A book about the Sonderfall Schweiz (Special case of Switzerland)

The Swiss flag on a grassy ridge among the Swiss Alps
Beautiful Switzerland

In the introduction to Why Switzerland? the author, Dr. Jonathan Steinberg, introduces two motivating questions for the book:
1. Why does Switzerland, a country without a national language or religion, exist at all?
2. Why should we care about it and what can we learn from it?

The cover of the book

The book answers the first question well. While it can get dry at points, as a cultural history of Switzerland, it’s really great. You get a tour through Swiss history and a recap of how a country surrounded by single language, single religion monarchies evolved into a multi-lingual, multi-faith democracy. By exploring different facets of Swiss culture one by one (Politics, Religion, Language, etc.), Dr. Steinberg shows different aspects of culture reinforce each other to create the Switzerland we know today.

The chapter on language is particularly excellent. The whole picture of Switzerland becomes more complex when you realize that high German, the written and business language of the majority of the country, is hardly anyone’s first language; that’s Swiss German. The discussion of the role Swiss German in people’s lives is the best I’ve seen.

Dr. Steinberg also does a good job of showing the interplay between power (the people in charge), laws (the written rules and customs that limit those people), and culture (how those people think about themselves and their society) in shaping Swiss society. Reading this book, I’m convinced that culture is the most powerful of the three and that if you want to shape a society over time it’s what you should focus on.

The answer to the second question, why we should care about Switzerland and what lessons we can take from it, it is less satisfying. Perhaps out of a Swiss-like modesty, Dr. Steinberg never quite spells out why we should care about Switzerland. This is too bad because Switzerland is a remarkable place. It has the third most Nobel prize winners per capita and the fifth highest per capita income in the world despite having few conventional natural resources. It has low taxes and highly effective social services. It has remarkably high levels of social trust. It’s so safe that kindergarteners walk to and from school unaccompanied. No country is perfect, but Switzerland has a lot to recommend it. It is an exceptionally great place to live.

Swiss children on their way to school

But if you don’t know this when you start reading, you’re left to back into it. Dr. Steinberg talks a lot about how Switzerland has developed differently than other countries in Europe, but he never explicitly says that these differences are desirable. Given the questions that motivate the book, that feels like a mistake.

If the case for why to care about Switzerland is understated, the lessons we can learn from are underdeveloped. Many distinct aspects of Swiss culture are discussed (a culture of political independence and individual freedom, expertise in creating high value exports, culture of political compromise, neutrality), but no overarching theory is offered for how a highly democratic, highly stable, highly productive, multi-cultural yet highly coherent country appeared in the midst of societies that very much are not these things. I’m being a little critical here, but I picked up this book hoping to get an informed theory of how Switzerland came to be and didn’t get it.

I’m a bit out of my depth here, but I’ll speculate about why Switzerland came to be what it is based on my reading of the book:

  • The physical geography of Switzerland makes it simultaneously an essential trade route through Europe but also difficult (and undesirable) to dominate (due to the mountains)
  • These mountain communities need a certain amount of self sufficiency and resilience just to get by. They are simultaneously exposed to the rest of Europe via the Alpine trade routes.
  • As a result, you get a combination of the conservative work ethic of the stereotypical country side with the stereotypical live-and-let-live attitude of port cities. This leads to a culture of independence and the development of democratic institutions.
  • The lack of natural resources leads towards specialization in high value goods for export, requiring high levels of human capital and investment in infrastructure.
  • Being surrounded by more powerful neighbors and physically landlocked leads to a political culture of diplomacy and compromise because internal conflict could be fatal. Ultimately this becomes the famous Swiss neutrality.
  • Neutrality ends up paying huge dividends in the 20th century, where the Swiss never experience the physical devastation that the rest of Europe goes through during the first and second World Wars.

One final thing I enjoyed about the book and one thing it missed:

  • The chapter on the EU, its relationship to Switzerland, and the similarities and differences between the EU’s government/project and the Swiss Confederation is also great. I now understand what people mean when they talk about the democratic deficit of the European Union and see the Brexit debate differently than I did before.
  • There’s no dedicated discussion about women’s rights in the book, despite the fact that women didn’t get the right to vote in Federal elections until 1971 and the half canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden until 1991 (cantons are like US states). Given the focus on democratic institutions and their development, this seems like a major oversight.

operating a bit outside the lines

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