June 5, 2004

The common traditions of liberty

By: AFF Editors

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – I was never able to determine the causal connection, but the Swiss–makers of the world’s finest watches–are also very punctual. This is another admirable trait of these fine people–unless you are late for the only shuttle bus to the airport.

Standing confused on the streets of Vevey, lugging my computer, a bag of chocolates, and my garment bag bursting at the seams from the hasty packing job, I blamed the more liberal schedule of Northeast D.C.’s X-2 bus for inculcating in me bad habits that now left me scrambling to find my own way to Geneva.

Piecing together bus rides, sprints through crooked streets, and then trains to make it across the entire shore of Lake Geneva was much tougher thanks to the inexplicable fact that my college French professor was a Bulgarian with a speech defect.

In the end, I made it back fine (otherwise I might be filing this story from Dubensdorf) on the strength of the efficiency and simplicity of Swiss transit. This almost-German sensibility of the Swiss creates a tension with their traditions of government–traditions that are tied intricately with the traditions of the United States.

During my trip here this past week, countless diplomats, businessmen and statesmen have told me that the U.S. and the Swiss are “Sister Republics.” Indeed, when you peer closely into the Switzerland of today and its ways of government and international relations, you see some of the same foundations as those of the American republic–foundations that in the U.S. now lie far buried under ground.

The Swiss work on a federal system, a true rarity in Europe. The individual states (called cantons) have say over many issues including schooling and public works. In this regard, Switzerland and the U.S. have the same foundations. Any realistic assessment of the American government today, however, shows a centripetal force stripping power from the people, the towns and the states and sucking it into Washington.

Such centralization is a natural consequence of an ambitious do-gooder class gravitating to the highest level and bringing governmental authority with them. In this regard, something similar is happening in Switzerland.

Some Americans gave states’ rights a bad name by using this structure to protect slavery and state-enforced racism. Nowadays, federal courts in the U.S. exist primarily to void state laws, and Congress tramples all over the prerogatives of the states.

There is a similar progression in Switzerland, evinced by a story from the canton of Appensell, where tradition and robust democracy show themselves in the four-times-a-year elections. Appensell men in many towns don the garb of their ancestors, bring swords and daggers to the town square, and vote for national and local officials and referenda by raising their hands.

It was not through such a display of direct democracy, but by a federal court ruling in Bern, that the laws in Appensell were changed in the 1990s, granting women the right to vote for the first time.

In the same way, Switzerland may slowly be moving away from another enviable pillar of their republic–neutrality.

In foreign policy, too, Switzerland is what we were envisioned to be at our birth. George Washington’s admonitions against entangling alliances laid out a plan for peace and prosperity through avoiding the European follies of endless warring. Our blessed location, with an ocean separating us from the millennia-old intrigues and Crusades, was supposed to keep us safe from the bloodshed and destruction of that continent.

Ironically, it is Switzerland, “not only land-locked, but EU-locked,” as the Swiss foreign secretary put it, that has managed to stay out of Europe’s fights. Without doubt, neutrality is a large factor in Switzerland’s prosperity. Their unemployment, at 4 percent, is less than half that of the rest of Europe.

The Swiss economy is stronger, and they are the preferred home for European business. Neutrality has lifted Switzerland to its heights in three main ways.

First, they simply have not had the destruction of war. Money spent rebuilding streets and basic needs in the rest of Europe has been, in Switzerland, free for other uses.

Second, the neutrality creates an incentive to invest in Switzerland. Just as the West Bank or the Gaza strip might be the last places you would put your money, Switzerland is among the first.

Third, the relatively free market and low taxes are only possible in a nation that has not been plunged many times into poverty. The suffering after World War II is largely responsible for the socialist structure in Europe. Switzerland, too, has a strong social safety net, but they are capitalists more than socialists.

But many Swiss see entry into the European Union as inevitable. The resistance comes largely from the rural, more conservative regions of the country jealous of their democracy (democracy is not the strong-point of the EU).

Possible EU membership and recent UN entry pose a challenge to neutrality. These international bodies are the paradigms of “entangling alliances.”

The U.S. long ago scrapped its efforts towards neutrality. After World War I, the internationalists made the word “isolationist” into a slur and threw it at anyone who advocated neutrality. With Pearl Harbor, the U.S. broke permanently from George Washington’s foreign policy.

While almost all of Europe resents our current interventionist ways, the Swiss have more tempered critique. They know that their ability to remain neutral was saved 60 years ago this week by American boys of unimaginable courage storming Omaha Beach to rid the continent of Hitler, who was saving the rugged Swiss for last.

In eight days there, I saw that in many ways the Swiss have the best of Europe–the tradition, humility, good wine, fabulous food and stunning countryside–without the worst–the socialist, centralized governments and disdain for democracy.

For a good, patriotic American it’s hard not to resent Europe, given its current anti-Americanism. But Switzerland, which still cherishes some of the gifts our nation has squandered, deserves the respect of all who love liberty.

Let us hope that, rather than meekly assimilating into the EU, the Swiss hold their history, liberty and prosperity high over Europe, to serve as the shining city on the hill for a continent that seems to have lost its way.

Tim Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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