The Liberal Institute stands in the Swiss tradition of freedom, whose roots go back to the 13th century. At that time the Confederates defended their independence toward the tax tyranny of a foreign lord, and replaced it with a voluntary community with minimal common rules. This story — dramatized in 1804 by the great poet Friedrich von Schiller — reflects both components of the idea of freedom: the revolt against coercion and the willingness to contractual arrangements.
A universal idea
Freedom of course was not invented in Switzerland — it is part of the cultural heritage of humanity. The liberal skepticism toward power lies at the source of every pluralistic society, every innovative and prosperous economy, indeed civilization itself. It finds its expression in the ancient Jewish and Greek idea that rulers are also bound by moral norms and cannot be sovereign over unlimited coercive power. The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse described in the 6th century B.C. how a society could develop harmoniously without state coercion.
Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant
In Switzerland the idea of freedom found new impetus in the 18th century with Germaine de Staël, the daughter of the Geneva banker Jacques Necker. She led an influential European salon at the Castle of Coppet and interacted with famous contemporaries in the German-speaking realm such as Friedrich von Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (who translated one of her essays). She pleaded with passion for social pluralism and against the fatal centralization of the state. Her companion Benjamin Constant — probably one of the most productive philosophers of his time — advanced similar ideas. Constant demystified the state as a mere human association whose only objective was to serve the protection of individual liberty.
Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Röpke
In the last century Switzerland played a key role as beacon of freedom in a Europe sinking in collectivism and statist excesses. In 1934 Geneva's Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales, led by William Rappard, offered a refuge to the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. Here he wrote his essential magnum opus Human Action, which was published in 1940. The German economist Wilhelm Röpke came to the same institute in 1937. In Geneva he wrote his ground-breaking social philosophy and advanced the idea of freedom in the public debate through the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
F. A. von Hayek and the Mont Pèlerin Society
When it was time to lay the foundations for the renaissance of civilization on Europe's ruins, the economist (and later Nobel laureate) Friedrich August von Hayek gathered in 1947 in Mont-Pèlerin above Vevey 39 leading liberal scholars — among whom L. von Mises, W. Rappard and W. Röpke. The then founded Mont Pèlerin Society today includes over 700 liberal thinkers and practioners worldwide as members. F. A. von Hayek also published in Zurich the first German-language edition of its influential volume The Road to Serfdom. From 1947 until 1959 he published some of his most important essays in the Schweizer Monatshefte.
The Swiss constitutional law scholars
In the 20th century three generations of legal scholars taught the idea of a constitutional order based on freedom. Fritz Fleiner's und Zaccaria Giacometti's legal doctrine and Hans Nef's assumption of freedom of trade as a precondition for economic freedom led to the interpretation of freedom rights as the individual's rights to defend himself against the state.
The Liberal Institute has advanced the comprehensive intellectual and humane tradition of the idea of freedom since 1979 and has given itself the mission to carry it further in the 21th century.