“Switzerland – a rather unique model of success”

by Thomas Kaiser

At first glance the title of the subsequently reviewed book “Die Schrumpfschweiz (Switzerland in shrinkage)” does not bode well. Will a further dismantling of Switzerland take place here on more than 100 pages, delivered in the style of, for example, Thomas Maissen, whose “historical work” is surely designed solely to dismantle Switzerland as a sovereign, directly democratic nation state, and presumably so with the aim of making Switzerland EU-compatible? Or is it an open criticism of ominous developments in and around our country, a process described by the ancestors of Switzerland as the “malice of the time”?
Simon Geissbühler’s book is more and it is also worth reading. The author tries to contrast current trends in Switzerland with fundamental values of our state. He points to where a cutback in the democratic structure is discernible and shows what we can do to oppose this trend. “Der Schweizer Sonderfall – im grossen und ganzen ein ziemlich einzigartiges Erfolgsmodell – erodiert immer mehr. Das ist zum Teil auf externen Druck zurückzuführen, vor allem haben wir Schweizerinnen und Schweizer die negativen Trends selbst zu verantworten (Switzerland – on the whole a rather unique model of success is progressively eroding. This is partly due to external pressure, but principally we, the Swiss citizens, are responsible for the negative trends).” (p. 11) At the beginning of the book negative developments which result in the breakdown of democracy and a loss of freedom are first discussed. They will lead to a gradual decline of our state if we continue on this path unchecked. “Die Freiheit wird weiter reduziert werden, und die ‘Entmündigung des Einzelnen durch Übertragung von immer mehr Aufgaben an die anonyme öffentliche Hand und entfernte Supra-Behörden’ wird weitergehen. Der Wohlstand wird schrumpfen. Bei Bildung und Innovation wird die Schweiz an Boden verlieren (Freedom will be further reduced, and ‘by means of transferring more and more tasks to anonymous administrative bodies and far off supra authorities individuals will continue to be ever more incapacitated.’ Our wealth will shrink. Switzerland will lose ground in the fields of education and innovation).” (p. 22) Geissbühler gives a voice to various apologists of “the downfall”, who are busy undermining the political and social system of Switzerland and predict its demise. The reasons they give for this are to some extent noteworthy, to some extent, however – which means, they attack the substance of our state – our direct democracy, our concordance system and our federalism, are blamed for being the originators of this negative development. In other words, everything that distinguishes Switzerland from other states, namely its freedom due to the direct popular participation in the policy-making process, is accused of being responsible for Switzerland’s creeping decline.

“No absolutist and centralist tradition”

In the following chapters, Simon Geissbühler, using a variety of sources, sheds the right light on the Swiss political system by refuting all the individual points of criticism in an objective and well-founded manner. First, he justifies the crucial importance of our concordance system on historical grounds: “Die Konkordanz ist historisch bedingt. Ein fragiles Staatsgebilde, das aus verschiedenen Sprachen, Konfessionen, politischen Sensibilitäten und historischen Erfahrungen besteht, muss den Ausgleich und den Kompromiss suchen, sonst zerbricht es (The reasons for our concordance system are historical. A fragile state structure which consists of different languages, religions, political sensitivities and historical experiences must seek balance and compromise, or else it will break up).” (p. 41) The importance of the concordance system is also social, “die uns immer wieder daran erinnert, dass es so etwas wie ein Gemeinwohl gibt […] (which reminds us time and again that there is such a thing as the common weal […])” (p. 43) In addition to concordance, direct democracy is also a landmark belonging to Switzerland. Geissbühler writes already in the foreword – and puts things in a clear and concise way: “Sie [die Schweiz] hatte keine absolutistische und zentralistische Tradition und entwickelte sich nicht von oben, sondern von unten. (Switzerland had no absolutist and centralist tradition and evolved not from above but from below.) (p. 13) This historically developed exceptional feature is being negated mainly by EU supporters or internationalists. Its national political significance might also not be recognized. If it remains true to itself, Switzerland will never allow itself to be integrated into a centralised system imposed from top down, as it is typical of the EU to a high degree. Thus Geissbühler regards the significance of direct democracy not only in its political immediacy, but also as a factor of political stability. “Die direkte Demokratie hat zu bemerkenswer­ter politischer Stabilität geführt, erhöht die Legitimität des politischen Systems und stärkt das Vertrauen der Bürgerinnen und Bürger im politischen Prozess (Direct democracy has led to a remarkable political stability. It increases the legitimacy of the political system and strengthens the confidence of citizens in the political process.”) (p. 44) He sees a unifying effect in direct democracy as well as in the principle of concordance: “Zudem ist die direkte Demokratie ein wichtiges Element des nationalen Zusammenhalts (Furthermore direct democracy is an important element of national cohesion)”. Geissbühler also does away with some myths that are invoked time and again, for example the myth that direct democracy and thus the participation of the people in political issues would constitute a mental overload and that therefore such serious decisions should rather fall to politicians. The argument that the people are too stupid for direct democracy ultimately means that the people are too stupid for democracy. “Die Vorstellung, es sei schwieriger, einen konkreten Sachverhalt mit Ja oder Nein zu beantworten als unter Dutzenden und Hunderten von Kandidaten in einer Wahl denjenigen oder diejenige zu finden, der oder die am nächsten an den eigenen Präferenzen liegt, ist absurd (The notion that it is more difficult to say yes or no to a specific issue than to find, among tens and hundreds of candidates that one person whose preferences are nearest to ones own, is absurd).” (p. 47)

“Federalism is still a defining, indeed an identity-forming element today”

Federalism is another important pillar of the Swiss political system. It also plays an important role in connecting people and in underpinning the state. “Der Föderalismus ist bis heute ein prägendes, ja identitätsstiftendes Element der Schweiz (Federalism is still a defining, indeed an identity-forming, element of Switzerland).” (p. 54)
But it also promotes the “Wettbewerb zwischen den Kantonen und Gemeinden und [führt] so zu innovativen Lösungen (It promotes competition between the cantons and communes and so [leads] to innovative solutions).” (p. 54) Federalism also helps “die Steuern niedrig zu halten […] und so verhindert der Föderalismus die Machtkonzentration (to keep taxes low […] and in this way federalism prevents the concentration of power)”. (p. 54)
A democratic tradition like the one Switzerland can boast is shared by few European states. Very few countries in Europe can compete here, and they can certainly not do so when it comes to the organisation of Swiss democracy. “Nicht alle europäischen Staaten haben eine so lange demokratische Tradition wie die Schweiz. Das in Europa wieder der Ruf nach einem starken Leader aufkommt und ernsthaft behauptet wird, autoritäre Systeme hätten erhebliche Vorteile, ist beklemmend (Not all European countries have as long a democratic tradition as Switzerland. It is oppressive that in Europe you hear the call for a strong leader time and again and it is seriously alleged that authoritarian systems supposedly have significant benefits).” (p. 63)

“The only direct democratic state on our planet”

In addition to the institutions and Switzerland’s three political levels with far-reaching political responsibilities and competencies, is the “politische Kultur ein wesentlicher Bestandteil der Schweizer Identität (political culture is an integral part of Swiss identity)”. (p. 55) The historical roots and their development are crucial to the formation of this identity. The involvement of the population in the political decision process was already to be found in medieval times, even if to a certainly still limited extent. This made it obviously easier for Switzerland to integrate the ideas of the Enlightenment in its political philosophy, so that Switzerland could evolve to what it is today. “Die Schweiz war in Europa das einzige Land, in dem in der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts der ‘Liberalismus, der Föderalismus, die Demokratiebewegung und die Parlamentarisierung erfolgreich waren (Switzerland was the only country in Europe where in the middle of the 19th century ‘liberalism, federalism, the democracy movement and the parliamentary system were successful’).” (p. 56) In addition, after the establishment of the federal state there were the right of initiative and referendum at federal level so that one can justifiably say that Switzerland is the only direct democratic state on our planet, and it generally works well. In several statistics commissioned by the OECD Switzerland holds a leading position. Although a certain scepticism is always appropriate when dealing with OECD surveys and research, at least some conclusions can be drawn from the comparison between countries.

“Social solidarity is predominant in Switzerland”

Geissbühler rejects the argument that direct democracy was sluggish and that it delayed the innovation process in Switzerland by arguing that not even 10 per cent of the laws passed by Parliament are submitted to the people’s vote in a referendum. Even though Switzerland is a liberal state and political liberalism has played an important role in its political and economic development, social solidarity predominates in Switzerland. By international standards, “vertreten die Schweizerinnen und Schweizer […] also keineswegs (wirtschafts-)liberale Positionen (the Swiss […] by no means champion (economic) liberal positions).” (p. 58) Geissbühler himself is not hostile to liberalism and sees it as a driving force for political and economic success. Other traits that are of central importance for the Swiss political system are discussed: the militia system, the militia army, the humanitarian tradition, etc. Geissbühler states that the legendary will of the Swiss to defend themselves has diminished. Only two thirds of the population would defend the country in case of war. This is the result of a public mood that is also illustrated by the fact that the army “in den letzten Jahren systematisch ausgehöhlt worden” ist. (the army has been systematically eroded in recent years.) (p. 60) Yet we do have our militia system and our defence preparedness, and even though the latter applies to only be true for only two-thirds of the population, this percentage is ever so much higher than that of German (43.4%) or Italian (37.4%) readiness for defence. Geissbühler sees some danger in the constant upgrading of social welfare. “Der Schweizer (Sozial-)Staat wurde in den letzten Jahrzehnten keineswegs ab-, sondern kontinuierlich ausgebaut (The Swiss (welfare) state has not at all been cut back in recent decades but instead it has been continuously expanded).” (p. 104) If carried too far, this can drive individuals to passivity and loss of autonomy. For him it is a balancing act between solidarity and individual responsibility. “Während die Solidarität mit den Mitmenschen und ein gewisser Schutz unbestrittenermassen Werte beziehungsweise Ziele jeder Gesellschaft sein müssen, sind auch Solidarität und sozialer Schutz nicht grenzenlos (While the solidarity with others and a certain degree of protection must remain undisputed values or goals of any society, even solidarity and social protection are not without their limits).” (p. 76) In addition to the expansion of the welfare state, he also sees an increasing threat to the freedom of the individual in increasing state interference in private lives and in a rising regulation of private and public life.

“More long-term orientation and more strategy in political thought and action”

Geissbühler recognises the “reformitis” that has been introduced into various areas of public life as a threat to the sovereignty of the state and to direct democracy. This can be seen particularly well in the school sector, an area in which for years now reform after reform has not improved the quality of teaching and the skills of school leavers; indeed, the opposite is the case. “Freie Arbeit und offener Unterricht haben jedenfalls kaum einen positiven Effekt auf den Lernerfolg. Es gibt dagegen verschiedene neuere Studien, die zum Ergebnis kommen, dass Frontalunterricht besser ist als unstrukturierter, freier Unterricht (At all events, individual instruction and open learning have scarcely any positive effect on learning success. There are, however, several recent studies that come to the conclusion that teacher-centred learning is better than unstructured, free lessons).” (p. 98) Dangers are also lurking in the digitisation of teaching, as the addictive potential of the so-called “social media” is immense. Very few pupils or students can withstand using their smart phone during class. Here we are facing a development that has very little to do with education and training. “Was heute mehr denn je fehlt, ist klassische Bildung. Gefragt wäre nicht der Sprint hinter dem Zeitgeist her, sondern echte Bildung, die Zeit und Geduld braucht, die Raum für die Entfaltung der Talente der Kinder lässt und die nicht einem kurzfristigen und illusorischen Investitionsdenken hinterherhechelt (What is missing more than ever today is a classical education. Not the run after the “Zeitgeist” is needed but real education that takes time and patience, that leaves scope for the development of the children’s talents and that does not pant after short-term and illusory investment planning).” (p. 102)
Despite all hardships, or to use the words of the Helvetic forefathers, despite all the “malice of the time” Geissbühler sees reason for neither pessimism nor fatalism. In his opinion the negative developments in our country are self-inflicted and therefore correctable. “Diese Malaise begründet sich in den oben skizzierten negativen Trends, denen sich die Schweiz ausgesetzt sieht, die wir weitgehend selber verschuldet haben und gegen die wir zumindest bis jetzt zu wenig bis nichts unternehmen (This malaise is due to the negative trends outlined above, to which Switzerland is exposed, for which we are largely responsible ourselves and about which we have done little or nothing at least up to now).” (p. 103)
It is Switzerland exactly, with its citizens’ rights like the referendum and the initiative, that opens up opportunities to put a stop to undesirable developments and to think twice, rather than just follow any international standards that has nothing at all to do with our country, our (political) culture and our way of living together. That is why according to Geissbühler “wieder mehr Langfristigkeit und mehr Strategie im politischen Denken und Handeln (again more long-term orientation and more strategy in political thought and action)” is needed.
Anyone who wants to retain Switzerland’s characteristic traits and its excellent state system will find convincing support in Simon Geissbühler’s book.     •