At the Turn of the Year: A few Comments on the Public Interest and its Meaning

Essay by Kurt R. Leube

“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)


I

To be sure, government programs intended to responding to and preventing the spread of infectious diseases or protecting its citizens from physical threats posed by others can be summarized as being conclusively in the Public Interest. These actions are considered to be among the core duties of any modern democratic state.  However, what is the essential meaning of the Public Interest?

From ‘shelter-in-place’ orders to indiscriminately enforced full or partial ‘lockdowns’, from a near collapse of critical world supply chains to trillions of dollars in government aid, the pandemic has rekindled the long-running passionate debate about the Public Interest. Countless important issues, including the market pricing of new vital vaccines or therapies, unconstitutional infringements on civil rights, contact tracing, private property on research facilities, on essential data or clinical trials, or even the enacting of the DPA (Defense Production Act) have come into focus. They are revealing the extent to which state control in the Public Interest is exerted over matters that will determine the ultimate human cost of the pandemic. Science, politics and policymaking have been characterized by biased and conflicting interpretations of the Public Interest concept.

Such conflicts matter, not only because each party pursues its own prejudiced view of the Public Interest that may sharply differ from the interpretations of others. It also weakens democracy, as people who cannot speak freely will not be able to think clearly, and no democratic society can flourish long when opponents are treated almost as heretics. However, it seems that the defenders of tolerance and freedom of speech regretfully have capitulated to people who claim free speech for themselves but not for others.

Thus, in both authoritarian and democratic regimes the response of governments to the outbreak of the virus in the name of the Public Interest has led to conditions and proposals that makes one think of George Orwell’s distressing Nineteen Eighty Four, a novel which grows more haunting as its futuristic agony becomes the new reality. It seems as if Covid-19 not only has come to result in government control of and intrusion into individual lives. Also for good or for evil, a sort of ‘pandemic police state’ apparently relies on large-scale surveillance, denunciation and has covertly amassed executive powers and administrative functions to an extent unthinkable in pre-pandemic times. As political power more often than not multiplies at the expense of the social power enjoyed by individuals, the effects of these policies and programs most likely will lead to a permanent increase in scale and scope of state control.


II

Centuries of scholarship in political philosophy have examined the Public Interest alongside other ageless political mantras. Common among most political philosophers was the acceptance of the pointless idea that governments ought to serve the people, and the people ought to be the beneficiaries of their governing.

However, shaped and conditioned by the ever-changing Zeitgeist, numerous conflicting and highly competitive interpretations and conceptions of this politically attractive slogan evolved over time. They range from utter platitudes to meaningless clichés to naive philosophical arguments. The political ideal to hold the mystical model of the common good or the Public Interest in higher esteem than any individual action, seems as old as statehood and has been discussed whenever and wherever regulatory adjustments for the general welfare have taken place. By and large, the literature is confusing and contradicting. However, we can trace this ideal as far back as Plato’s and the Platonist school’s suggestion, that only undisputable government officials have the wisdom to determine the common good. We also find the phrase in the descriptions of the various medieval totalitarian systems and in the countless socio-economic regulations during the Mercantilist era to promote national power (1). Likewise Jeremy Bentham’s legendary principle of the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ comes to mind.

Arguably however, Auguste Comte (1798-1857) (2), by no means the inventor of the term, seems to have vastly influenced the underlying philosophy of the current reasoning. In his positivistic philosophy he insisted that social wholes are better known than the elements of which they consist and social theory therefore, ought to start from our knowledge of the directly examined entities. This idea consistently led Comte to suggest that only society as a whole is authentic and the many individuals who are forming the society are but an abstraction. In other words, individual actions must be suppressed if they do not serve the presumed yet mysteriously shrouded Public Interest. In such a model, where the values of the whole society would be equal to those of any particular individual, the Public Interest would have a substantive content, and by definition both the function and the motive of all government officials would be to formulate all their decisions in the Public Interest (3). Yet, contrary to the view that political actors are supposed to work together to altruistically advance some notion of the Public Interest, the reality proves to a certain extent different.

Among the most influential applications of this Public Interest ideal in our times are probably the works especially by Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) and A.C. Pigou (1877-1959) (4). Broadly summarized, their models assume that the accurate role of any democratically elected government is to operate for the greatest benefit of society as a whole. Accordingly, each citizen implicitly takes it for granted that a society must be viewed as a unit and thus has a single set of values that can be summarized into an outline for implementing a detailed policy. This single set of values supposedly makes up the Public Interest and hypothetically represents the will of the people. Over time this permeating catchphrase acquired an almost numinous meaning that entails a combination of inspiring expectations and appealing conjectures and keeps on arousing the fantasy of social scientists, intellectuals and politicians.

Although, a conceptual definition of the Public Interest ought to play the all-decisive role in determining any government program regarding the Public Interest, at least an operational classification of this ‘multi-purpose’ term apparently was and still is of no concern for those who use it constantly. Due to the lack of a clear definition, the ends which the Public Interest is to serve must in the first instance necessarily be confined to some meaningless general formula, which will be insufficient to determine any concrete plan, even if we take all the technical means as given. In other words, there is no rule book for working in the Public Interest and, because it is loose, ambiguous and politically quite easy to hide behind this enticing phrase, it became an integral part of the political dialogue, the body of law, of regulations and the governance of modern democracies. 


III

Regardless of their intent, most Public Interest regulations are meant to protect consumers from harm resulting from irresponsible or fraudulent behavior or preventing the spread of infectious diseases among countless other purposes. However, except in emergencies, most of these regulations are usually not designed and implemented in a socio-political vacuum. Rather, these rulings emerge in a communal environment populated by public as well as private self-interested political actors who possess the authority to coerce private citizens to do as they say. This new source of power has significant value to those who can influence and control it. In other words, the same lobby groups who might be the target of regulations will often have the strongest interest in attempting to manipulate rulings or guidelines for their own benefits. However, when coalitions of private interests are able to influence and control the content of regulations, they will produce benefits for them instead of serving the Public Interest. This makes any society, but in particular its citizens or consumers at large regularly worse off and results in a decrease of competition and an increase in costs.

Therefore, we ought to reconsider the decisive difference between an organization and a democratic society. The latter is ‘the result of human actions, not of human design’ (F.A. von Hayek) and is made up of independent people who are neither aware of a shared common purpose, nor do they knowingly serve it.

While a society of independent people is distinguished by spontaneous order and by scale-free networks, organizations on the other hand are hierarchical networks and are purposefully created, managed and monitored by human beings. To reiterate, social orders or associations develop through spontaneous growth as well as through some small measures of deliberate construction.

Spontaneous growth occurs when individuals and groups with limited knowledge interact with other individuals and groups, giving rise to unplanned patterns of behavior and institutional forms. In view of that, today’s democratic societies can only be defined as complex, yet unplanned systems of reconciled, but not shared values and actions.
Only during the slow but continual advancement of the human mind, individuals began to differ sufficiently to develop previously unarticulated social rules and behavior to the extent that deviate behavior could be corrected. Thus, in order to function properly every society (democratic or not) requires a minimal consensus entailing some basic rules, which allow its members to survive, communicate and predict the reactions of others to unknown social situations (5).

These ‘rules of just conduct’ (F.A. von Hayek) are in large parts end-independent rules and are rarely written down or identified as a minimal consensus, nor are they the outcome of an election or have ever intentionally been drafted. They are the ‘result of human action, not of design’ and suggest not only an implicit agreement on these basic rules. These creeds also hint at the tacit approval of guidelines regarding individual behavior and decision-making. However, the fact that not all fellows obey them does not invalidate their central importance and structural necessity.

Thus, a democratic society can neither be explained as a whole with a single purpose, nor can it be viewed as an organization in which people are not allowed to use their own unique knowledge of time and place for their own purposes. To recap, a society of free and independent people can only be defined as a complex, yet unplanned system of reconciled, but not shared values and has no mutual purpose or core curriculum. In other words, a society which does not approve of individual freedom and choices and which takes a common interest for granted, resembles an authoritarian organization, where every member follows orders and ought to be concerned with the completion of an assumed collective goal. Hence, it seems inconceivable that in a democratic society any policy that violates the minimal consensus with regard to the society’s own unwritten ‘rules of just conduct’ could be described as serving the Public Interest.


IV

It is neither possible to make an educated guess of what such a society with all its future constituents will, would, or even might say if and when it ever had a chance to vote. As we will never know what we ourselves will be thinking any number of years from now, much less what infants now in the cradle will be thinking when they reach the ability to vote, there is no point in playing with any notion of an imaginary plebiscite to discover the meaning of the Public Interest. In general terms, after all every individual neither intends to promote the Public Interest, nor has the knowledge of how much she or he is promoting it.

However, with some caveats and caution we may at least attempt to summarize the Public Interest not only as a situation in which men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally and acted disinterestedly or benevolently (6). It could also be described as a set of values oriented toward the assumed needs, desires, or interests of large numbers of people. In today’s democratic societies we may perhaps at least in essence distinguish three main functions of the concept.

First of all, in politics the term Public Interest can predominately be used as a method with which individual citizens not only evaluate whatever actions the government considers. Citizens can also discuss their judgments and opinions with their fellows and potential beneficiaries of particular government actions.

Secondly, as the Public Interest implies that there exists one common good known and appreciated by all members of society, the political appeal for the Public Interest and peer pressure may well be used as a tool to motivate all those who are hard-pressed by public bullying to act against their own will or interest.

And, as a third function, perhaps we will be able to perceive the concept of the Public Interest as being employed as a guide to and a test of the actions, failures or decisions of politicians and other public servants. It is especially this last function that proves extremely tempting and convenient for political representatives: in hindsight they can easily not only hide behind the phrase. With no troubles at all they can also be lured into actions or rulings that might be in favor of their own reelection bid.


(1)  See Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis, New York 1954, Part II, especially chapter 7.

(2)  Among several other sources, see especially Harriet Martineau, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, 2 vols, London 1853; 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press 2009. Martineau, a former admirer of David Ricardo’s work became Comte’s most faithful disciple in England. It was largely through her work that Comte’s ideas made their entry especially into imperial Prussia and were enthusiastically embraced by the ‘Socialists of the Chair’ and Gustav v. Schmoller’s so-called ‘Younger German Historical School’.

(3)  The illuminating analysis by James M. Buchanan (with H.G. Brennan) became an instant classic: ‘Monopoly in Money and Inflation’, Hobart Paper 88, London (IEA), 1981. Pgs. 7-8.

(4)  Compare Israel M. Kirzner “Welfare Economics: A Modern Austrian Perspective” in: Man, Economy, and Liberty. Essays in Honor of Murray N. Rothbard; W. Block, Ed., L. von Mises Institute, Auburn 1988.

(5)  We owe these seminal insights to Friedrich A. von Hayek’s works on the evolution of spontaneous orders, of the law, the distribution of knowledge and the formation of societies. See especially Hayek’s most influential essay ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, The American Economic Review, Sep. 1945, reprinted in The Essence of Hayek, K.R. Leube & Ch. Nishiyama, Eds., Stanford 1984. Of special interest is also his Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. I, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1973.

(6) Although, one might have some serious reservations and disagreements with Schubert’s arguments and use of terms, it seems instructive to read again Glendon A. Schubert’s The Public Interest: A Critique of the Theory of a Political Concept, The Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1960.

Semantic Traps: A Few Samples

by Kurt R. Leube*

The wisdom that people lose their freedom as soon as words begin to lose their meaning can be traced back at least to Confucius (551-479BC). As reality becomes intelligible only through clear and uncorrupted words, more than 2,000 years later Thomas Hobbes observed that the direct cause of most political discords and other disagreements is the “anarchy of meanings”. However, it was George Orwell who bluntly forewarned us that if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” and consequently will render words or popular phrases open to all forms of Semantic Traps. And in his masterpiece 1984, which in times of Covid-19 is acutely relevant, Orwell emphatically concluded, that above all “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

And yet, no more than gradually we begin to comprehend that “fake news” or the intentional alteration of the meaning of words not only have grave political implications for a democracy grounded on the Rule of Law. They also critically jeopardize the sovereignty of citizens and their trust in institutions.

One of the most evident Semantic Traps is the transformation of the almost sacred word social. During the past 160 years or so, its original value-neutral connotation as society related has assumed the meaning and substance of terms like good, ethical, generous, fair, moral, responsible, benevolent or even just, to name but a few. Shrouded in mystery, over time this ubiquitous term more than others has corrupted the fantasies of social scientists and resulted in giving this term “an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. Used in certain pervasive word arrangements such as Social Justice or Social Democracy they are either employed to hint at feelings of envy, of guilt or of revenge. Time and again these terms are not only utilized to effectively disguise true political ambitions, objectives or strategies. With unmistakable collectivist undertones, often the word social also bears strong resentments against individual freedom, private property or the market economy in general.

Environmental Policy is one more subject badly riddled with Semantic Traps. Based on the rather naive assumption of a perfectly balanced and static ecological system, Environmental Policy not only is loaded with all sorts of conjectures, it also ignores reality by omitting the perpetual presence of the unconsciously intervening humans. Unlike this rather innocent statement our environment is dynamic, never constant in form, structure, or proportion, but changes at every scale of time and space. The politically motivated alteration of the current climate debate from Global Warming to Climate Change is a living proof of a widespread Semantic Trap.

Scientists distinguish clearly between the two, referring to the former as a long-term trend in global temperatures that can be measured, and the latter as more general changes such as precipitation, humidity, or droughts that are impossible to aggregate. Although, researchers might debate the most suitable way to measure global temperature, only after a scientific measurement technique is specified, they can gather data to determine whether the globe is warming. However, around the beginning of the new millennium, the slogan Global Warming was intentionally dropped in favor of Climate Change. This alarming phrase has since taken on a nearly religious tone and thus shifted the important consideration away from proven scientific methodology where hypotheses can be refuted. As a consequence, Global Warming lost its relevance in political debates and changed from exact measurements to arbitrary uncertainties paired with terrifying and unscientific statements. Once again, political language outmaneuvered science by giving to Climate Change “an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

Popular traps in environmental policy debates include The New Deal for Nature, Biodiversity or Sustainability. Due to their obscurity these terms have become utterly meaningless and hazardous. The blurred concept of Biodiversity is mostly used by governments to justify centrally directed resource management policies on the grounds that the ecological goal is to optimize or maximize the diversity of species. The term Sustainability on the other hand is not much more than an ambiguous and immeasurable objective that can be interpreted at will.

Sustainability emanates from biological models from which it is possible to define a sustained yield given parameters for reproduction and harvest rates. Hence, there can be a sustained yield of lumber or fish, even a maximum sustained yield. However, taking the term out of the biological stock-flow context, will render it empty. And regarding carbon, there may well be a trade-off between carbon levels and global temperatures, but there is no way to say what the optimal trade-off is or to specify a sustainable level of carbon in the atmosphere. Trying to add credibility and responsibility to their actions and programs, environmental groups, government agencies, corporations or even whole nations are busy to label everything from coffee harvests, printer cartridges, or electric cars and buildings as sustainable by giving their agendas an “appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The newly imposed status of a New Normal (whatever that may be) could be the beginning.

Another classic Semantic Trap ought to be mentioned here: The hijacking of the conversant term liberal. According to Joseph A. Schumpeter, the original word liberal meant “being free” and only after the Enlightenment the term became used to identify a vibrant political philosophy that implied such central humanistic topics as individual freedom, private property, self-responsibility, the Rule of Law or human dignity. However, mainly in the United States at least since the 1930s the word has metamorphosed into meaning the exact opposite: During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal the term quickly came to denote something closer to the content of public policy perspectives that insist that an ever-growing, invasive central government must take on a paternalist all- embracing and controlling role in society. Consequently, in today’s US political landscape being liberal indicates that one is favoring Socialism by pretending to be progressive. And even worse, today the term suggests that being in support of individual liberty, an open society or free markets is not only extremely regressive. Being liberal is also widely discredited as an anti-social behavior and a lost and outdated case.

In conclusion, Orwell’s warning of some 80 years ago is still ringing: “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.


*Kurt R. Leube ist Academic Director der ECAEF (European Center of Austrian Economics Foundation) mit Sitz in Vaduz (FL).

Das neue Antlitz des Sozialismus

Kommentar von Prinz Michael von Liechtenstein


Der Beitrag “Das neue Antlitz des Sozialismus” erschien erstmals am 7. Dezember 2020 in Finanz und Wirtschaft, Liechtenstein.


Der Überwachungsstaat gedeiht nicht nur in China, sondern auch in westlichen Demokratien. Um Pekings Hegemoniestreben abzuwehren, braucht es eine Rückorientierung auf Freiheitlichkeit. 

Auf Chinas Territorium werden Bürger auf Schritt und Tritt beobachtet und von öffentlichen Überwachungskameras analysiert, die zu detaillierten Bewegungs- und Verhaltensprofilen verhelfen. Auto­matisierte Drohnen agieren als Informanten. Gesichtserkennungsprogramme unterstützen eine ausgefeilte Klassifizierung in Schulen, Einkaufsläden, Sportzentren etc. Nahezu jede Ecke des Privaten wird durchleuchtet und mit dem Sozialkreditsystem bewertet. Wer sich im Sinne des Systems verhält, erhält attraktive Vorteile und erweitert seinen persönlichen Entwicklungsspielraum, indem bessere Ausbildungsmöglichkeiten, attraktivere Jobs, ansprechendere Wohnmöglichkeiten, die freie Nutzung öffentlicher Einrichtungen etc. zugänglich werden. Steht jemand aber in Misskredit, dann winken Sanktionen, die sich negativ auf den persönlichen Bewegungs- und Handlungsspielraum auswirken.

Die Idee dieses Sozialkreditsystems, das in Form eines zentralen Registers geführt wird und in Zukunft auch für jeden Einzelnen einsehbar werden soll, ist die Konditionierung der Bürger zu Good Citizens, die sich diszipliniert und systemkonform verhalten …

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Das neue Antlitz des Sozialismus

Christian Watrin (†2020)

C WatrinEin Nachruf von Kurt R. Leube*

   “Es gibt zwei Möglichkeiten, den gesellschaftlichen Produktionsprozess zu organisieren: die auf staatlich-politischem Zwang beruhende Planwirtschaft oder die auf Eigentum und Verträgen aufbauende Marktwirtschaft.”

Christian Watrin

    Mit dem Tod Christian Watrin’s haben die Sozialwissenschaften im Allgemeinen und der klassische Liberalismus im Besonderen einen ihrer besten Denker und Lehrer verloren. Watrin gehörte noch zu jener Generation Europäischer Wirtschaftswissenschaftler, deren Werk aus der umfassenden Sicht einander bedingender sozialwissenschaftlicher Disziplinen entstand. Auch wenn die Arbeiten grosser Ökonomen, wie etwa Ludwig von Mises, F. A. von Hayek, Ludwig Erhard oder James M. Buchanan schon vor ihm die Marktwirtschaft theoretisch begründeten, trug Watrin als Lehrender und Autor ungezählter Beiträge wesentlich zum Verständnis und Verbeitung einer freiheitlichen Wirtschafts- und Gesellschaftsordnung bei.

   Am Tonfall seiner Stimme, aber nicht zuletzt auch an seiner liebenswürdigen Persönlichkeit war leicht zu erkennen, dass Christian Watrin in Köln geboren wurde und dort inmitten der Weltwirtschaftskrise der 1930er Jahre heranwuchs. Nach dem Studium der Betriebs- und Volkswirtschaftlehre, jedoch schon Jahre vor seiner Promotion zum Doktor rer.pol. wurde sein Lehrer Alfred Müller-Armack auf Watrin’s ausserordentliche Begabungen aufmerksam und machte ihn 1955 zu seinem Assistenten. Diese langjährige Verbindung prägte ihn nachhaltig.

   Kurz nach seiner Habilitation 1963 traf Watrin während einer Vertretungsprofessur an der Universität Freiburg mit F. A. von Hayek zusammen. Aus dieser Begegnung entwickelte sich nicht nur eine enge persönliche Verbundenheit.

   Auch Watrin’s grosses akademisches Interesse am Gedankengut der ‘Austrian Economics’ fand dort seinen Beginn. 1965 folgte er dann seinem ersten Ruf als Professor für Volkswirtschaftslehre an die Ruhr-Universität Bochum, kehrte jedoch schon nach zwei Jahren wieder an seine Alma Mater zurueck, um dort einen Lehrstuhl für Wirtschaftspolitik zu übernehmen. Somit schloss sich für ihn der Kreis vom Schüler über den Assistenten zum erfolgreichen Nachfolger Alfred Müller-Armack’s. Von 1970 bis zu seiner Emeritierung 1995 leitete Watrin an der Universität Köln auch das berühmte Institut für Wirtschaftspolitik und war Mitherausgeber der einflussreichen gleichnamigen Zeitschrift. Mehrere Gastprofessuren führten ihn u.a. an die Georgetown University (D.C.), die Princeton University (NJ), nach Oxford oder Wien. Während der dramatischen Jahre 1987 bis 1992 war Christian Watrin Vorsitzender des Wissenschaftlichen Beirates beim Bundeswirtschaftsministerium in Bonn. In dieser Zeit brach der Sozialismus in der DDR und anderen sowjetischen Satelittenstaaten endgültig an seinen theoretischen und realen Widersprüchen zusammen. Die Ereignisse in der DDR führten in der Folge 1990 dann zur Wiedervereinigung Deutschlands. Wegen seiner ebenso kompetenten wie umsichtigen und souveränen Leitung dieses bedeutenden Gremiums wurde Watrin das Bundesverdienstkreuz erster Klasse verliehen. Knapp sechs Jahre nach von Hayek’s Tod gelang es Watrin gemeinsam mit einer Reihe ausgewiesener Kollegen, Unternehmern und Publizisten die ‘Friedrich A. von Hayek Gesellschaft’ zu gründen und stand ihr als Gründungspräsident zwischen 1999 und 2006 vor. Für seinen unermüdlichen Einsatz 2005 wurde ihm die ‘Friedrich August von Hayek Medaille’ verliehen. Zwischen 2000 und 2002 diente er als Präsident der von F.A. v. Hayek, L.v.Mises, M. Friedman, u.v.m. bereits 1947 ins Leben gerufenen ‘Mont Pelerin Society’.

   Christian Watrin war sowohl ein begeisternder Lehrer mit schier unendlichem Wissen. Er war auch einer der bedeutendsten Protagonisten der Sozialen Marktwirtschaft der seine wissenschaftliche Kompetenz in die praktische Politik einbrachte und die Deutsche und Europäische Wirtschafts- und Gesellschaftspolitik in massgeblicher Weise mitgestaltete. Stets pointiert aber in der Sache abwägend und fest auf dem Fundament der ‘österreichischen Schule der Nationaloknomie’ stehend setzte Watrin den utopischen Idealwelten der meisten Ökonomen eine liberale Wirtschafts- und Gesellschaftstheorie entgegen, die auf Eigentum, auf Verträgen, Selbstverantwortung und freiem Wettbewerb beruht. Da freie Märkte weder durch gemeinsame Zwecke definiert sind noch gemeinsame Ziele haben, kann nur durch zweckmässige Nutzung des im Markt vorhandenen Wissens Wettbewerb und damit neues, für alle verfügbares Wissen entstehen. Der gefährliche Irrtum der Ideologie des Wohlfahrtsstaates, aus dem Gleichbehandlungsprinzip die Forderung abzuleiten, der Staat müsse Einzelne verschieden behandeln um sie in materiell gleiche Positionen zu versetzen führt nach Watrin zur Zerstörung der Moral und Ethik einer freien Gesellschaft.

   Sein grosses wissenschaftliches Werk umfasst ungezählte wichtige Beiträge zur Wirtschafts- und Gesellschaftspolitk der Sozialen Marktwirtschaft, zur Geld- und Fiskalpolitik und zu den vielfältigen Problemen der EU. Die innere Kohärenz und systematische Entwicklung seiner Arbeiten, seine ehrliche Wissenschaftlichkeit und sein akademischer Einfluss, nicht zuletzt aber auch sein Humor, seine Bescheidenheit und sprichwörtliche Hilfsbereitschaft sind Legion. Als Gelehrter oder väterlicher Freund kam er dem Ideal des ‘gentleman’ so nahe als es Menschlichkeit erlaubt. Mit 90 Jahren starb er am 1. December 2020 in Köln im Kreis seiner Familie.

   Die ihm gewidmete Festschrift ‘Vordenker einer neuen Wirtschaftspolitik’ (FAZ Verlag, Frankfurt/M. 2000) ist bei buchausgabe.de erhältlich.


*Kurt R. Leube ist Academic Director der ECAEF (European Center of Austrian Economics Foundation) mit Sitz in Vaduz (FL).

The loss of constitutional protection

GIS statement by Prince Michael of Liechtenstein

In an atmosphere of panic over the Covid-19 crisis, European governments are enacting more and more open-ended measures that are often of dubious utility for containing the pandemic but severely restrict personal freedom, privacy and entrepreneurship. Alarmingly, citizens’ rights enshrined in constitutions are being set aside.

The governments’ approach toward citizens has been shockingly paternalistic; they treat the population like misbehaving children (source: GIS)

As the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the globe, harsh measures were gradually introduced. Governments have begun to limit individual rights and privacy. The media and politicians, as well as some virologists and medical professionals, have stirred up panic. Those who question the necessity of taking drastic steps are intolerantly marginalized and branded as either idiots or radicals.

The success of Western democracies is based on the guarantee of freedom and human rights. The United States Declaration of Independence and constitution provide citizens with unalienable rights that include liberty and the pursuit of happiness (which is not guaranteed, as it is defined individually), as well as privacy and property rights. The constitution’s objective was to protect the individual from the state. Tolerance and freedom of opinion were also protected.

Stealing freedoms

Property rights have since become restricted because of ever-expanding regulations and excessive taxation. The high tax burden is not solely a result of the governments’ tendency to overspend. Leftist ideologies and populist slogans demanding “more equality” also play a role in raising taxes. 

Waves of regulations are steadily narrowing the boundaries of individual activity and increasing the state’s power over citizens. Unfortunately, this is a global phenomenon.

In 1998, the so-called great eavesdropping law (grosse Lauschangriff) was passed in Germany. It allowed security agencies to plant surveillance devices in suspects’ homes without approval from a judge. The measure was highly contested at the time. In 2014, the European Parliament enacted a directive requiring telecommunication and internet providers to retain all communication data for two years and make it available to law enforcement agencies upon request. Every EU citizen is now treated as a suspect. The Court of Justice of the European Union considered the directive to be “a wide-ranging and particularly serious interference with the fundamental rights to the respect for private life and to the protection of personal data, without that interference being limited to what is strictly necessary.” The EU Parliament was supposed to amend the directive but has failed to do so, and it remains in force. 

In many cases, the measures enacted to contain Covid-19 encroach upon personal rights. Such extraordinary circumstances can require restrictions, but they should have a clear expiry date. Many of the present guidelines appear unjustified. And there has been no reliance on individual responsibility. The governments’ approach toward citizens has been shockingly paternalistic; they treat the population like misbehaving children …

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The loss of constitutional protection


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