Con­trib­u­tors to this is­sue in­clude:

The world is con­stantly chang­ing. New chal­lenges call for new ideas and solutions. Switzer­land is bet­ter than vir­tu­ally any other coun­try at balanc­ing sta­bil­ity and re­newal, which is how it be­came a lab­o­ra­tory for the fu­ture.

Bulletin - - Editorial - Text Ger­hard Sch­warz

Ger­hard Sch­warz

Born in Vo­rarl­berg, Aus­tria, Sch­warz is a fix­ture of con­tem­po­rary Swiss jour­nal­ism. He worked for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) for nearly 30 years – serv­ing in a num­ber of roles in­clud­ing busi­ness ed­i­tor and deputy ed­i­tor-in-chief. He is a ma­jor voice on mat­ters re­lat­ing to liberal mar­ket econ­omy. In this is­sue of Bul­letin, he talks about three things that make Switzer­land a lab­o­ra­tory for for­ward-think­ing ideas.

It’s cu­ri­ous: For decades, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Switzer­land’s in­tel­lec­tual and po­lit­i­cal elite seem to have been “suf­fer­ing” be­cause of their coun­try’s unique­ness, its small size, its neu­tral­ity, its iso­la­tion from the EU and the dis­tinc­tive fea­tures of its po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, and also be­cause of its wealth. Many of these things are con­nected. Switzer­land is a many-faceted en­tity, and one that has been un­usu­ally suc­cess­ful. It ranks at or near the top of count­less lists, for pros­per­ity, com­pet­i­tive­ness, in­no­va­tion, num­ber of No­bel Lau­re­ates, sta­bil­ity, po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion and, es­pe­cially, hap­pi­ness. And these are only a few ex­am­ples. Such suc­cess risks trig­ger­ing smug­ness, but also moan­ing and groan­ing at the high­est lev­els.

Yet Switzer­land is in­deed suc­cess­ful, and it has been for a very long time. The ques­tion is what has led to that suc­cess – in the econ­omy, pol­i­tics, sci­ence and cul­ture. As the Bri­tish mag­a­zine The Economist has pointed out, Switzer­land is a coun­try where many par­ents wish their chil­dren had been born. At the same time, it is some­thing of a seis­mo­graph for what is hap­pen­ing in so­ci­ety. Marx­ist philoso­pher Ernst Bloch (1885–1977), who em­i­grated twice to Switzer­land, once af­ter World War I and a sec­ond time af­ter Hitler seized power, spoke for many when he ob­served that in Switzer­land, you no­tice most clearly what is hap­pen­ing, and more im­por­tantly what lies ahead. Over the cen­turies, Switzer­land has be­come re­mark­ably adept at three balanc­ing acts that ex­plain much of its suc­cess, but also re­veal why, de­spite its con­ser­va­tive im­age, Switzer­land of­ten serves as a kind of lab­o­ra­tory for the fu­ture.


The first balanc­ing IDEN­TITY AND OPEN­NESS TO THE WORLD act in­volves rec­on­cil­ing a lo­cal iden­tity with open­ness to the world. Tiny Switzer­land, a na­tion forged by the will of its peo­ple, has earned re­spect as a coun­try where many dif­fer­ent cul­tures, lan­guages and re­li­gions co­ex­ist in rel­a­tive har­mony – be­cause it has de­vel­oped a fun­da­men­tal tol­er­ance for a wide range of dif­fer­ences, sup­ported by a dis­tinctly fed­er­al­ist sys­tem. De­spite all clichés to the con­trary, this – cou­pled with Switzer­land’s small size – has led to a de­gree of open­ness that is un­usual, yet not un­lim­ited. One third of the pop­u­la­tion has for­eign roots, and a good ten per­cent of Swiss cit­i­zens are liv­ing in other coun­tries. Large cities of­ten serve as melt­ing pots; ex­am­ples in­clude Vienna and Ber­lin (at the turn of the 20th cen­tury) as well as Lon­don and New York. In Switzer­land, the en­tire coun­try is a melt­ing pot. Early on, di­verse cul­tures and global net­work­ing cre­ated a cul­ture of in­ter­na­tional trade and a spirit of glob­al­iza­tion, even be­fore any­one was fa­mil­iar with that con­cept. Switzer­land’s eco­nomic suc­cess was built on diver­sity, which pro­vided fer­tile ground for en­trepreneur­ship and en­cour­aged a broad view of the world. Thanks to diver­sity, trends are quickly rec­og­nized and em­braced, as Switzer­land is not fix­ated on a sin­gle cul­tural re­gion – al­though the Ger­man-speak­ing part of the coun­try is dom­i­nant.


The sec­ond chal­lenge is to find a EMO­TION AND RA­TIO­NAL­ITY bal­ance be­tween emo­tion and ra­tio­nal­ity. Switzer­land’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem re­quires strong par­tic­i­pa­tion by the coun­try’s cit­i­zens. Pro­fes­sional politi­cians are rare, and thus many peo­ple are ac­tive in shap­ing pol­icy at the com­mu­nity, can­tonal and fed­eral lev­els, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously pur­su­ing an­other ca­reer. Most no­tably, peo­ple are able to raise their con­cerns through the ini­tia­tive process, and reg­u­lar ref­er­en­dums are held on a va­ri­ety of is­sues. This re­quires an in­formed cit­i­zenry. Ob­vi­ously, when peo­ple cast their votes, emo­tions as well as po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tions are in­volved.

De­spite what some crit­ics sug­gest, how­ever, our di­rect democ­racy rarely leads to pop­ulist ex­trem­ism or ex­ces­sive reg­u­la­tion. This is be­cause “reg­u­lar peo­ple” have a voice, not only in elec­tions, but also on spe­cific is­sues. Ra­tio­nal, re­al­is­tic views pre­dom­i­nate, and there is a ten­dency to be pro-busi­ness. Peo­ple are more aware of what ac­counts for their pros­per­ity. Where else would peo­ple so defini­tively re­ject longer va­ca­tions and shorter work hours? And on those oc­ca­sions when peo­ple let their emo­tions get the bet­ter of them, as in the case of the much-cited pro­posal to ban minarets, the dam­age is lim­ited, since it’s only about a sin­gle is­sue. In other coun­tries, pop­ulists are elected to of­fice for an en­tire leg­isla­tive pe­riod, po­ten­tially al­low­ing them to have a pro­found im­pact on count­less laws, not just on a sin­gle propo­si­tion.

It is es­sen­tial for in­di­vid­u­als to be able to ex­press them­selves freely, and that their con­cerns do not re­main bottled up un­til they ex­plode. Some Swiss ini­tia­tives have been harshly crit­i­cized by other coun­tries as naive pop­ulism. Yet in many cases, the is­sues they have raised have even­tu­ally be­come the sub­ject of even more heated de­bate in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries and be­yond. Be­cause pop­u­lar con­cerns can­not be ig­nored in a di­rect democ­racy, dis­cus­sions be­come less vir­u­lent. Ref­er­en­dums serve as a safety valve, and send a mes­sage to other coun­tries.


The third balanc­ing act is the DIS­TANCE AND PAR­TIC­I­PA­TION most sen­si­tive, as well as the most im­por­tant: finding a bal­ance be­tween dis­tance and par­tic­i­pa­tion. Af­ter its de­feat to the French at Marig­nano (1515), if not be­fore, Switzer­land be­gan to un­der­stand that it was a small coun­try with­out a ma­jor role in Euro­pean power pol­i­tics, let alone on the global stage. Partly of its own vo­li­tion, and partly be­cause of cir­cum­stances, it came to play the role of a neu­tral observer. Many things can be rec­og­nized sooner and more clearly from a dis­tance, al­though that is not al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated. Neu­tral­ity also made it pos­si­ble to achieve do­mes­tic peace. It is par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant that Switzer­land was able to wel­come mi­nori­ties that were per­se­cuted in other coun­tries – in­clud­ing skilled work­ers, en­trepreneurs, sci­en­tists and artists. With them came eco­nomic stim­uli, new ideas and in­spi­ra­tion. The things that laid the foun­da­tion for pros­per­ity also cre­ated a cli­mate of progress.

Switzer­land was and is a lab­o­ra­tory for the fu­ture, not be­cause some mas­ter­mind is pur­su­ing grand plans, and not be­cause a strong gov­ern­ment is tak­ing bold risks. It is the coun­try’s unique char­ac­ter – as an al­ter­na­tive in a world that is al­leged to have no al­ter­na­tives – that helps us rec­og­nize, un­der­stand and con­front the fu­ture and its chal­lenges. Switzer­land is a coun­try of diver­sity and con­trolled open­ness, de­cen­tral­ized or­ga­ni­za­tion and re­spect for its peo­ple, skep­ti­cal prag­ma­tism and a pru­dent skep­ti­cism to­ward ex­ces­sively vi­sion­ary ideas. This is the recipe for an ever-evolv­ing, sus­tain­able fu­ture.

Ger­hard Sch­warz ( 67), an economist who has re­ceived nu­mer­ous awards, worked for the news­pa­per NZZ for nearly 30 years. He held the po­si­tions of chief eco­nomic ed­i­tor and deputy ed­i­tor-in-chief, among oth­ers. He sub­se­quently served as di­rec­tor of the think tank Avenir Suisse and is cur­rently pres­i­dent of the Progress Foun­da­tion. Sch­warz was born in Vo­rarl­berg, Aus­tria, and holds both Aus­trian and Swiss cit­i­zen­ship.

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