My interest in, and acquaintance with, Switzerland began in the mid 1980s. As an undergraduate, I was for a time fascinated by Switzerland’s peculiar political system – its compound of American-style federalism and direct democracy. I recall giving a presentation on the subject to a Comparative Politics seminar at the LSE. My fellow students were bemused that I was so passionate about such a passionless country. And it was around this time that I started “inter-railing” around Switzerland, hiking in mountain valleys and staying in pretty youth hostels. What impressed me were Switzerland’s bourgeois virtues: its prosperity and stability, its sylvan alpine beauty and urban sophistication, its super-cleanliness and civic pride, and its sheer variety in such a small geographic space. To me, these qualities marked Switzerland out as a European exception. Since then, my visits to Switzerland have been infrequent, alas.
So, thirty years after my first visit, what do I admire about Switzerland today?
My view is much influenced by the writings of two conservative intellectuals, Jacob Burckhardt and Wilhelm Röpke. Both stressed Switzerland’s organic evolution – “bottom up” – into a successful nation-state: one that remains highly decentralised and diverse; that pragmatically adapts to the unpredictable currents of history; and that preserves social order, tradition and communitarian glue while allowing for a large degree of individual freedom. Röpke often quoted Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz to say that Swiss society was à la mesure de l’homme. Röpke, like Burckhardt, had a vision of a “Big Europe”, free, diverse, open within and without; to them, Switzerland was Big Europe en miniature. I suppose what I appreciate especially is how Switzerland has combined conservative virtues with individual freedom and economic liberalism: comparatively speaking, it has had a highly successful blend of liberalism and conservatism.
And what do I dislike about Switzerland? The country still suffers from a cushy corporatism. Agriculture remains lavishly subsidised and protected from foreign competition. It has its social-democratic redistributive tendencies and the sclerosis they occasion – the perennial scourge of prosperous societies with democratic politics. There is a strand of parochialism and xenophobia. As an individualist accustomed to living in freewheeling cities, I would find it difficult to adapt to petty regulations in apartment blocks about not using the washing machine or shower or flushing toilets at certain times of the day or night. I am half-Sri Lankan, and therefore used to a warm and friendly culture. To the visitor, the Swiss can appear a little cold and distant – though generally polite and correct – on first impression.
Now, living in Singapore, I find myself making Swiss-Singaporean comparisons. There is much in common. Singapore is the “Switzerland of Asia”: a safe, orderly, clean, prosperous small country and a global financial hub, especially for investors who prefer safety and predictability to high risk. Both have more economic freedom and market-friendly regulation than most other countries. Both are highly globalised societies, not least with abnormally large percentages of immigrants. Both are multi-cultural, multi-denominational and multi-lingual societies. There are differences, of course. Singapore is a city-state, not a “normal country” with a hinterland. Its prosperity is more recent. It is a free port, fully open to trade. Taxes and public spending are lower, and business regulation is generally more efficient than in Switzerland. Switzerland has a more mature, historically evolved liberal democracy; and it has a more innovative economy. But Singapore is in a region on the rise, while Switzerland is surrounded by European countries in decline.
On my short and infrequent visits to Switzerland these days, I still have the impression of a country in good working order. Its blend of liberalism and conservatism, though increasingly stressed, stands it in good stead. The visible signs of European degeneration – unkempt public spaces, graffiti everywhere, ghettos and no-go areas, a socially dysfunctional underclass – are less evident in Switzerland than they are in much of Europe. I would like to see Switzerland flourish outside the EU, open to Europe and the world, still an exemplar of Röpke’s Big Europe. But I would like to see more for myself, to explore Switzerland close up, to take its wonderful trains all over the country again. Perhaps over a few weeks one summer.
Related articles in our series on “Why Switzerland?”:
Why Switzerland is a “special case” and cannot be a model for other states (Jonathan Steinberg/ University of Pennsylvania und Cambridge)
False Modesty (Richard W. Rahn/ Cato Institute and Institute for Global Economic Growth)
The Swiss love for small things (Alberto Mingardi/ Istituto Bruno Leoni)
Those Swiss again! (Franz Schellhorn/ Agenda Austria)
Warum der Schweizer Föderalismus besser ist als der deutsche (von Detmar Doering/Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit)
Darum Schweiz (Karen Horn/Humboldt-Universität Berlin und Friedrich A. von Hayek-Gesellschaft)
Where Switzerland? (Wolfgang Kasper, professor emeritus of economics)
Learning from Switzerland and Schwyz (Dr. Oliver Hartwich/Wellington think tank “The New Zealand Initiative“)