The Swiss Way to Run a Nation
by Thomas H. Naylor(*)
Throughout the 1990s, hardly a month has passed without some U.S. company announcing layoffs. AT&T, General Motors, IBM and Xerox are all downsizing, there is an increasing realization that bigger is no longer better. As size increases, alienation, lack of communication and loss of control become acute.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, it was due in part to the failure of Stalin-like socialism to meet the needs of the people. But it was also because the Soviet Union, with 285 million people, could not be managed from one central bureau in Moscow.
The United States is also unmanagable in its present form. The White House and Congress are finding it futile to try to impose top-down Washington-based solutions to such problems as poverty, homelessness, racism, drug abuse, violent crime and a badly failing education system. Solutions require the bottom up participation of those affected, as well as a sense of community that connects those who have been victimized with those in a position to influence the results.
In sharp contrast to our disjointed 50 states is Switzerland, the wealthiest, most democratic and most market-oriented country in the world - and a nation with the weakest central government in the West.
Over the past 700 years, Switzerland has developed a unique social and political structure. With a strong emphasis on federalism and direct democracy, Switzerland brings together in its 26 cantons, or tiny states, four languages and cultures - German, French, Italian and Romansh. The cantons and 3,020 communes enjoy considerable autonomy. Several cantons still follow the centuries-old tradition of open-air parliaments each spring.
Switzerland has a coalition government with a rotating presidency in which the president serves for only one year. Many Swiss do not know who of the seven Federal Councillors in the government is the president since he is primus inter pares.
A petition signed by 100,000 voters can force a nation-wide vote on a proposed constitutional change. The signatures of only 50,000 voters can force a national referendum on any federal law passed by parliament. Although Switzerland has a strong military defense, it has remained neutral since 1815.
Scattered throughout the Swiss Alps and neighboring Austria, Bavaria and northern Italy are dozens of small villages, all of them several hundred years old, each with a strong sense of community.
When the residents of a typical Swiss village awake in the morning, they walk to the nearby bakery to pick up fresh bread for breakfast. Later in the day they may walk to the market, the bank, the post office and the farmer's house - in the latter case for milk, butter and cheese. The market sells juicy tomatoes - not tasteless plastic ones - and fresh, drug-free chickens. The ice cream is so good it defies description.
Although farming and tourism are important sources of village employment, it is not uncommon for some to travel 25 miles to work in nearby factories. In most Alpine villages, there is an inexorable commitment to the land. A gift of land from one's parent carries with it a moral obligation of continued stewardship. Few would think of selling their land and leaving the village.
The church is often the center of village spiritual life, as well as social life. Friends meet at the market, the pub, the inn, the post office and the church yard to catch up on village news. The harsh winters create an environment encouraging cooperation, sharing, and trust.
The extraordinary beauty and the severity of the winters provide the glue that holds these communities together. Many villages are linked by a network of passenger trains. Through efficient railroads, village residents have easy access to neighboring villages as well as to larger cities. The railroads provide a sense of 'connectedness' to the rest of the country and to Europe.
In these villages, in stark contrast to the rootless mobility that characterizes American life, there is a sense of continuity: Generations are born, grow up, remain and die. Protective agricultural policies have made it financially viable for families to remain in the countryside. Conspicuously absent is the dilapidation found, for example, throughout the American rural South. Since small Swiss farms use fewer pesticides and herbicides, wells and streams are much less likely to be contaminated than in this country.
Swiss children are taught in public schools the virtues of self-sufficiency, hard work, co-operation and loyalty. Since public assistance is funded locally, it pays for the community to discourage public dependency. Public welfare is viewed as temporary, lasting only as long as the victim is impoverished.
Aid plans are custom-designed with strict time limits imposed. The contract between the client and the local welfare agency is approached from a win-win perspective in which the goal is to help the client get back on his or her feet. For a few francs one can obtain any individual's tax return - no questions asked. This helps keep welfare clients honest, as well as others.
The Swiss practise what many conservatives preach but rarely achieve - complete decentralization of the responsibility for social welfare. The incidences of poverty, homelessness, violence and crime are significantly lower than in this country. Unfortunately, Zurich, with Europe's biggest drug abuse and AIDS problem, has become an ignoble exception to the Swiss rule. Before it was closed by the police, the once-elegant Platzspitz had become an open drug market.
But the Swiss are not without their critics. Some view them as arrogant, narcissistic, racist, sexist and xenophobic, despite the fact they live together peacefully with many foreigners, currently 19.8% of the Swiss residence population. Others, such as economist Leopold Kohr, have noted that unlike the Americans, the Swiss have solved their minority problems by 'creating minority states [cantons] rather than minority rights'.
In spite of their fierce independence, Swiss towns, villages and cantons do co-operate on projects involving the public interest, including railroads, highways, tunnels, electricity and water supply. The inescapable conclusion is that Switzerland works. It works because it is a tiny, hard-working, democratic country with a strong sense of community. What can a global superpower like the United States learn from a small country with only 7.2 million people? A lot.
(*) Thomas H. Naylor, professor emeritus of economics at Duke University, teaches occasionally at Middlebury College and the University of Vermont. He is currently working on a new book which will soon be published: Sustainable Nation-State, The Vermont Alternative (2003).