The militia principle conveys grip on reality

To “The year of militia work”

by Kaspar Villiger*

The united Federal Assembly in the National Council Hall. (picture keystone)

“Every entrepreneur and every trade unionist who, being exposed to the constant struggle for economic existence, daily experiences the structure of the state first-hand, knows more about politics than he who thinks the state is only the coffer from which, by virtue of an educational degree, he receives a standardised, secure and pensionable income.”

Max Weber, 1917

Karl Schmid has meticulously worked out in his publications what essentially distinguishes the political culture of Switzerland from the political cultures of other European states: It is the fundamental renunciation of delegating public cause to a military or political caste. The citizens themselves take care of commune matters. However, where everyone has a say, rules are required for decision-making, compromises, mutual respect and mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution.
What had already begun to emerge in the valley cooperatives of the central Alps at the time when the Old Swiss Confederacy was founded developed, on a thousand conflict-laden detours, to today’s complex cooperative political mechanics with federalism, people’s assemblies, communal assemblies, referendums, initiatives, concordance and the militia principle. It proved to be unprecedentedly successful. Its two pillars, direct democracy and militia, are however, challenged today from various sides. Although direct democracy is flourishing with countless referendums and initiatives, and could at most lead to a collapse of the system through overuse, the militia system is under pressure.
Life reality and politics
By militia work, we mean everything that is carried out by Swiss citizens at all levels of government on a part-time basis and for a modest fee at most in the interest of the commune, whether in parliaments and executive bodies or in the innumerable bodies close to the state, such as school boards, audit committees, fire brigades, corporate body councils or expert commissions. The strengths of this system are obvious. For example, by promoting the important integration of civil society and the state. Those who spend too much time under parliamentary domes, for example, are drawn into a kind of bubble, which, over time, begins to distort their perception of reality outside the dome. Responsibility at work, contacts at work or participation in associations give politicians a grip on reality by constantly instilling life reality in them. Conversely, everyday dialogue in the professional environment also creates understanding for politics. Both promote trust, and trust is the basis of every successful state.
It is particularly important that life experience and knowledge from work and society are incorporated in political decision-making. As Lucerne state councillor, Werner Kurzmeyer, used to say years ago: Anyone wishing to be part of the federal parliament in Bern had to ‘bring along a full rucksack’ and not intend to ‘pick up a full rucksack’ in Bern. I am afraid to say that we already have too many people in Bern who are aiming for the second.
It is also important that the non-re-election does not pose an existential threat to the true militia parliamentarian. That makes him more independent inwardly and less susceptible to sheer opportunism. The professional politician’s comprehensible concentration on re-election repeatedly conflicts, consciously or unconsciously, with his orientation towards the common good.
I also believe that the joint work of people from different social groups in militia functions promotes mutual understanding and thus national cohesion. This is particularly important because other cohesion-promoting organisations have lost importance, such as the churches due to the loss of members, public schools due to the growing importance of private schools or the army due to the de facto abandonment of general national conscription.
In view of the challenges that are pressurising the militia principle, it is legitimate to ask whether the militia parliament is not outdated, at least at the federal level. There is no denying that individualism, egoism and hedonism are growing in our society. At the same time, the state is increasingly seen as a kind of supermarket that is supposed to solve all our problems, but woe betide if it wants anything from us. It is also obvious that the prestige of public offices, which used to compensate for the sacrifices in a somewhat immaterial way, has diminished considerably. Executive members, in particular, are often subject to a permanent barrage of fierce criticism, which simply puts off many talents from making themselves available for executive offices. It is therefore not surprising that it has become more difficult to win enough persons with outstanding abilities for demanding militia functions.

“It is also important that the non-re-election does not pose an existential threat to the true militia parliamentarian. That makes him more independent inwardly and less susceptible to sheer opportunism. The professional politician’s comprehensible concentration on re-election repeatedly conflicts, consciously or unconsciously, with his orientation towards the common good.”

Life reality and politics

By militia work, we mean everything that is carried out by Swiss citizens at all levels of government on a part-time basis and for a modest fee at most in the interest of the commune, whether in parliaments and executive bodies or in the innumerable bodies close to the state, such as school boards, audit committees, fire brigades, corporate body councils or expert commissions. The strengths of this system are obvious. For example, by promoting the important integration of civil society and the state. Those who spend too much time under parliamentary domes, for example, are drawn into a kind of bubble, which, over time, begins to distort their perception of reality outside the dome. Responsibility at work, contacts at work or participation in associations give politicians a grip on reality by constantly instilling life reality in them. Conversely, everyday dialogue in the professional environment also creates understanding for politics. Both promote trust, and trust is the basis of every successful state.
It is particularly important that life experience and knowledge from work and society are incorporated in political decision-making. As Lucerne state councillor, Werner Kurzmeyer, used to say years ago: Anyone wishing to be part of the federal parliament in Bern had to ‘bring along a full rucksack’ and not intend to ‘pick up a full rucksack’ in Bern. I am afraid to say that we already have too many people in Bern who are aiming for the second.
It is also important that the non-re-election does not pose an existential threat to the true militia parliamentarian. That makes him more independent inwardly and less susceptible to sheer opportunism. The professional politician’s comprehensible concentration on re-election repeatedly conflicts, consciously or unconsciously, with his orientation towards the common good.
I also believe that the joint work of people from different social groups in militia functions promotes mutual understanding and thus national cohesion. This is particularly important because other cohesion-promoting organisations have lost importance, such as the churches due to the loss of members, public schools due to the growing importance of private schools or the army due to the de facto abandonment of general national conscription.
In view of the challenges that are pressurising the militia principle, it is legitimate to ask whether the militia parliament is not outdated, at least at the federal level. There is no denying that individualism, egoism and hedonism are growing in our society. At the same time, the state is increasingly seen as a kind of supermarket that is supposed to solve all our problems, but woe betide if it wants anything from us. It is also obvious that the prestige of public offices, which used to compensate for the sacrifices in a somewhat immaterial way, has diminished considerably. Executive members, in particular, are often subject to a permanent barrage of fierce criticism, which simply puts off many talents from making themselves available for executive offices. It is therefore not surprising that it has become more difficult to win enough persons with outstanding abilities for demanding militia functions.

Complexity of state activity

Moreover, politics and profession are becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile. Not only is the occupational strain continuously increasing, but also the strain of a political mandate. On the one hand, this has to do with the objectively unavoidable increasing complexity of state activity. On the other hand, it also originates from the parliament itself. The urge of many a member to distinguish himselves through the media leads to an extensive hustle and bustle, which is often out of proportion to the resulting political benefits. Among the left-wing political elite, the problem of reconciling work and politics may be smaller, because they often come from teaching, health or social professions, where reductions in workloads are easier to attain than in the private sector. However, the more conservative parties are in danger of increasingly having to recruit number-two choice politicians.
Another problem are the stakeholders. It is clear that militia politicians are not only involved in party politics, but also have other interests, influenced by their main profession. This means that a militia parliament is always a lobbyist organisation to a certain extent. Recently, this has often been criticised. However, the advantages interlocking politics with constantly updated life experience far outweigh their disadvantages. But, they do have a price: transparency! You have to know where someone stands, which mandates are involved, where sympathies lie. This, can be considered when assessing the work of parliamentarians. However, it also reveals the area of tension between the forces in parliament, where the various interests must be equalised by diversity. Then one knows very quickly, as to who is taking into account any overriding interests and to what extent.
Another problem that should not be underestimated is the centralisation of more and more state activities within the Confederation. It is beginning to gradually undermine the substance of federalism and thus weaken one of our most important success factors. Hence, the militia functions at cantonal and communal levels are also tending to lose influence, and the dominance of federal policy is making them less visible. This makes them less attractive. This also has an impact on the people, who are gradually losing sight of the immense and good work still done in the cantons and communes.

How can the militia workload be reduced?

In spite of these considerable challenges, we should not take the ostensibly simplest path of professionalising public functions throughout. We do need the peasants, chemists, trade unionists, medical doctors, employees or entrepreneurs themselves on the political front, not their rhetorically polished intellectual representatives. Only this allows us to avoid the formation of a political class that is increasingly alienated from the people. This is also justified because it is fair to say that our militia parliaments need not shy away from comparison with foreign parliaments.
The question now arises as to how concrete measures could reduce the militia workload. If political decisions are not to become more and more remote from the economy, the participants of the economy will have to deal creatively with this question. I would just like to outline a few approaches here.
The creation of structures that alleviate militia activity has some potential. It is feasible for communes to assign line work to professionals, and the militia-based local council to work strategically and supervise like a board of directors. This model is certainly also conceivable for militia-based control activities, with the control commission to delegate inspections to paid specialists, but carries out political appraisal itself.
Creating pecuniary incentives are often proposed. One can certainly try to reward very demanding and time-consuming militia work better. However, there is one objection that is often underestimated: behavioural economics shows that the quote of volunteers in voluntary work can decline when work gets paid. This has to do with the fact that, usually, such work is performed for intrinsic and idealistic motives and pecuniary incentives can destroy this motivation. Often, the same phenomenon is evident in the economy as well.
Another possibility would be to avail sprightly pensioners to officiate. Because the retirement age is far too low in view of our increasing life expectancy, hundreds of capable seniors are cavorting around, who for the most part are bored and could still do a lot of voluntary work for the commune. This source could be developed more systematically.
I believe that political parties could also make greater use of the enormous skills of qualified sympathisers, for example by forming ad hoc expert groups for demanding problems, in which such experts would probably be involved for charity’s sake.
Related to the militia problem is a more systematic exchange of experts between the administration and the private sector for the benefit of both. The immediate call for restrictions in this area, out of an exaggerated fear of conflict of interest when, for example, the general secretary of a department docks with an association, is shortsighted.
The economy could certainly do more to make profession and politics more compatible, for example by ensuring that the temporary employment of a senior executive in politics does not make it impossible to continue his professional career at a later stage. It would therefore be important to sensitise foreign top managers in particular to the importance of militia work. Of course, the leading associations could do more to “helvetise” foreign managers. There is also an integration problem with the top brass, not only on the construction site!
A political system that gives the people ultimate responsibility for the public cause not only gives it rights but also duties. This means that qualified citizens must not turn their backs on this state, but help it to solve its problems critically but constructively for the good of the country. Karl Schmid expressed it with unparalleled clarity when he stated that, for a country like Switzerland, the unpolitical stance of the classes determining cultural and economic life would become a deadly danger.    •

*    Kaspar Villiger was a member of the Swiss Federal Council from 1989 to 2003. Latest publication by him: “Demokratie. Jetzt erst recht!” (“Democracy. Now more than ever!”) (2018) and “Die Durcheinanderwelt” (“World in disarray”) (2017), both in NZZ Libro. This article is a shortened version of a presentation in the context of “The year of militia work”.

Source: Villiger, Kaspar. Das Milizprinzip vermittelt Bodenhaftung. (The militia principle conveys a grip on reality) “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from  4 November 2019

(Translation Current Concerns)