In economic and political terms, Switzerland is doing better than almost any other nation in the world. What does it do
better than others? What’s behind its competitive edge? And how can it stay on top? German economist and exponent of
classical liberalism Gerd Habermann offers his take on a small but extraordinary country.
Whether we are comparing global business locations and the civil liberties they enjoy, considering the number of Nobel
Laureates or the quality of academics, entrepreneurs, artists and authors, Switzerland has long occupied the topmost
For the fourth time in a row, the World Economic Forum has declared Switzerland the most competitive country in the
world – ahead of Singapore, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands – placing the country first in the categories of
innovative capacity and labor market efficiency and lauding its business sector for its close collaboration with its
universities. Its national institutions are among the world’s most effective and transparent. Though a small nation,
Switzerland boasts a midsized economy. Internationally, it ranks 20th in gross domestic product, ninth in export
statistics and fifth in export of services. Most importantly, it is one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
Even in terms of the biggest economic policy challenges we face today – national debt and unemployment – Switzerland
comes out on top. While once-stable countries teeter on the brink of insolvency, Switzerland has managed to reduce its
national debt drastically over the past 10 years, from 55 percent to roughly 35 percent, measured against its gross
What are the reasons for this success? What does Switzerland know that no one else does? I see seven
ways in which the country excels.
1. Small Size
Switzerland does not adhere to the economies of scale that other countries swear by. Quite the contrary: its smallness
makes it more successful relative to the size of its bigger neighbors.
It is no accident that the first thinker after Aristotle to develop a theory about the ideal size for a political economy
was Swiss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “In every body politic there is a maximum strength which it cannot exceed
and which it only loses by increasing in size,” Rousseau wrote. Every extension of the social tie means its relaxation;
and, generally speaking, a small state is stronger in proportion than a large one. He maintained that this is particularly
true when the state is especially heterogeneous, such as Switzerland.
Rousseau underpinned his statements with the reasoning that long distances make administration more difficult. Each level
of government costs more the higher you go and the highest of all costs the most. Last of all comes the supreme administration,
which eclipses all the rest. Not only is the government less vigorous and swift in ensuring the observance of laws,
preventing nuisances, correcting abuses, and guarding against seditious undertakings, the same laws cannot suit so many
diverse provinces with different customs, situated in the most various climates.
2. Genuine Democracy
Switzerland’s relative smallness and the exceptional granularity of government allow the country to enjoy the comparative
advantage of genuine democracy. Switzerland has never experienced an era of absolutism. It has never been a bureaucratic
state in the manner of Germany or France, and still is not one today. Nowhere else in the world do citizens have the voice
they do in Switzerland – a power that extends all the way to elected judges and referenda about public borrowing.
Switzerland boasts another advantage in its thorough decentralization, which could even be considered “non-centralization”.
Apart from its Helvetia episode (1798 to 1803), Switzerland has never been centralized. It has neither a principal city nor
a head of state in the same way that countries including Germany do.
Both cantons and municipalities have their own tax sovereignty. The federal government only has rights of disposal
over a tiny portion of the tax collected, and wields powers of taxation that are precarious at best. Add to this the rights
of cantons and municipalities, whose extensive powers ensure that even now, the potential of the Swiss domestic market has
not been fully tapped.
Diversity is viewed as an opportunity, not as an unwelcome disparity that must be smoothed over
4. Subsidiarity Principle
The extreme degree to which government is subdivided, means that the principle of subsidiarity is practiced in Switzerland
as it is nowhere else in Europe. For its size, Switzerland is more engaged with the rest of the world in the areas of business,
finance, culture, law and sports than any other European country, and is better integrated with Europe and the rest of the
world, not least because of its ethnic and cultural diversity, held together by a single, common political will.
Decision-making bodies are small, lending an intensity to political life, a practicality to most – if not all – of their
decisions, and a vitality to their communities that are unknown to the major powers with their barren bureaucracies.
The granularity of Switzerland’s subdivision and its non-centralization also give it a flexibility in crises that larger
political and economic entities lack. The scope of bad decisions is relatively limited.
5. Non-Professional Politicians
In Switzerland, parties, bureaucracies and interest groups serve the citizens’ collective political will, rather than the
other way around. Brussels’ centralized bureaucracy demonstrates – as documented in the reports of the European Court of
Auditors – the price we pay in the absence of the independent political checks.
In order to secure its independence,
Switzerland has relied on some felicitous historical circumstances – geopolitical factors like the power over central
mountain passes or the jealous obsession of competing major states with maintaining a balance of power have helped the country.
6. Safe Haven for Capital and Brainpower
Switzerland has long served as a safe haven for intellectual independence and, as is well known, as an economic Rock of
Gibraltar. This allows it to constantly increase its intellectual and monetary capital in every respect by importing from
abroad. Particularly during crises, Switzerland has served as a safe haven since the age of Voltaire through the 19th
and 20th centuries.
This ties in with Switzerland’s strict neutrality, which also positions the country advantageously when it must play the
role of an internationally credible and independent mediator above the wrangling between superpowers. The huge exodus of
Germans into Switzerland demonstrates – and continues to augment – the respect the country has gained for its stability
and economic attractiveness. Switzerland’s relatively liberal labor laws also serve as an object-lesson on how to safeguard
employment for all.
7. Middle-Class Mentality
Switzerland is consciously middle-class – and that is an advantage. It did not go through the devastating catastrophes of
the two world wars, or suffer inflation as a result, as Germany did. Even today, it stands as a model of moderation,
mainstream thinking and deliberation, for business sense, a no-nonsense attitude and realism. In Switzerland, you have not
just attorney-client and doctor-patient privilege, pastoral secrecy, and confidentiality of correspondence and communications –
you also have banking confidentiality, an expression of respect for the privacy of its citizens and their property.
Switzerland is able to offer broader guarantees for private property and independence and provide more opportunities on the
municipal and cantonal level than many major states. It is only thanks to this historical-political tradition and balance
of interests that the confederation can even be called a single entity.
Switzerland... embodies the canon of classical liberalism: private property, middle-class values and a belief in
productivity rooted in diversity. In international competition, that is a huge advantage. The “Swiss model” of
self-determination, self-help and individual responsibility – as borne out by its economic and political success – is
also a formula for prosperity.