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.
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.