The Swiss and their Trains

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

If you love trains (I most definitely do), then you’ll love this video from the Not Just Bikes channel. It’s truly delightful that places like Switzerland exist on the planet. It demonstrates that it is possible for people to organize a society that is truly civilized. It is an outstanding illustration that humans are capable of arranging their societies to be materially prosperous and peaceful.

I have had the good fortune of visiting Switzerland several times in the early ’90s when I spent a few years traveling around the world. Just getting to Geneva was exciting — on a TGV from Paris. It takes a little of 3 hours to cover the distance of 409 kms, and if you book in advance, you can get a ticket for as little as $10. But enough of that. Here’s the video. I bet you dollars to donuts that you will like it.

The video reminded me of a lovely quote from Gustavo Petro, the former mayor of Bogotá, which I put at the top of this post: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

Now I put on my economist hat. What makes Switzerland so good? First, it is a very small country — only 8.5 million people. The populations of cities like New York city, Mumbai, Tokyo, etc., are several times larger than that. Then it is very favorably located. It is landlocked between France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. It’s very old, and it avoids taking sides.

The Federal Charter of 1291 is considered the founding document of Switzerland, which is celebrated on Swiss National Day. Since the Reformation of the 16th century, Switzerland has maintained a firm policy of armed neutrality. Swiss independence from the Holy Roman Empire was formally recognised in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Switzerland has not fought an international war since 1815 and did not join the United Nations until 2002. Nevertheless, it pursues an active foreign policy. It is frequently involved in peace-building processes worldwide. Switzerland is the birthplace of the Red Cross, one of the world’s oldest and best known humanitarian organisations. It is a founding member of the European Free Trade Association, but notably not part of the European Union, the European Economic Area or the Eurozone. However, it participates in the Schengen Area and the European Single Market through bilateral treaties. [Wiki.]

The Swiss are 2nd richest people in the world with a per capita annual nominal GDP of over $86,000. What makes it so stable and rich? I think part of it has to do with the decentralized structure of their system of governance. They keep it local. The country is divided into small units known as cantons.

There are 26 cantons in all, with the population of cantons ranging from 16,000 to 1.5 million, with areas ranging from 37 sqkms to 7,105 sqkms. In short, the cantons are tiny, compared to most cities across the world. And yet “each canton has its own constitution, legislature, executive, police and courts.”

The Swiss Federal Constitution declares the cantons to be sovereign to the extent that their sovereignty is not limited by federal law. Areas specifically reserved to the Confederation are the armed forces, currency, the postal service, telecommunications, immigration into and emigration from the country, granting asylum, conducting foreign relations with sovereign states, civil and criminal law, weights and measures, and customs duties.

Fun fact: Approximately 28% of all households in Switzerland own guns, the second-highest percentage of firearm ownership in Europe. And yet the overall murder rate is close to zero. Rich, armed and peaceful. What’s not to like about Switzerland?

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

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