Life & Liberty: Hey Greta, Why So Morose?


The Swiss do it right, according to lots of folks. In addition to a beautiful country, they enjoy internal peace. And they have a long tradition of town-meeting-style government, open to all the people, that larger democratic countries can only eye wistfully. Lately, even Western socialists, casting about for a model, have been looking to Switzerland.

By now, Marxist-style socialism has hardly any support. Even the few notable neo-Marxists—for instance, John Elster, author of Making Sense of Marx—have had to recast their leader's doctrines to make them palatable. And Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's account of the Soviet gulags makes it difficult to associate Soviet socialism with anything but modern barbarianism.

Yet Marxism's decline has not sparked a resurgence of widespread intellectual support for capitalism, the free market, or the basic principle of the right to private property. Although certain segments of the public may once again see hope in a Reader's Digest version of capitalism—Reagan's type, unprincipled but capable of producing wealth for almost everyone—the pundits and educators, at least outside economics departments, still don't much like capitalism.

The enthusiasm of leftist intellectuals these days is with a new kind of socialism, "economic democracy." Its proponents envision a system in which the decisions of economic significance in a society will be made by all members of the community.

In this vein, many economic democrats have turned their attention to the Swiss model of direct participatory democracy. A notable example is Rutgers University political scientist Benjamin R. Barber, who in his book Strong Democracy advocates that virtually everything in our midst be open to democratic decision-making. In Barber's view only society has rights, not individuals, particularly rights to the means of production. Thus everyone should participate in deciding economically vital matters.

Actually, Americans are becoming familiar with this kind of socialism, as noted in the April 1981 REASON article "Socialism…On the Street Where You Live." It has to do with collective decisionmaking about matters of relevance to the community. But in America the process is relatively indirect. Decisions are not made directly by the public but by elected and appointed officials.

Switzerland, by contrast, enjoys the kind of political order that leaves small communities with extensive authority to run the affairs of concern to them. These communities—actually called "communes"—pretty much run themselves in a fashion familiar to Americans via the New England town meetings.

There is, however, an aspect to the Swiss communal experience that has gone largely unnoticed. I came upon it by accident during my two stays in Carona, a small village in Ticino, the Italian canton in southernmost Switzerland. It is directly tied to the participatory democracy that has become the darling of those socialists who are disillusioned with Marx. The phenomenon seems to be duplicated throughout Switzerland.

In essence this Swiss phenomenon embodies the (local) politicization of human existence. All matters of interest to people in these sorts of political organizations are up for consideration at the village meeting. Back yards may be taken from some homeowners; front yards may be transformed into parking lots for the use of the village; the cemetery may be remodeled at public expense; holidays may be changed at the majority's discretion; trees may be removed or planted, wood burning mandated or forbidden; and so on, whatever suits the people as a whole—or at least the majority of politically assertive members in the community.

Now all this is not very new. Swiss communes have experienced it for centuries. What is rarely noticed, however, is that such a political life may well have its casualties—namely, community spirit, cheerfulness, neighborliness, and friendship, not to mention genuine individual liberty.

In the commune of Carona, virtually no one appears to like anyone else. People are persistently suspicious of one another. Everyone appears to be on guard against some forthcoming assault from the rest. These observations are made not by outsiders but by some Swiss themselves, who have come to know the ways of other lands, ways that are free from Swiss direct majoritarianism or, to use Professor Barber's term, "strong democracy."

Genuine friendship is rare is Carona, and it is always under strain. When you add to this the fact that most communes are inhabited by members of various ethnic groups, who in the general European tradition of collectivism tend to be hostile to each other, you can imagine the joy that permeates many Swiss villages.

Now there is, of course, an advantage to all this. The Swiss are generally regarded as very diligent, hard-working, and clean—yes, very clean, cleanliness being the civil religion in Switzerland. They enjoy a certain kind of stability of government unheard of elsewhere.

They may, however, be paying a steep price for this stability. In my experience, it is relatively rare to experience Swiss people laughing heartily, enjoying themselves, relaxing and joking, etc. There are exceptions, but the sour side of the Swiss personality is taken for granted in Switzerland.

Just why the Swiss are so morose is somewhat of a mystery. But the hypothesis I wish to put forth is that it has a lot to do with the Swiss system of direct participatory democracy. I base this not just on what seems to be the obvious result of such a political system—how could one be happy with everyone looking over his shoulder all the time, ready to meddle when a sufficiently powerful group has been amassed? It is, instead, based on observation and personal reports from Swiss citizens. They admit that such a political arrangement is depressing, leaving them unfriendly and always on guard.

I may not be taking into account other factors that contribute to Swiss sourness, especially in the commune of Carona. But even this much raises doubts about the virtues of direct democracy. Some years ago, Vladimir Bukovsky wrote an essay in Commentary magazine, "The Soul of Man in Socialism," in which he beautifully chronicled the effects of Soviet socialist life on the citizens of that country. Wouldn't it be interesting to do this with other political systems? It may be troublesome to formulate criteria of happiness and flourishing. But I am willing to bet that Swiss direct democracy contributes to neither. My limited experience suggests as much, at least.

Senior Editor Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland.