Image source: Hotel des Alpes

After blog posts on heavy topics like terrorism, the euro crisis and genocide, now might be a good time to look at a country with much fewer problems: Switzerland. Small, peaceful, hardworking, and prosperous, it’s as close as you can probably get to paradise — in this life at least.

Switzerland is unique for having 3 different major ethnic groups within the country, but with negligible conflict among them. It’s remarkable for dating back to 1291 — centuries before most of the other nation-states of Europe, including other small ones. But then that might be part of the explanation for why it’s so politically stable: centuries of history have given Switzerland a national identity that creations of Great Powers like Belgium simply lack. It originated as a confederacy of cantons (autonomous mountain valleys) that banded together to fend off the Habsburgs, the ruling family of neighboring Austria. Thanks to their fierce resistance and Switzerland’s treacherous topography, they were able to establish their independence from Austria’s empire, and gradually a larger grouping of cantons — including some Romand (French-speaking) ones — coalesced. Italian-speaking towns were conquered in the 1400s.

Switzerland was able to maintain a relative balance between its ethnic communities despite the domination of Alemands (German-speakers), who make up about 2/3 of the country. Partially this is because the country aims for a multilingual public — kids are taught more than just the language of their area, and German isn’t given official status above French or Italian. Partially this is because Switzerland rebuffed the wave of nationalism in the 1800s and early 1900s — when Fascist Germany and Italy clamored for unification of all the Germans and Italians, Switzerland responded by elevating Romansh, a minor language spoken in a few valleys in the southeast and descended from Latin, to the status of official language as a snub in their directions. Partially this is because cantonal boundaries, for the most part, cut across ethnic lines. (Graubünden, in the southeast, has 3 languages: German, Italian and Romansh.)

On the top of the ethno-linguistic mix, Switzerland also has a religious mix of Catholics and Protestants. It was one of the hotbeds of the Reformation, and its last civil war, in 1847, broke out along religious lines. (86 people died.) Yet religious conflict is muted today, and religious feeling is fading anyway (in common with the rest of Europe).

Switzerland’s incredible stability and peace has impressed its neighbors, and to a large extent it seems to be the result of its political system. Although a unified nation today, it’s still extremely decentralized, with cantons responsible for the bulk of their own affairs and towns and cities wielding a great deal of influence. This allows for local culture or preferences — whether it be related to language, religion, economic sector, social values, or politics — to continue unmolested. Switzerland not only operates on democratic principles, it follows direct democracy: major initiatives and laws are voted on nationwide in referenda. Ordinary citizens can repeal laws they don’t like if they gather enough signatures on a petition. There is no head of state, technically; executive power is wielded by a group of 7 ministers called the Federal Council. They are chosen to represent Switzerland’s 4 main political parties in a balanced manner — which are mostly centrist and moderate. Like other Swiss traditions, direct democracy dates back to the Middle Ages, when citizens would gather in the town square to discuss pertinent issues among themselves, without pesky politicians getting in the way. It wasn’t what we would recognize as liberal democracy today — most of the population wasn’t allowed to participate, and politics was dominated by a narrow layer of aristocrats — but the amicable consensus-driven politics of early modern Switzerland helped inspire the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of a “social contract” underpinning healthy modern societies.

Switzerland’s internal stability and peace is reinforced by fending off external threats, and ever since the Renaissance, when it gained a reputation for its tough pikemen mercenaries, Switzerland has taken defense seriously. Men are forced into military service and militias train regularly. It is small and rugged enough that it has largely managed to avoid getting tangled in Europe’s general wars (although Napoleon intervened anyway). Famously, it has maintained strict neutrality since the Napoleonic Wars, and keeps out of international conflicts altogether. It didn’t even join the UN until 2002. It has played a major role in peace negotiations, however, and Geneva in particular is the go-to venue for working out civil wars and international disagreements like the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Even before Switzerland joined the UN, Geneva was one of its European headquarters! (It inherited the headquarters for the League of Nations, the UN’s dysfunctional predecessor.)

Sure Switzerland is peaceful and stable, but that wouldn’t make much of a difference if it wasn’t rich. But unlike most landlocked, inaccessible mountain regions, Switzerland is filthy rich. Partially this is because it receives plenty of rain, which allow the mountain valleys and northern plateau to be used for farming and pasture. But mostly it’s because Switzerland, like Germany, has historically placed a strong emphasis on industry and manufacturing. It focuses on high-value exports like watches, jewelry, precision instruments, chemicals, machines, and fancy food like chocolates and cheese. The market for these things isn’t huge, but the Swiss reputation for quality and luxury is such that they can be sold for high prices. Its location at the heart of Western Europe — Germany to the north, France to the west, Italy to the south — means it’s always been a trade hub. Foreign technology companies are welcomed and software is a growing economic sector. Switzerland also has a reputation as the best place in the world to park giant stashes of money, and Zürich in particular is one of Europe’s financial centers.

Glacier Express

All this economic activity has pushed Switzerland into the top 20 economies, even though it only has 8 million people, and a jaw-dropping per capita income of $82,000. Thanks to low levels of tax evasion, it gives the government a big fund to draw from — and it has funneled the money right back into its citizens and infrastructure. Education and child care are universal. Switzerland boasts some of the world’s best universities, and tuition is only about $1,000 – $2,000 a year. It has a particular emphasis on research, and physicists from around the world gather in Geneva’s European Organization for Nuclear Research to smash subatomic particles into each other.Public transport, whether by bus or train, is widespread, punctual, and efficient. Everyone has health insurance, mostly private. Life expectancy is high (83) and income tax is low (13% in Zürich Canton, and that’s on the high end).

Swiss society operates on the principle of “community spirit,” again as a reflection of its decentralized, local nature. In its small towns, everyone basically knows each other and treats each other with respect and consideration, mindful of the consequences of being a jerk. Social pressure forces deviants back into line and contributes to the uniformity and coziness that is Switzerland’s trademark. Despite the high rate of gun ownership, especially by European standards, gun violence (except for suicides) is rare. Businesses and public transit rely on the honesty principle and Swiss by and large trust each other.

Switzerland might not be everyone’s idea of paradise. Its uniformity and consensus-driven culture can seem suffocating and rigid to some. It isn’t exactly the center of action, and the weight of custom and tradition can be heavy. The “mountain mentality” can mean a skeptical, even suspicious attitude towards foreigners and foreign influences, and the Swiss sometimes seem to be guarding their country from foreign threats that aren’t really there. Ardent partisans of the Western/European/transatlantic liberal international order are frustrated by Switzerland’s aloofness and characterize it as selfishness or cowardice. Lingering religious influences and old traditions feed into a conservative, stodgy culture. It can be blisteringly expensive to live or travel there. But these considerations pale in comparison to Switzerland’s strengths. Corruption is unheard of, and citizens highly trust their government. Expats and tourists flock to its clean, well-ordered cities, its posh ski resorts, and its peerless mountain scenery. It’s the happiest country in the world according to a report this year. A dearth of problems may make Switzerland a little boring, but for most people, that’s a luxury they can afford.


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