ZURICH — No nation is perfect. And of course, Switzerland is no exception – it has plenty of flaws. But there’s a good reason why America’s Founding Fathers once looked to the tiny alpine nation for inspiration while laying the foundations of constitutional government in the New World. The Swiss model works – it keeps the peace, promotes individual liberty and leads to a prosperous society.
A great deal has been written, even in recent times, about what the American people and other governments could learn from the Swiss in terms of statesmanship. In a piece entitled “Freedom vs Force,” Zurich-based retirement consultant Ron Holland makes an excellent case for having the U.S. federal government and the European Union follow the Swiss model, as opposed to “the failed top down examples of other nations and empires.” Even members of the European Parliament have made similar assertions.
The reason for all the attention is largely that Switzerland is so successful. Compared to the rest of the world, it’s an oasis of liberty and wealth. Its per capita GDP, for example, is about twice that of the European Union – far higher than in the U.S. as well. And that’s despite the fact that Switzerland has few natural resources.
Unemployment, meanwhile, is about half of the EU average. Switzerland also enjoys large budget and trade surpluses while other Western governments borrow and spend their subjects into bankruptcy.
The standard of living in Switzerland is also among the highest in the world. Crime rates and taxes, on the other hand, remain among the lowest. According to the Centre for Global Competitiveness and Performance, Switzerland actually has the most competitive economy in the world. And it’s one of the most stable countries, too. International businesses flock to set up headquarters there despite the high cost of living.
But what makes the country so different that it can prosper and remain relatively free while the rest of the world descends into chaos and tyranny? For starters, it has a unique, decentralized form of government: it’s a confederation. That means decisions are largely made at the local and cantonal level, where politicians are accountable and citizens are engaged and influential.
Most taxes are collected by local and cantonal authorities, too. The layered political system leads to benefits for Switzerland that few other nations enjoy. For example, the decentralized process ushers in competition between cantons for businesses, investment, and people. If a canton raises taxes too much, or imposes burdensome regulations, companies and taxpayers can simply move to another canton with a more business-friendly and liberty-minded environment.
Of course, that’s sort of how the system is supposed to work in America, too. But the reality is that the U.S. federal government is now an ever-present overlord that squanders close to a fourth of the nation’s GDP while taxing and regulating just about everything. If current trends continue, Washington will soon represent the largest source of funding for state governments as well.
But not in Switzerland. The Swiss federal government is as unique as it is limited. The two-chamber Federal Assembly, with one house representing the people and the other representing cantonal governments, meets only for about 12 weeks out of the year. Unlike American politicians, most Swiss legislators also have real jobs. And if the legislature passes laws the people don’t like, citizens can simply override them with a referendum.
The Swiss government’s executive branch is interesting as well. Instead of having all executive power vested in one person, which clearly has led to problems in other nations, the Swiss have a seven-member executive council with a rotating chief. One can often find the president of the council riding the train to work, just like any other citizen.
Under the Swiss system of government – technically a republic, but possibly closer to direct democracy than any other nation in the world – the people could easily destroy the nation. And every once in a while, voters make decisions that illustrate the obvious limitations of being able to vote on everything. Swiss voters decided against moving back toward the gold standard in 2014, for instance, amid a fear-mongering campaign led by bankers.
But Swiss voters get a lot right, too – probably more than most populations of the world would. Some years ago, for instance, a measure to introduce federal gun control was rejected overwhelmingly at the polls. Switzerland is one of the most well-armed societies on Earth, with almost every man of military age keeping a fully automatic rifle at home. Americans, of course, are prohibited from possessing such guns without all sorts of fees and federal permits. The Swiss, on the other hand, can simply purchase their rifles from the government after completing their militia service.
Another area where Switzerland shines, thanks largely to well-educated voters, is in its fierce defense of national sovereignty and neutrality. Despite immense pressure, the tiny nation of about 7 million – totally surrounded by the emerging European super state – has firmly resisted calls to join the EU. Voters have overwhelmingly and repeatedly rejected the super-state, despite constant bullying. And the Swiss stood strong against United Nations membership for more than 50 years. They also managed to stay out of both world wars that raged all around them, too, thanks in large part to the fact that virtually all Swiss men are armed and trained.
While Switzerland is no utopia of liberty – some cantons have restricted homeschooling while others maintain “garbage police” and dog registries – its model of government puts most of the world’s political systems to shame. It’s remarkably similar in many ways to the original Articles of Confederation a young United States eventually rejected.
America, however, still has a great design for its government. The U.S. Constitution, which also inspired the Swiss in the mid-1800s, is probably the finest example of a constitution in the world. Unfortunately, the regime in D.C. ignores it and the government-“educated” masses simply let it happen.
But as cracks continue to emerge in the present anti-constitutional American system and statist opportunists rush to blame liberty and free markets for the disaster, it’s worth taking a look at Switzerland to realize that freedom is not the problem. Liberty, in fact, leads to prosperity, security, peace and success. Unrestrained centralized government, on the other hand, produces destruction, chaos and death. Americans should re-learn these valuable lessons from their Alpine cousins.