Swiss Sanity and Madness

American liberals might take comfort in knowing that other western countries are also beset by a conservative minority mucking up the works of government. Even Switzerland, that paragon of civility, has its very own conservative party to serve as a fount for bad old ideas. The good news is that Swiss voters were recently able to beat back two especially misguided conservative ballot initiatives.

In a country whose high living standards depend significantly on a steady supply of foreign labor, one measure sought to tightly restrict immigration. Another would have handcuffed Switzerland’s capable central bank by forcing it to dramatically increase its reserves of gold. Each initiative exemplifies the primitivism common to conservative movements worldwide: a gratuitous bias against foreigners; and a scientific illiteracy fostering debunked beliefs and practices.

To understand the failed immigration initiative, it helps to understand a bit about Swiss politics. While Switzerland is a very rich country, its conservative party, the SVP, is based in Switzerland’s poorer rural backwaters. (Sound familiar?) Though the bulk of Switzerland’s immigrants head to cities to find work, opposition to immigration is nonetheless based in less-affluent agrarian communities. (Sound eerily familiar?)

In 2009, the SVP succeeded in holding an especially disgusting referendum to illegalize the building of minarets. Horrifically, it passed – and lacking constitutional protections for freedom of expression, it is now the law of the land. Paradoxically, the Swiss government has long been a good world citizen, taking in refugees from all over the world, including predominantly Muslim countries like Iraq and Bosnia. Switzerland’s Muslim population has grown over the past 30 years, from 1% to 4.5%.

At nearly four times the US rate, immigration into Switzerland has been brisk. However the Swiss economy has had no difficulty absorbing additional workers, with unemployment under 4% for the past ten years. Beginning as an amalgam of several distinct ethnicities and four official languages, Switzerland has long been extremely diverse. The foreign-born now make up 29% of its resident population, double that of the US, and the most any major western country. Diversity has served Switzerland well: it is the wealthiest country in the West, and close to the top in per capita income and life expectancy.

There is hope that Switzerland’s economic success will temper its conservative movement – that they might be cautious about killing the golden goose. While the minaret referendum passed with 57% of the vote, the anti-immigration measure failed with just 26% in favor. And hearteningly, the gold-hoarding referendum did even worse, with the support of just 23% of voters, despite aggressive SVP campaigning.

Conservative misapprehensions of history and science notwithstanding, gold has no intrinsic value, and there are no valid reasons – geopolitical or scientific – for central banks to heavily rely on gold as a reserve asset. For good reason, virtually every country has abandoned the practice.

Conservative belief in the intrinsic value of gold is especially goofy, considering that the godfather of intrinsic-value theory is Karl Marx, who needed it to validate his notions on the value of labor. That conservatives today make the same mistake about gold that Marx made about labor does not diminish their esteem for yellow metal. Conservatism, after all, is a largely about belief in a vacuum – a hearkening back to an imaginary past, not a real world.

Swiss sanity in killing these two measures was tempered by their decision to reject a third measure that would have ended a tax regime sheltering rich foreigners, encouraging them to reside in Switzerland. Just as some countries create special tax havens to attract business, Switzerland has its own cottage industry of attracting the idle rich to live in their mountains. They buy Bentleys and chalets and negotiate an individual lump-sum tax with the canton in which they reside (for real) – passing their tax burden on to ordinary people. Several cantons have eliminated the practice, requiring everyone to pay their fair share. The measure would have forced all cantons to eliminate it, but unfortunately it only gained 41% of the vote.

While two out of three on the referenda aint bad, the SVP has unfortunately grown in popularity, and now holds a plurality of popular support and legislative representation. Its chief selling points remain xenophobia, isolationism, anti-environmentalism and opposition to government services. The latter position does not prevent them from continuing to support agricultural subsidies – farmers, after all, are the SVP’s largest constituency; and adherence to principle remains a trait unknown among conservatives.


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