When looking at the policies in place in Switzerland, it is misleading to disregard subnational policies. Pundits should refrain from making generalizing and oversimplifying claims about Switzerland to mold it into a useful reference.
In Switzerland’s multiparty, decentralized system, it is hard to make valid claims about policies and ideologies for the whole country. This means that in order to be accurate, references to Switzerland should consider cantonal differences and take into account that policies in this country exist on different levels of government. Unfortunately, it has instead prompted pundits to sideline this complexity in order to make broad and general claims on a national level that may factually be true, but are purposefully misleading.
The latest instance is a Foreign Policy article seeking to link Switzerland’s alleged “pro-business ideology” to its coronavirus response. Beyond a number of inaccuracies, the article equates on numerous occasions a lack of policies implemented at a national level to no policies being in place at any level. These inaccuracies are then used to spin a tale of how “the government’s” alleged small-government ideology has led to surging coronavirus cases.
It is unclear and unhelpful to talk about one Swiss government. Policies in Switzerland are established according to the rule of subsidiarity. There are only national policies on matters the cantons cannot manage themselves. Claims such as “there was no mask policy,” “it still hasn’t brought itself to impose a ‘soft lockdown’ ”, and even “there is no minimal wage in Switzerland” are therefore misleading: While they are not anchored in national policies, there were and are policies in place in individual cantons. In order to make claims about Swiss politics, it is therefore important to look not only at the highest level, but also at the lower level(s) of government it builds on.
Beyond illustrating how overgeneralizing Swiss politics can be a useful but misleading argumentative tool, the article also points to the conceptual pitfalls of drawing oversimplified lessons from the current pandemic based on unsubstantiated claims. In De Weck’s argument, there is fuzziness both in his argued causes, as well as in the causal link to the pandemic.
Firstly, the claim that Switzerland has a small-government ideology is debatable and should at the very least be substantiated. Parties with different ideologies are represented in every level of government, including the executive, where two of the seven sitting federal councilors are social democrats. Claiming that Switzerland’s ideology amounts to “pro-business” and against economic intervention therefore requires substantiation beyond selectively quoting only one of seven members of the executive office.
Secondly, commentators should be cautious not to draw superficial conclusions from the pandemic in order to legitimize preconceived ideas. With regard to Switzerland, I see a number of factors that are likely to have played a role in addition to ideology, particularly in response time, rather than policy content. They include the political culture of slow, pragmatic policymaking based on what Lijphart calls a “consociational democracy” model; the federal council’s hesitancy to intervene in traditionally cantonal matters; as well as some cantons’ unwillingness to be the first to constrain economic life due to fiscal competition. While the last can be seen as a structural “pro-business” force, as De Weck argues, this is not true for the others. Any coronavirus argument should acknowledge the interaction of different political, immunological and geographical influences, and any argument on Switzerland should encompass its political culture (beyond the argument of an alleged overall ideology) and governance on at least two levels of government.
Please refrain from making oversimplified, superficial arguments on the pandemic to confirm preconceived ideas. In particular, please stop misrepresenting Swiss politics to turn the country into a useful reference for your argument.
Picture from Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash.