Imagine Free Vermont, The Switzerland of North America

If Vermont were to secede from the Union and become an independent nation-state, how could it possibly survive as a separate republic? How would it function? Are there any examples of smaller, sustainable nation-states which might serve as a role model for a state like Vermont, should it decide to leave the Union? There is at least one such nation that might serve as a viable model for an independent Vermont: the Swiss Confederation.

When Julie Andrews mesmerized millions with her lilting lyrics as she sang “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” she was singing about the Austrian Alps not far from the Swiss border. But she might very well have been singing about Vermont’s Green Mountains, which have far more in common with their taller Swiss and Austrian counterparts than many realize. Could Free Vermont become the Switzerland of North America?

With a population of only 7.3 million people, a little larger than that of an average American state, Switzerland is one of the wealthiest, most democratic, least violent, most market-oriented countries in the world, with the weakest central government and the most decentralized social welfare system. Founded in 1291 near Lake Lucerne, the Swiss Confederation may be the most sustainable nation-state of all-time.

Situated in the heart of Europe, Switzerland has always existed in a state of tension between opening and closing its borders to the outside world. Even today it has nearly one million so-called “guest workers.” For centuries it has been an area of settlement and a transit region of European north-south commerce. The country’s economy has long been geared to processing imported raw materials and re-exporting them as finished goods, such as specialty foods and pharmaceutical products.

The Swiss enjoy state-of-the-art technology, and their banks and financial institutions are among the most stable and financially secure anywhere in the world. The same is true of the Swiss franc.

Swiss Federalism. Over the past seven hundred years or so Switzerland has developed a unique social and political structure, with a strong emphasis on federalism and direct democracy, which brings together its 26 cantons (tiny states), with populations ranging from 14,900 to 1,187,000, and its four languages and cultures – German, French, Italian, and Romansch. The Swiss cantons enjoy considerably more autonomy than do American states. One finds a host of local and regional cultures and traditions melded into a patchwork of sights and events that are considered “typically Swiss.” There appears to be less tension among competing cultures, religions, and cantons than one finds in the United States.

As Austrian economist Leopold Kohr once noted, the Swiss have solved their minority problems by “creating minority states rather than minority rights.” Switzerland has a coalition government with a rotating presidency, in which the president serves for only one year. Many Swiss do not know who of the seven Federal Councillors in the government is the president at any given time, since he or she is first among equals.

Direct Democracy. In Switzerland a petition signed by one hundred thousand voters can force a nationwide vote on a proposed constitutional change and the signatures of only fifty thousand voters can force a national referendum on any federal law passed by Parliament.

Several cantons still follow the centuries-old traditions of Landsgemeinde or open-air parliaments each spring. Others are experimenting with voting over the Internet.

However, it is at the commune level that Swiss democracy is most direct. Within the cantons, there are 2,902 communes in the Swiss Confederation, each run by a local authority. Just as the cantons enjoy a high degree of independence from the national government, within the cantons many of the communes also enjoy a high degree of independent authority and decision-making.

Swiss Neutrality. Switzerland has not been involved in a foreign war since 1515, and although it is heavily armed, it has remained neutral since 1815. It has never been part of a larger empire.

Swiss foreign policy is based on four premises: (1) Switzerland will never initiate a war. (2) It will never enter a war on the side of a warring party. (3) It will never side in any way with one warring party against another. (4) It will vigorously defend itself against outside attack.

According to the Swiss constitution, every Swiss male is obligated to do military service; women are also accepted into the military service on a voluntary basis but are not drafted. In case of an attack on the country several hundred thousand men and women can be mobilized within a few days.

Even though Geneva is home to many agencies of the United Nations, only recently did the Swiss vote to join the U.N. Although the Swiss do trade extensively with member nations of the European Union, the Swiss citizenry has consistently rejected membership in the EU, even though the Berne central government favors membership.

Neutrality does not mean non-involvement. In terms of foreign aid contributed to Third World countries, the Swiss contribute nearly three times as much, as a percentage of the Gross National Income, as is contributed by The United States.

Infrastructure. Despite their fierce independence, Swiss towns, villages, and cantons do cooperate on major infrastructure projects involving the general public interest, including railroads, highways, tunnels, electric energy, water supply, and pollution abatement.

Many Swiss villages are linked by a network of passenger trains. Through efficient, high-quality railroads, village residents have easy access to neighboring villages as well as the larger cities such as Geneva and Zurich (both consistently ranked among the ten best cities in the world in which to live). The railroads provide a sense of connectedness to the rest of the country and to Europe as a whole.

Humane Health Care. In the highly decentralized Swiss health care system it is possible for patients, physicians, clinics, hospitals, and insurance providers to be in community with one another. Unlike in the United States, 95 percent of all Swiss citizens are insured against illness by one of four hundred private health insurance funds. The Swiss health care system is second to none, as is demonstrated by the fact that the Swiss infant mortality rate is among the lowest in the world in contrast to that of the United States which compares favorably with Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland, and the Slovak Republic.

Quality Education. Although the Swiss constitution stipulates that “the right to sufficient and free primary education is guaranteed,” there is no federal or national Department of Education. Rather, education is governed by the 26 different cantons. Swiss children are required by canton law to attend school. Kindergarten is voluntary and free. Some 99 percent of Swiss children attend kindergarten for at least one year, 63 percent for two. Instruction is given in the local national language, but each child also has the option to learn one of the other national languages. Those who plan to attend a university may go to one of three kinds of high schools specializing in either Greek and Latin, modern languages, or mathematics and science. Students who attend one of the seven public universities pay no tuition.

Decentralized Social Welfare. Swiss children are taught in small schools the virtues of self-sufficiency, hard work, cooperation, and loyalty to family and community. Since public assistance is funded locally, it pays off in visible ways for the community to discourage welfare dependency.

Aid plans are custom-designed with strict time limits. The objective is to help the client get back on his or her feet. For a few francs one can obtain any individual’s tax return – no questions asked. This helps keep welfare clients honest. Thus the Swiss practice what conservatives preach but rarely practice – complete decentralization of the responsibility for social welfare.

Alpine Villages. Scattered throughout the Swiss Alps and neighboring Austria, Bavaria, and Northern Italy are dozens of small villages. In most of these Alpine villages there is an inexorable commitment to the land. A gift of land from one’s parents carries with it a moral obligation of continued stewardship. Few would think of selling their land and leaving the village.

The church is often the center of village spiritual life, as well as social life. Friends meet at the market, the pub, the inn, the post office, and the churchyard to catch up on village news. The severe winters create an environment encouraging cooperation, sharing, and trust. The extraordinary beauty and the severity of the winters provide the glue which holds these communities together.

In these villages, in stark contrast to the rootless mobility that characterizes American life, one finds a sense of continuity where the generations are born, grow up, remain, and eventually die – a mentality which pervades all of Switzerland. Sustainable agricultural policies have made it financially viable for families to remain in the countryside. Conspicuously absent is the dilapidation, deterioration, and decay found throughout the American countryside – particularly in the rural South.

Swiss Agriculture. Even though only 4 percent of the Swiss people still live on farms, they manage to produce two-thirds of the foodstuff consumed annually by the entire country. So important is agriculture to Swiss culture, Swiss tourism, and ultimately the Swiss economy, that the Berne government has devised a creative system of direct payments to farmers over and above the income they receive from their produce. These payments remunerate the farmers for the services they are considered to provide to the population as a whole. These services include managing the rural landscape, managing the natural heritage, ensuring food supplies, and encouraging decentralization. Payments are made to farmers only if farm animals are kept under animal-friendly conditions, reasonable amounts of fertilizer are used, a suitable area is set aside for the maintenance of environmental balance, crops are rotated, soil quality is perfected, and plant protection products are used sparingly. The sophisticated payment formula also takes into consideration the farmer’s age and income level, as well as the farm size and the number of farm animals. In Switzerland, sustainable agriculture is neither left to chance nor to the market alone.

Since small Swiss farms use fewer nitrates, pesticides, and herbicides, the Swiss wells and streams are much less likely to be contaminated than those in the United States. Swiss farmers have been pioneers in the field of environmental-friendly production methods, and serve as examples for other countries to follow. For example, recently Swiss voters passed a five-year ban on the use of genetically modified plants and animals in farming.

Environmentalism. Not surprisingly, there are not nearly as many federal government environmental regulations in Switzerland as there are in the United States. Concern for the environment originates at the village and canton level in Switzerland, not in Berne.

Although acid rain has taken its toll on Swiss forests, water pollution – with a few notable exceptions – is rare. However, Switzerland and France have experienced disastrous Alpine road tunnel fires. Environmentalists oppose reopening these tunnels, arguing that heavy truck traffic pollutes the air and harms people and trees in areas of great beauty visited by many tourists. They insist that freight should be hauled in containers carried on trains rather than barreling through the Alps in convoys of polluting trucks.

Per capita energy use in Switzerland is only 46 percent of that in the United States in spite of the harsh winters experienced in the Swiss Alps.

Conclusion. Switzerland is not Utopia, and certainly the Swiss are not without their critics. Some view them as arrogant, narcissistic, secretive, sexist, and xenophobic, — the latter despite the fact that they live together peacefully with many foreigners, currently nearly 20 percent of the Swiss resident population.

Swiss banks came under attack in the 1990s for the way they handled deposits of World War II Holocaust victims as well as Nazi gold deposits. Zurich has big problems with both drug abuse and AIDS. The bankruptcy of Swiss Air was a major embarrassment, as was the air traffic control mishap over Swiss airspace which resulted in the midair collision of two jets.

The Swiss are under pressure from the European Union to join the Club. Wall Street bankers don’t like the fact that Swiss banks don’t play by their rules. Washington recently fined the Swiss megabank UBS for allegedly aiding its American clients circumvent American tax laws through the use of secret Swiss bank accounts. UBS was coerced into providing U.S. officials with a long list of such accounts. Needless to say, the Swiss were unamused

The inescapable conclusion engendered by a visit to Switzerland is that Switzerland works. It works because it is a tiny, hard-working, democratic country with a strong sense of community. An independent Vermont could do a lot worse than unabashedly emulating the Swiss model with the aim of becoming the Switzerland of North America.

Twelve Swiss Based Principles for a
Sustainable Free Vermont

– Small is beautiful
– Gold backed currency
– Fiscal responsibility
– International tax haven
– Swiss federalism
– Direct democracy
– Neutrality – avoiding entangling alliances
– Decentralized health care
– Swiss railroads and infrastructure
– Locally controlled schools
– Decentralized social services
– Sustainable agriculture, energy, and environment

Imagine…Free Vermont
Thomas H. Naylor
March 1, 2010