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The Home of the Free: Switzerland By: J.P. Zmirak
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 14, 2002


LIBERTY IS NOT the natural condition of man: tyranny is. Free institutions grew up in the West as a result of hundreds of particular historical events, under the influence of classical philosophy, Judaeo-Christian theology, and Teutonic rebelliousness against authority. That is why it not easy—sometimes it is not possible—to build free societies from the ground up, however much we’d like to replace the bloody-handed regimes we see around the world with liberal democracies. This is especially true when we’re talking about countries riven by ethnic and religious differences. But when liberty grows organically, from the existing institutions of small communities, it can endure even in a potentially fragmented society—for instance, in Switzerland. In fact, I would propose Switzerland as the test case for societies seeking democratic liberty amidst diversity. From Afghanistan to South Africa, nations emerging from tyrannical regimes could find no better model.

Appenzell über alles?

In the Swiss half-canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, a tiny republic of dairy farms, creameries, small-sized industry and rustic churches, each year’s spring yields a sea of tiny mountain flowers, along the steep roads and in the window boxes of farmhouses, on the tables of well-swept hostels and on the faded wooden altars to the Virgin and St. Meinrad. The plants are sturdy, inured to thin air and bitter winters, and defiantly diverse in color and shape—one sharp and purple, another roundly red, and then a yellow starburst. You’ll see no fields of identical blooms, like the vast sunflower farms that flank the Autobahn in Bavaria, or the luxuriant purple iris stands of the Louisiana bayous. You’d be hard-pressed to gather a uniform bouquet from these Swiss gardens, made up of dozens of hardy species, growing together in genial competition as they have for millennia.

Just so, you’d make a poor showing if you tried to make a ideology out of Appenzell. History records no Appenzell-supremacist movements; no mass rallies of uniformed youths in identical haircuts shouting slogans, beneath enormous banners proclaiming “Appenzell über alles,” no secretive terrorist movements for independence, no campaigns to preserve the “purity” of the local “Kultur.”

Nor is there room for Marx at these inns; the local farmers would rather drive their cows up nearly vertical fields than entail their hard-won property to state or superstate. The one bitter source of conflict in Appenzell’s history has been religion, wars over which devastated some European countries over centuries. It did not shatter Appenzell; after some serious quarrel over creed, the Protestant and Catholic halves of the canton agreed simply to split. At some places where an agreement could not be reached, the canton lines were drawn (and up to the nineteenth-century incessantly redrawn) according to the faith of each family home. When a Catholic obtained a house that had once belonged to Protestants, that little piece of Appenzell Innerrhoden was transferred to Ausserrhoden, and contrarywise if a Protestant gained a formerly Catholic home. The faiths, like breeds of Alpine flowers, still thrive as cordial, rivalrous neighbors.

Their coexistence is not guaranteed by abstract human rights formulas or transnational institutions—indeed, the wars of religion fought in Switzerland were largely provoked by interfering outside forces with international agendas (such as Louis XIV’s France). The finely balanced tolerance and diversity in Appenzell—in Switzerland—does not descend from above, but grows organically from the facts on the ground, the local institutions which arose to resolve conflict in ordered liberty among neighbors thrown together by history and geography.

Each spring, the outburst of mountain blooms meets a hardy perennial—the Landsgemeinde, or communal vote. In what is perhaps the most ancient form of democracy, each year, the adult citizens of Appenzell Innerrhoden are invited to gather in the town square to vote by show of hands on new laws, taxes, and terms of office for their local government.

Not all appear, of course. But those who do exercise in person a privilege their ancestors held since the thirteenth-century—when most of Europe’s country folk still labored as serfs: a “sovereign vote.” No amendment to the Constitution may be made in Switzerland without a referendum; any law may be annulled by popular vote; additions to the Constitution typically start with popular initiatives, sparked by ordinary citizens’ petitions and ratified by their vote. The federal  government and many cantons must submit each proposed new tax to direct vote of the people. In a century where authority has been almost everywhere usurped at one time or another by ideological mass movements, managerial elites and murderous factions, the peaceful, quarrelsome Swiss have stuck like a bone in the throat of theorists. Each trend which commentators have described as unstoppable has failed to sway these mountainfolk—or their citified cousins in Zürich and Bern. Nationalism, socialism, national socialism, welfare statism; and most recently, globalism—each has left its high-water mark at the borders of the stubborn, diverse, democratic Swiss, and receded.

For economist and social philosopher Wilhelm Röpke, Switzerland constituted living proof that the market economy and liberal society were still viable in contemporary Europe. With her traditions of decentralized government, freedom of thought, participatory democracy, middle-class  virtue, and economic self-reliance, Switzerland had managed to avoid most of the ethnic polarization and class hatred, mass impoverishment, and harsh financial inequality which had torn apart other nations in the wake of World War I.

One of 400,000 ethnic and political refugees from Hitler sheltered by Switzerland throughout the war, Röpke wrote sophisticated critiques of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism which he smuggled into Germany—helping to nurture a fledgling movement of humanistic conservatives, including Ludwig Erhard and Konrad Adenauer, who would lead that country after the war. After the war ended, Röpke was one of the economists who pioneered West Germany’s resurrection, by engineering the creation of a stable currency, the Deutschmark, and a free economy.

In all his efforts, Röpke held up Switzerland as the model to be emulated by liberals and democrats the world round, much as American founders John Adams and Benjamin Franklin pointed to “the Helvetic Republic” as the best model then available of limited government and liberty. Instead of the grand, rhetorical figures of the French Revolution, the philosophes who prepared it, and the ideologues who led it into blood and ruin, Röpke urged the friends of liberty to consider the nameless or legendary burghers of the Swiss cantons who resisted the encroachments of vastly larger enemies for centuries, holding off alike kings and emperors, and falling only once—to Napoleon.

During that catastrophe, a small band of Swiss radicals collaborated with the French Emperor to attempt a stern centralization of their country’s complex, variegated government. But after a few years of futile attempts to tame the Swiss localists, the French Emperor himself enacted a new constitution which restored many aspects of the ancien régime. After Napoleon’s fall and the retreat of French troops, the Swiss managed to obtain at Vienna in 1815 guarantees of their permanent neutrality. The following years, especially after 1830, were a quarrelsome search for the right balance of power between the center and the members of the Swiss union. This culminated in a secessionist civil war in 1848. After this relatively bloodless, 30-day war, a new federal constitution was worked out—using as a model the American document. The result was a system that is still more successfully decentralized than any on earth.

Think Locally, Act Parochially

When I met him in July 2000, Carlo Schmid, then president of the upper house of the Swiss Parliament (equivalent to the U.S. Senate), explained his country’s system this way:

Sovereignty, according to the Swiss Constitution, resides in two places: with the individual canton, and with the Swiss people. This is not just a slogan; it is a practical reality. The vast majority of decisions affecting an individual’s life are taken at the cantonal level—or even at the local level, that of the town or “commune.”  Each canton determines its own level of taxation, administers its own funds for health, construction, infrastructure, education and most police. The constitutional assumption is that the canton has competence to govern on any matter, unless the Federal Parliament passes an article expressly promoting an issue to the Federal level. Of course, any such decision must be ratified by both houses—the lower, which is proportionate to population, and the upper, in which each canton receives an equal voice, regardless of size. Then that result must be ratified by a national vote of the people—the other locus of sovereignty in Switzerland.

The Swiss cantons hold onto their central role in the Swiss system by the purse-strings, Schmid pointed out; the largest part of any citizen’s taxes generally goes to his canton, the next part to his local government, with the smallest portion accruing to the Swiss Confederation. Virtually every change in taxation must be submitted to a referendum of the citizens—whether at the federal, cantonal, or local level. 

The complex interaction of decentralized institutions and democratic voting fosters ideological compromise, gradual political change, and financial responsibility among administrators, Schmid asserted. “The nearer you are to a political decision, the more responsibility you take. Everyone knows what he’s paying his taxes for.”

Because Schmid also served as Landamman (Governing Chairman) of Appenzell Innerrhoden (pop. 15,000), he presided over one of the oldest democratic institutions in the world: the famous Landsgemeinde, an assembly open to all the adult citizens from across Appenzell Innerrhoden, where public officials are elected, laws are passed, and taxes approved by a majority show of hands. Established in its present form in the late Middle Ages, the Landsgemeinde made a deep impression on Röpke, who had fled the centralizing, pseudo-democratic, illiberal policies of the Third Reich.

Because of logistics, only two half-cantons still preserve the Landsgemeinde. But its very existence—and the tradition of direct democracy by referenda in all the cantons—vividly reminds each politician that authority in Switzerland does not descend from above, as the monarchs of Europe used to assert. Rather, it rises from the people. Direct democracy is itself a standing rebuke to those politicians who would transfer key decisions about the lives of citizens to unelected, supranational bureaucracies.

The United States once had a strong tradition of localism—which is one reason why our Constitution appealed to the Swiss in 1848. The U.S. Constitution also contains provisions reserving power to states, localities and the people—only allowing to the federal government such power as was specifically granted it by the states. Over the course of time, successive decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, and innumerable laws passed in their wake, have turned the Ninth and Tenth Amendments into virtual dead letters. (The Rehnquist court has reversed some of this process, and revived the term “states’ rights” in American Constitutional law.)

Stay Out of the European Union

The Swiss system avoids such an agglomeration of power, Schmid noted, in part because the constitutional jurisdiction of its own highest court is very limited. More than simply allowing ordinary Swiss to veto legislation supported by elites, that country’s unique democratic system alters the very process of law-making, as Jonathan Steinberg argues in his study, Why Switzerland?:

The referendum and initiative exercise an influence even if the voters never get to the polls at all. Every piece of legislation in a Cantonal or federal parliament undergoes subtle alterations because a referendum might be the consequence of a given clause… The elaborate process which the civil service goes through before drafts of bills even get to parliament is also overshadowed by the moods of the ‘sovereign.’   [i.e., the people] (p. 106).

Schmid argued that the two anchors of sovereignty in Switzerland—the canton, and the body of the people voting—reinforce each other, preventing the Confederation from fragmenting into a passel of squabbling microstates, or coalescing into a majoritarian mass democracy, ruled by plebiscite through manipulable public opinion. “When you see that you have the power to decide your own fate, as Swiss voters do, you’re very reluctant to see that taken away, promoted up to some bureaucrat in Bern or Brussels,” he said.

The complex—seemingly intractable and inefficient—Swiss system has prevented the national government from attempting many of the ambitious social welfare policies and economic initiatives popular in neighboring Germany, France, Italy and Austria; there simply is not enough tax revenue or sufficient authority. And in those low taxes lies the secret to postwar Swiss prosperity, according to Schmid: “Because of our system, large corporations found it advantageous to locate here.” Thanks to Switzerland’s ‘parochial’ localism, this country of just over seven million souls hosts “seven or eight of the largest multinational corporations in the world. They prosper here, and we prosper with them.” It is no accident that the Swiss enjoy the highest standard of living, per capita, in the world; it is the concrete fruit of localism, liberalism and direct democracy.

The tenacity with which the Swiss voter clings to his ‘sovereign’ vote probably dooms to futility the plans of some Swiss to dissolve that sovereignty into the greater mass of the European Union, Schmid believes. Steinberg agrees:

Switzerland, as it now is, cannot accept … the command economy from Brussels or rule by higher civil servants, because the very essence of Swiss identity lies in self-determination from the bottom up. A top-down government confronts a bottom-up one and they are simply incompatible. The logic of the two approaches to government dictates that the Swiss either give up their national identity or stay out of the European Union.  (p. 110).

The Birth of Democracy

The German poet Schiller presented William Tell to Napoleon’s war-torn, tyrannized Europe as a model of resistance to injustice—in a play that Hitler would banish from the German stage. So Röpke cited the Swiss experience as the rebuff to the pretensions of world empires and ideologies.

The beginnings of Swiss democracy are marked by the cooperatives of the valleys and the communities of the Alpine peasants, and American democracy commences with the town meetings which eventually grew into the Union. (The Social Crisis of Our Time, p. 45).

Röpke saw in the Swiss market economy—with its vast numbers of small businesses, independent farmers, and craftsmen—an alternative model to the grim struggle for power between vast corporations and socialist (or fascist) collectivist states. At a time when only centralism, “mobilization,” and economic nationalism seemed capable of reversing the Great Depression, Röpke was sufficiently independent-minded to reject the terms of the debate, and re-state the question himself: The enemy, as he saw it, was not the wrong ideology and the wrong kind of centralized control, but the very movement towards concentration of money and power in the hands of the few—whether they be plutocrats or bureaucrats didn’t matter very much, in the end.

Röpke saw the Swiss, with their peculiarly multi-ethnic society and finely balanced division of power, their scientific sophistication and their vital peasant class, as a model which the larger nations of Europe ought to emulate. Basing their politics on class resentment, Communist ideologues looked for salvation to the restive industrial worker hungry for justice; radical nationalists appealed to the anxious army veteran afraid of the masses. In answer, Röpke pointed to the thrifty Swiss bourgeois of the cities, and the self-sufficient Swiss farmer of the mountains, as proof that the modern economy need not dissolve all traditional social arrangements and divide the nation against itself. While the far Left proposed to resolve international conflict through worldwide revolution, the far Right embraced international conflict as inevitable, embracing trade war as preparation for the real thing.

Röpke answered both extremes by pointing to the impressive fact of Switzerland’s survival—for all her limited resources and mountainous terrain—achieved through relatively free trade, a friendly, armed neutrality and the civic virtues of its citizens. In an era of mounting class strife and international conflict, he urged his readers to remember that another way existed, which he came to call a “Third Way,” which avoided the extremes of collectivism (Communism and Fascism) on the one hand, and laissez-faire capitalism on the other. For proof that a more balanced society could exist, he would point again and again to the place where it did exist—in the Swiss Confederation.

Certainly, Röpke needed some moral support for his position; it was distinctly unfashionable in his day. Barely forty years old when he moved to Geneva, Röpke had already gained the reputation of an intellectual dinosaur. For this was the age of ideology, when fascist and communist powers were on the march, and the only “respectable” opposition to their advance seemed to lay with democratic socialism. If there was one thing on which men at every point of the political spectrum on the Continent could agree in 1937, it was that individualism, liberalism and the market economy were outdated relics of the nineteenth- century, destined for the ash-heap of history.

Europe was littered with democracies that had collapsed or were on the verge, and major powers engaged in appeasing Hitler or courting Stalin. Radical nationalists and Communists clashed in the newspapers and on the streets of a dozen European capitals. Ideologies sprang up like mushrooms in the rain: Syndicalism, Falangism, Fascism, Popular Front socialism, each with its intellectuals scribbling pompous manifestoes, its street thugs fighting with police. Nothing could have seemed more obsolete than “middle class capitalism.”  That economic system, and the political liberties that made it possible, were precisely the aspects of Western civilization which Wilhelm Röpke considered most precious, which he was determined to preserve. In Switzerland, he saw this heritage still alive and thriving, and a people sternly determined to cling to their traditional rights, in the face of increasingly hopeless odds:

We can hold Switzerland up to a world striving for guidance, as one of the most shining examples in history of spiritual greatness within physical smallness and as the most vital and convincing refutation of the assertion that the fundamental problems of mass civilization, of democracy and of the moral crisis of the West are insoluble. (The Social Crisis of Our Time, p. 25).


Dr. Zmirak is author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist. He writes frequently on economics, politics, popular culture and theology.


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