September 22, 2010
These days the Swiss are in the grips of a strange fever that is making headlines in newspapers and on TV. Anyone visiting the country would have a hard time figuring out what all the excitement is about, however.
Of course, they’d easily work out that it has to do with an election, including a neck-and-neck race between a certain Karin Keller-Sutter and a Johann Schneider-Ammann — and it concerns the question of whether there is really room in the government for five women, or two members who both come from the canton of Bern. But they still won’t understand a thing.
When the Swiss parliament elects two new members of the government on Wednesday of this week, the event will go largely unnoticed in the rest of Europe. Switzerland is known as a referendum-obsessed country where the citizens have the final word on every important issue. But who actually governs it?
Nearly three years ago, the German news website stern.de ran a story with the headline: “Casanova Governs Switzerland.” This was based on an Associated Press report, which stated that the new chancellor in Bern is Corina Casanova — which was correct. The only problem is that the chancellor in Switzerland is not the equivalent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but merely the government’s chief of staff.
The Swiss don’t see such basic ignorance as an insult, but merely accept it as a fact of life. Historian Urs Altermatt, the country’s most well-known expert on the Swiss system of government, says that he has given up trying to explain to people abroad exactly how the system works in detail.
Sitting in the historic district of the city of Solothurn on a sunny September day, Altermatt can hardly get a word in edgewise as he is interrupted by total strangers who want to talk about the chances of their favorite candidates for the government. It’s as if Altermatt were a famous sports commentator and the topic was soccer. But the game here is one that only the Swiss comprehend.
This is roughly what it’s about: Two of the seven seats on the Federal Council — the Swiss government — are up for re-election. That will presumably have no impact on the country’s political orientation, but the individuals who take these positions in the government will remain there for many years, usually until they decide to resign. For the Swiss, it’s almost as if a soap opera were being recast with new main characters.
The Swiss government also vaguely resembles a left-wing commune that is deeply committed to consensus decision-making. It has seven equal members, known as the federal councilors, who collectively govern the country. There are currently three women and four men. Each federal councilor is in charge of an executive department, and all seven vote on all decisions. There is no boss. The office of president, which one of them assumes each year, is a ceremonial position. The Federal Council is basically a collective head of state — a president divided by seven, if you will.
Switzerland is a country whose constitution is designed to prevent concentrations of power. There are many rules when choosing new members in the Federal Council. All of the country’s regions must be represented, the sexes need to be in the right proportion and, if possible, there should be members from all the country’s three main linguistic communities (German, French and Italian). There also has to be proportional representation of all parties because, in a consensus democracy, all leading political powers govern together. There have been differences of opinion, however, among Swiss parties concerning the correct proportion ever since the right-wing populist Christoph Blocher of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was elected to the Federal Council in 2003 and not re-elected four years later.
This year, it’s actually up to the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the center-left Social Democrats (SP) to replace their outgoing representatives. This means that Karin Keller-Sutter and Johann Schneider-Ammann from the FDP and Simonetta Sommaruga and Jacqueline Fehr from the SP, as well as a representative of the SVP, are vying for the support of members of parliament, in hearings and backroom meetings. Every day the media announce who is currently in the lead. It’s a wonderful ritual, and yet there has rarely been so much dissatisfaction with the system of government as there has been recently.
In the last few years, the Swiss have experienced crises such as the abduction of two of its citizens in Libya and international attacks on its banking secrecy laws. There has been harsh criticism of the government and its failure to stand up to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the European Union. The federal councilors have been accused of dilettantism. The consensus-based system no longer functions as it used to, because Switzerland is now highly polarized in a right-wing and a center-left camp. The political atmosphere is sometimes toxic nowadays…
September 22, 2010
Are Americans happy? In his unequaled Democracy in America, written after his visit to Andrew Jackson’s America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans, despite living in the most prosperous and egalitarian society in history, were restive and melancholy: “grave and almost sad even in their pleasures.” Long before psychologists discovered the paradox of choice, Tocqueville saw that the pursuit of happiness, the third of the rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, was a mixed blessing.
Tocqueville says that one sometimes finds in Europe a small population totally isolated from the revolutionary turbulence sweeping the Continent. These people are often ignorant, politically apathetic, and oppressed. But despite their wretchedness, “they ordinarily show a serene countenance and they often let a playful humor appear.” Not so with the rich, free, and equal Americans. The reason, says Tocqueville, is that the ignorant people don’t think of the evils they endure, while the Americans dream constantly of the goods they do not have.
For the acquisitive and free Americans, says Tocqueville, life is too short to get ahold of all the possessions and comforts that are possible to be had. And one’s station in life, whatever it is, always is bested, however marginally, by another’s. As death hurries us along, and as we become more equal, the remaining inequalities, small as they might be, grate far more than the massive inequalities unnoticed in aristocratic societies. The two things the American wants most and in principle can have—prosperity and equality—always recede, just out of reach.
According to the philosophers of the pursuit of happiness, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, this situation is no American accident; it’s the human condition properly understood. Nature condemns us to shop until we drop. According to Hobbes, there is no “repose of a mind satisfied” and “felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another, the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter.” Human beings are inclined to a perpetual, restless desire for power after power that ends only with death. Locke is no cheerier. He tells us that human desire always looks beyond present enjoyments to an absent good, and the minute we find ourselves contented by something, a new “uneasiness” disturbs us and “we are set afresh on work in the pursuit of happiness.” By this argument, the pursuit of happiness means that happiness as such is the Holy Grail.
It’s hard to deny that American life is always in flux: for immigrant and blue-blood and Wall Street maven alike, fortunes rise and fall; and in our present economic troubles, we’re told paradoxically to spend our way out of our inability to spend. From the time of Montesquieu, analysts of commercial republicanism and capitalism have worried that material acquisition requires bourgeois virtues, such as thrift and self-reliance, which the affluence they produce then undermines. It’s no accident that the American counterculture’s first anthem, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, was written in the business-obsessed and super-bourgeois 1950s. We’re thus in a happiness double bind: our pursuit of happiness first makes us unhappy, as Tocqueville suggests, and then makes us poor because it makes us corrupt, which then makes us even more unhappy.
Tocqueville wasn’t all doom and gloom on the happiness front. He was careful to show how the family and religion shore up the traditional bourgeois virtues and, by tempering American materialism, provide for islands of tranquility and happiness. Moreover, Tocqueville understood the trade-off at stake: he preferred our more limited happiness to the sheeplike contentment he predicted for Europe. If ever the Americans suffer the decline of religion and the rise of administrative centralization, they’ll also become insipid clients of a self-imposed soft despotism—the egalitarian welfare-security state. In the 1830s, Tocqueville showed clearly that while Americans didn’t think themselves in heaven, their lives were in fact more interesting than any in the emerging modern age. America, he showed his fellow Frenchmen, is where the action is.
That’s still true today, but we’re at a crossroads. What if the family and religion and economic liberty lose their sway? What if, like many Europeans, we stop having kids and stop believing in the immortality of the soul? What will happen now that health care is becoming the modern equivalent of corrupting affluence: an ocean of “entitlements,” managed by the administratively centralized nanny state? If Tocqueville is right, we’d better hope all this doesn’t transpire. But it might be prudent, at least as individuals, to plan for the worst. To whom might we repair for some good advice on how to live life as best and as happily as we can in a post-traditional and post-religious world? Our serious pastors would be out of business, not to mention the blow-dried, drawling Jesus-will-tell-you-the-fed-funds-rate evangelists. We’d be stuck with the psychobabble happiness gurus, or, perhaps the best alternative, left on our own. But as luck would have it, a wise advisor has been around for over 300 years: none other than the First American, Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin was as American as apple pie. Talk about a man on the move in the social flux! Born to a poor but hard-working family, he got but two years of formal education and was, at 17, a runaway apprentice on the lam in Philadelphia with nothing but his wits and some bakery buns on which to subsist. From this bad start, he pulled off the American dream: at 19 in London, a pal of the coffeehouse intellectual elite; rich and retired from his vertically integrated publishing empire at 42; famous scientist soon after; big-time politician and public improver and then bigger-time revolutionary diplomat; Constitutional framer; and everlasting glory as the face of the $100 bill.
There were two things Franklin wasn’t so good at: the family and religion. In matters of faith, he was at best a Deist, denying that God interferes in any way with human life; and in matters of the family, he was a decent father but a poor husband who reacted with indifference to his wife’s death in Philadelphia while he was in London hobnobbing with the rich and famous. So we need to revise a bit: Franklin perhaps was not as American as apple pie, but he was as American as the carnival hustler’s corn dog.
Franklin was, in fact, an American for all seasons. On the one hand, we read in the pages of Poor Richard’s Almanac and elsewhere homilies about sobriety, thrift, hard work, self-reliance, the way to wealth, the virtues of marriage, and especially (as for Tocqueville later on) the importance of tolerant religion and divine reward and punishment. If men are so bad with religion, he once said, imagine what they would be like without it. The famous Autobiography is a tale of self-redemption and self-mastery. There we learn that, from reading the Enlightenment philosophers, Franklin became a free-thinking libertine, even a nihilist, until he realized the practical and moral danger he was in, cleaned up his act, put himself to thrift and incessant work, and then dedicated his life to public service and easy-going, do-good piety.
On the other hand, the bourgeois and pious Ben Franklin is hard to square with much of what he wrote throughout his life, especially about morality, the family, and religion. The bourgeois, believing Franklin is a fiction, and more than a few people who knew him, including John Adams, thought so. But despite his skepticism, he was so happy in his life that he offered to live it over again, exactly as it had transpired. So what was the secret to his felicity? What was Franklin’s idea of happiness and the good life apart from bourgeois virtue and tolerant piety?
First, Franklin didn’t buy the shop-till-we-drop ideas of Hobbes and Locke. In a 1753 letter (to Peter Collinson) on the topic of support for the poor, Franklin argued that human beings are by nature prone to desire “a life of ease, of freedom from care and labour.” This proneness can work in two directions: toward work and acquisitiveness to provide for such an easy life, as in civilized societies, or toward extreme simplicity and a wandering and careless life, as one sees among the American Indians.
The Indians, said Franklin, are “not deficient in natural understanding” and see clearly the advantages of the arts and sciences among the whites. But they refuse to give up their indolent ways. In fact, when whites are raised among the Indians and subsequently get ransomed, they soon become disgusted with civilized life and escape back into the woods. Civilization and hard work are not the spontaneous products of our ever-acquisitive natures; they result rather from accidents that force people to live together in quarters so close that subsistence can’t be had without hard labor. For a smart and lucky person in civilized society, the wise thing to do is to work hard and then retire as early as possible (which is exactly what Franklin did).
But what’s in store for the stupid or the unlucky? Even they can find complete happiness, said Franklin: it just depends on seeing one’s situation clearly. In 1732, in “Proposals and Queries for the Consideration of the Junto,” Franklin posed the question of whether a human being can reach perfection in life. Franklin said yes, it’s possible indeed. His argument is typical Franklin, stupidly funny until you think about it more than once: the perfection of a thing is “the greatest the nature of that thing is capable of.” Different things have different degrees of perfection, as do single things at different times. “Thus an horse is more perfect than an oyster yet the oyster may be a perfect oyster as well as the horse a perfect horse. And an egg is not so perfect as a chicken, nor a chicken as a hen; for the hen has more strength than the chicken, and the chicken more life than the egg: yet it may be a perfect egg, chicken and hen…”
September 22, 2010
This image has been posted with express written permission.
This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.