Switzerland’s Exceptional Legacy in Direct Democracy

Our readers probably realize by now what a proud Swiss fellow I am, and how I take every possible opportunity to argue that Switzerland represents a role model for achieving radical decentralization and respect for civil liberties. When municipalities, cities or smaller states are in competition with each other, the power of politicians is limited and the right to self-determination is ensured.


Switzerland and LebanonSwitzerland and Lebanon (long known as “the Switzerland of the Middle East”)


I was particularly intrigued by the comparison made by Rahim Taghizadegan, a polymath I very much admire, in a lecture he delivered at the last Property and Freedom Society conference of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, entitled “The Lebanon – A Switzerland of the Near East”. Having lived in the Middle East, specifically in Tiberias and Damascus for 2 years, I was quite interested in this comparison, and to understand where and how Lebanon deviated from the Swiss path.


What are the Similarities between Lebanon and Switzerland?

Both Lebanon and Switzerland cover small territories that are surrounded by mountain terrain. The existence of mountains is of great strategic importance as it acts as a natural protective barrier. Interestingly, I learned that these difficult terrains developed hard working and innovative inhabitants with a low time preference. They understood they had to save before consuming. Living in a challenging environment teaches you that innovation is a necessity to survive.

Also, in terms of demographics, both states accommodate diverse cultural identities. However, as you will see below, the historical relationship between these groups eventually developed very differently. The Swiss cantons displayed linguistic and cultural differences (Middle French / French, Alemannic German, Lombard, Rhaeto-Romansh) and were largely divided between Catholic and Protestants during the Reformation. As for Lebanon, it accommodated Christian Maronites, Muslim Shiite and Sunni communities, as well as the Druze (an offshoot of Shiism that goes back to the 11th Century).


lebanonpop2Distribution of religious/ethnic groups in Lebanon


The Origins of Swiss Direct Democracy

The origins of the Swiss political system and direct democracy can be explained by the historical relationship between the different cantons dating back to the 13th century. Even then, the cantons enjoyed significant regional independence and fiercely challenged any form of interference in their internal affairs. All this goes back to the time of the reformation, which witnessed numerous religious wars that tore Europe apart. I do not wish to go into the details of the Swiss reformation experience, but would like to highlight the history of the process of decentralization.


Zwingli_Asper-e13281595508471-1024x1001Swiss religious reformer Ulrich (or Huldrych) Zwingli, 1484 – 1531

Painting by Hans Asper


Zürich was the base of the Swiss reformation movement led by Ulrich Zwingli in the early 15th century. The movement managed to create an alliance among urban towns like Bern, while mountain and rural regions formed a counter-alliance supported by the Pope and Emperor. Zwingli’s movement was significant in that he swam against the tide, promoting theological reform and doctrinal change, which essentially aimed at separating church from state. His work in Zürich set a pattern that was to be later encouraged in Bern and Geneva – it was never imposed on the other cantons.

Even after the feuds and wars between the two camps, they strived to uphold their norms of non-interference in internal matters. There was a strong political will to at least try to maintain these norms and principles in an environment blurred by wars. Nevertheless, this was not the end of the process. The Old Confederation failed as a project and Switzerland did not enjoy a similar setup until the New Confederation was created after the 27 year-long Sonderbundkrieg. Finally, in 1848, a constitution was drafted that acknowledged both a Swiss and cantonal citizenship, which represents the culmination of the previous agreements between the cantons. According to Gottfried Keller, “without cantons and without their differences and competition, no Swiss federation could exist“.


Johannes_Ganz_Gottfried_Keller_1885Swiss 19th century poet Gottfried Keller

Photo via DPA


Switzerland endured several centuries of cantonal wars during which the cantons were divided into camps largely based on religion. Additionally, it was caught in the middle of a war-torn Europe that was resisting change. Whether the Austrian Habsburgs, the French or the Germans, regional powers had a vested interest in the Alpine nation. At the same time, Swiss mercenaries were involved in armed conflicts in Europe – this involvement was to end with the new constitution and the introduction of the principle of neutrality.

Switzerland is a true pioneer in decentralization and religious tolerance. This decentralization allowed it to develop a culture of neutrality and, most importantly, acceptance, or better said, respect for diversity and the sovereignty of the individual. One canton could not impose its ideas on another, and it was up to the individual to accept or reject them. In essence, Swiss culture has asserted that citizens and not political authorities represent the sovereign.

Modern Switzerland has developed a political system in which the federal government has limited powers as the cantons manage their own affairs in all important aspects. To overcome religious differences, there was no longer an official state church; citizens referred to the cantons directly. The Swiss constitution upholds freedom of religion and the country’s laws condemn any form of discrimination or public incitement to hatred or discrimination. But more importantly, the constitution protects the sovereignty of the cantons, which is the cornerstone of the country’s policy of domestic plurality and direct democracy.


siwsscantonsA map showing the different Swiss cantons. The cantons enjoy a great degree of independence, including taxation powers – which promotes competition to the great advantage of the citizenry.


Lebanese Politics along Sectarian Lines

The Lebanese community is characterized by rather complex relationships and is highly sensitive to sectarian loyalties. When talking about Lebanon, talk about sectarian tension is often limited to the fifteen-year civil war (1975-1990), but the origin of these tensions actually goes back to the 1800s. There was a time when communal relations were rather harmonious and governed by informal agreements as all the groups governed themselves. The sectarian division between Maronites, Druze, Sunnis and Shiites, did not come to the surface until outside powers (particularly Egypt, France and the Ottoman Empire) intervened and highlighted the differences between the groups.

We could say that the tensions began when the Governor of Greater Syria (which represented present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel), Ibrahim Pasha, sought to achieve equality between all sects, which in turn required universal conscription and disarming of the population (doesn’t this sound familiar?). Some groups, like the Druze who coexisted on Mount Lebanon with the Maronites, refused to surrender their weapons and were attacked by Egyptian forces.


Ibrahim PashaIbrahim Pasha, the successor of Egyptian ruler Mohammad Ali Pasha. An interesting aside: Ibrahim inter alia waged war against the Wahhabis of the Nejd supported by the House of Saud – and he won.

Painting via Monik Benardete Collection


A power struggle began, as the Maronites took advantage of the situation and sought to expand their territory in the Mountain. The Maronites were particularly concerned with securing their commercial interests with Europe, and sought to implement changes that started to impinge on the rights of other existing communities. The situation escalated when Europe intervened and successfully exerted pressure on the Ottoman Empire to set up a security force protecting its Maronite partners.

However, the situation worsened even further after Lebanon fell under a French mandate in 1920. The European “divide and rule” policy redrew the regional map, which in turn affected its demographic composition and thus elevated the concerns and fears of the sectarian communities. Nevertheless, the Lebanese groups managed to coexist under their confessional arrangements, albeit with great apprehension.

By the 1950s, Lebanon grew into the preferred business and financial destination in the region, thanks to its laissez faire economic policy and bank secrecy laws. It became the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. Unlike what happened in the Swiss cantons, the tensions in Lebanon continued to fester until the late 20th century.

I would like to highlight the democratization process that was launched by General Fouad Chehab after taking over the presidency in 1958. He was respected and trusted across the sectarian groups for his impartiality. His vision to overcome sectarian divisions was to introduce political and economic reforms through centralization. He hoped sectarian reconciliation woiuld be promoted and the groups that felt threatened would be appeased, if loyalty to the sovereign state could be developed. His reforms toward homogenization and secularization eventually brought him into conflict with traditional, feudal, confessional, and clan-based politicians who saw their grip on power diminishing; the Lebanese were fierce defenders of their sectarian identities and loyalty to the community prevailed over loyalty to the State.


Fouad_ChehabMajor-General Fouad Chehab, here seen decked out in full military bling.

Photo via lebarmy.gov.lb


These tensions continued and intensified over the years, until in 1975 civil war broke out between the different groups. There are many intricate details characterizing the Lebanese civil war, but for the purpose of this article we will highlight a few points:

1) The sectarian tensions turned into war when Lebanon became involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, particularly after the Palestinian PLO became established in the massively growing refugee camps.

2) The war was characterized by alliances and bloc formations that involved foreign partners, including Syria and Europe.

3) The objective of the war was to achieve political dominance and power; the historical legacy of coexistence was deemed inconceivable until the Arab League stepped in to negotiate an agreement between the Lebanese parties.

The negotiations were once again marked by a confessional/sectarian tone, as the different groups sought to devise an agreement, which on the one hand reflected the new demographic reality while at the same time balancing their interests in such a way as to prevent one group from dominating another. The end result was codified in the al-Taef agreement in 1989, which allocated government offices and other political affairs across sectarian lines. In essence, it was a political arrangement establishing a centralized system with allocated seats. This outcome is the complete opposite from the Swiss experience, which I attribute to lack of trust between the communities.


Sovereignty of the People Ensures Peace and Stability

I certainly cannot fully give justice to this topic in such a short article, but one can see the parallels between the two experiences and their moment of divergence. There are some parallels between the Swiss and Lebanese in the economic and financial interests of the different groups. It is amazing that particularly fears over their trade interests were coated in cultural differences.

Ultimately the conflict was no longer about business, but instead developed into a religious-ethnic war instead. Moreover, there was the foreign element, or the intervention of foreign actors, particularly of regional entities, in both Swiss and Lebanese affairs. In both cases this intervention disrupted relatively harmonious relations and the coexistence of the diverse communities and helped to stoke and prolong conflict between them.


civil_war_antoun_pic_1Fighters in Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war

Photo via bbc.com


When did the Lebanese experience deviate from the Swiss path? In my view, this happened the moment when the Lebanese communities turned inward seeking to further their own (business/power) interests by having one group dominate over the others instead of continuing to the policy of coexistence.

The Lebanese identity was torn between the different sectarian groups. At the same time, these groups also turned outward by inviting the intervention of external forces. The Swiss did the opposite by upholding the principles of neutrality and non-interference; it was each canton to its own. In other words, loyalty to the Swiss federal state did not abolish loyalty to the cantons. When the government imposes its own vision on the public, ignoring the fears and feelings of the people, we find in the history of both Switzerland and Lebanon that the outcome was destruction, social unrest and armed violence.


0922-beirut2Damaged building in Beirut during the civil war

Photo via princeton.edu / Author unknown


The Swiss have learned from their struggles to embrace their cultural identity, which has developed loyalty to the Swiss state by accommodating the allegiance of citizens to their respective cantons. This unique balance was ultimately reflected in the country’s political system of direct democracy, in which the voice of its citizens can override the decisions of an acting government in a referendum. How strong the voice of the Swiss public can be, to the extent of comletely redirecting the government’s policy, could be seen as recently as last year on the issue of immigration.


ludwig-von-misesLudwig von Mises: he still thought that the full secession of the individual from the State (i.e., anarchy) would be impractical on technical grounds. It is quite interesting though he did think the problem of self-determination through to its ultimate conclusion.

Photo via Mises Institute


I am convinced that many of today’s problems, including assertion of the right to self-determination, can be solved by opting for competition through radical decentralization. In essence, the decentralization of the Swiss state has proclaimed that the sovereignty of the citizen is valued more highly than the sovereignty of the State. And that is where Switzerland’s legacy lies. I will conclude with a quote by Ludwig von Mises, who already addressed the topic of self-determination back in 1919:


“However, the right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done.

This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.”


Source: Global Gold Outlook Report N° 13, subscribe to www.globalgold.ch to receive future updates for free.


About the author: Claudio Grass is a passionate advocate of free-market thinking and libertarian philosophy. Following the teachings of the Austrian School of Economics he is convinced that sound money and human freedom are inextricably linked to each other.



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