write A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace .

It was something of a whim which I indulged while attending the closing ball of the WEF. I didn’t mean it to become a canonical document at all. Had I thought it might become that, I probably would not have imitated the rhetorical style of a famous slave-owner and chosen a moment when I was both sober and not chasing Geisha-like graduate students from the University of Geneva.

I meant to distribute it to my friends and put myself on record as believing that Cyberspace was a kind of permanently anti-sovereign but nonetheless political social environment. Moreover, I stated, Cyberspace would ever remain a wild frontier “land” and would eventually grow to include every thinking being on the planet.

I intentionally created a document that was somewhat more optimistic than I was, emphasizing my sense that Cyberspace might come to be a zone of completely free expression… indeed, a social space in which expression which could not be suppressed because the architecture of the network would patch around censorship like any other malfunction.

I didn’t mention that I also knew that all the rights human beings had previously assured themselves by legal means depended on the abilities of a government powerful enough to deny them those right, nor that I doubted such capacity for sanction would ever exist in Cyberspace, nor did I acknowledge my already firm terror Internet was likely to become the most penetrating surveillance tool ever imagined and therefore itself a massive threat to free speech.

Indeed, there were a number of fears I already harbored regarding the future of liberty in Cyberspace that were paradoxically based on its very un-governability. I feared, for example, that the infrastructure of the Internet would be privately held by corporations who had no greater method for guaranteeing human rights than their Terms of Service Agreements. And even less incentive to do so.

I also believed that one could not own free speech, though many, in the service of short-term greed, would give it a serious try, using search tools that would be like copyright enforcement on steroids. Before it was all over with, “The Content Industries” would become more powerful enemies of free expression, than Hitler, Stalin or Pope Clement VIII ever dreamed of being..

Nevertheless… I believed then, as I believe now, that the human desire to both find and speak the truth would ultimately be stronger that the forces of ignorance and silence. And that what I laid out in my declaration was not a shout of truth to power, like Jefferson’s, but a statement of what I considered natural fact. And I still do.

Whatever I might have intended for that document, it found a much larger audience than the two or three hundred friends I sent it to. Indeed, at one point, Google found over fifty thousand copies of it scattered around the Web in, I believe, some thirty different languages.

But for years, it has also hung around my neck like a combination albatross and dunce cap. For almost 20 years it has been famously popular fun for various writers and speakers who represent the Nation States, the Industrial Multinationals, and Global NGOs, to “exhume” my “giddily optimistic” declaration as an example of the wonderfully goofy things they used to think before the Cyberworld grew up, became militarized, and drove out the hippie mystics who created it.

And this has pained me. But it has not pained me as much as it might have were I not pretty sure that I remain right about this as it becomes increasingly clear they are wrong.

For while the liberty of Cyberspace remains a contest between very evenly balanced forces of oppression and liberation, I continue to believe the The Right to Know, which is the heart of what I declared, will be conveyed to every human mind within my lifetime.

It will be possible for anyone, anywhere to find out as much as is presently known about any subject of generally useful human inquiry. It will be possible to satisfy all curiosities to the extent they can be collectively satisfied. And neither will any government be able to prevent this, as it will also be unable to prevent its citizens from examining its own inner workings despite all the efforts that are currently underway to make government invisible to the governed.

In my talk on June 27, at the University of Liechtenstein in Vaduz, I will defend this proposition along with a wider declaration that the Internet directly threatens Monotheism, the Nation State, and, indeed most of the vertical systems of authority that have governed human affairs for the last 2000 years. I didn’t expect institutions of such duration to go down quickly and we can all be grateful, I suppose, that they haven’t. But I believe strongly, as I believed on that cold night in February 1996, that the creation of Cyberspace has and will require the renegotiation of every existing power relationship on earth.

And it has already realized most of my wildest dreams and with them, unfortunately, most of my worst nightmares as well.

A critical look at the DMA

GIS Statement* by Henrique Schneider

The Digital Markets Act (DMA) introduces several wrongheaded notions. It would hamstring market leaders and reward laggards. The proposal could seriously set back innovation in Europe.

Opinion: A critical look at the Digital Markets Act (source: GIS)
Opinion: A critical look at the Digital Markets Act (source: GIS)

According to the European Commission, a unique type of firm exerts tremendous control over most digital business models. These behemoths, called “gatekeepers,” organize access and manage upstream and downstream businesses, just as trusts did in their day. Like trusts, these digital companies could bar any noncompliant business from using the internet, stifling competition and economic freedom. For all these reasons, the Commission felt compelled to propose a new regulation, the Digital Markets Act, or DMA.

As of this writing, the DMA remains only a proposal. It still needs consultation and political approval. However, in the EU, such legislation is often passed with few amendments. It is styled as a separate and complementary tool for competition enforcers, introducing new policy objectives of “fairness and contestability.”

The DMA introduces the notions of “digital sector” and “gatekeeper.” While the very idea of a “digital sector” is already difficult to grasp, the concept of “gatekeepers” is altogether foreign to antitrust practices. The DMA describes them as “structuring elements” of the digital economy that enjoy an entrenched position in providing intermediation services. Network effects help make users (businesses and individuals alike) dependent on these gatekeepers. According to the DMA, this dependence allows them to engage in unfair practices and harm consumer welfare. Therefore, gatekeepers have a major impact on digital markets and require oversight …

Continue reading -> 
Opinion: A critical look at the Digital Markets Act

*GIS is a global intelligence service providing independent, analytical, fact-based reports from a team of experts around the world. We also provide bespoke geopolitical consultancy services to businesses to support their international investment decisions. Our clients have access to expert insights in the fields of geopolitics, economics, defense, security and energy. Our experts provide scenarios on significant geopolitical events and trends. They use their knowledge to analyze the big picture and provide valuable recommendations of what is likely to happen next, in a way which informs long-term decision-making. Our experts play active roles in top universities, think-tanks, intelligence services, business and as government advisors. They have a unique blend of backgrounds and experience to deliver the narrative and understanding of global developments. They will help you develop a complete understanding of international affairs because they identify the key players, their motivations and what really matters in a changing world. Our experts examine the challenges and opportunities in economies old and new, identify emerging politicians and analyze and appraise new threats in a fast-changing world. They offer new ideas, fresh perspectives and rigorous study.

Save the DATE! 20 May 2022: 16th Gottfried v. Haberler Conference

On the Morality of the State
and the State of Political Morals

Über die Hybris der Staaten und den Zustand politischer Moral

The 16th International Gottfried von Haberler Conference will take place on 20 May 2022 at University of Liechtenstein in Vaduz. Conference topic: On the Morality of the State and the State of Political Morals. The event will be organized and hosted by ECAEF – European Center of Austrian Economics Foundation. The support of the University of Liechtenstein and multiple local and international sponsors is gratefully acknowledged.

By invitation only

Admission: General CHF 150/Euro 150; Students CHF 50/Euro 50

Academic Director: Kurt R. Leube
Tel. +1 650 248 4955 and Tel. +43 676 942 8980 (krleube at

Administration: Rosmarie Lutziger
Tel. +423 235 1570 (Rosmarie.Lutziger at

Media Matters: Karin Brigl
Tel. +423 235 2344 (karin.brigl at

Conference Program:
09:00-09:30 Registration
09:30-09:45 Welcome and Opening by H.S.H. Prince Michael of Liechtenstein

Session I:
Behind a Democratic Veil: A new Centralism and a Downfall of Standards

May20, 2022, 09:45-10:00  Chair: Peter Fischer (CH)
10:00-10:30  “Democracy as Practiced is Flawed: The New Machiavellianism” – Pedro Schwarz (ES)
10:30-10:45  Discussion
10:45-11:15  Coffee break
11:15-11:45  “Der zunehmende Zentralismus in der Europäischen Wirtschafts- und Gesellschaftspolitik” – Lars P. Feld (D)
11:45-12:00  Discussion
12:00-13:30  Buffet Luncheon for all participants at conference site

Session II:
On Autocratic Tendencies and the Erosion of Individual Freedom

13:30-13:45  Chair: Hardy Bouillon (D)
13:45-14:15  “Semantic Traps: Politics with Loaded Terms” – Terry L. Anderson (USA)
14:15-14:30  Discussion
14:30-15:00  “Über ein drohendes Bargeldverbot und die Folgen” – Thorsten Hens (CH)
15:00-15:15 Discussion
15:15-15:45 Coffee break

Session III:
On Power, Corruption and the End of the Rule of Law

15:45-16:00  Chair: Karl-Peter Schwarz (AT)
16:00-16:30  “The Separation of Powers as Cornerstone of Liberty under Law” – Chandran Kukathas (AUS)
16:30-16:45  Discussion
16:45-17:15  “Über den Rechtspositivismus und das Ende des Rechtsstaats” – Henrique Schneider (CH)
17:15-17:45  Discussion (general)
17:45-18:00  Closing Remarks by H.S.H. Prince Michael of Liechtenstein
18:15-18:30  Transportation by bus to the cocktail reception at Vaduz Castle
18:30-19:45  Cocktail Reception at Vaduz Castle

Relevant literature is also offered for sale by

List of all Gottfried von Haberler Conferences since 2005