As Orson Welles put it, the product of Swiss peace and prosperity Credit Punk Toad CC-BY-2.0

The Swiss have voted in a couple of referenda on the subject of whether food prices should be even higher in that country in order to provide even more protection to farmers. The answers were no. Which does rather show the value of referenda actually, they often working better than the more normal interest group special pleading in a representative democracy.

Voters in Switzerland appear to have overwhelmingly rejected two proposals on ethical and sustainable food.

Initial projections suggest the two initiatives have been defeated by no votes of over 60%.

That’s how the issues were couched to be sure. But what it would really have meant is higher tariffs against food imports and thus even more expensive food in Switzerland.

Swiss voters decisively rejected more help for farmers in two referendums on Sunday, heeding the government’s warnings that the measures would send food prices rocketing and hurt the economy, projections for broadcaster SRF showed.

Quite so. Farming in that country is hopelessly inefficient. A bloke, three cows and an alpine meadow do not an efficient industry make. Now, obviously enough, if your entire culture works around the memories of those alpine meadows – and the landscape is almost defined by them – then you might well be willing to pay a bit more for food to support them. But it’s possible to take this too far. Most Swiss now make their livings going engineering (it has one of the largest manufacturing sectors per GDP of any rich nation) or labouring in the meadows of pharmaceuticals. Food is an input to these lives, meaning the vast majority of the population get gouged to support those farmers.

And yes, having done it, a swift trip around a Swiss supermarket will produce sticker shock. Which is why those in border areas tend to do their shopping over the border itself.

About 61.3 percent of voters rejected the “Fair-Food Initiative,” which would have required the government to promote environmentally sound, animal-friendly and fairly produced food, and could have involved requiring Swiss inspectors to travel abroad to conduct compliance checks.

A separate, though somewhat similar “Food Sovereignty” proposal aimed to underpin farmers’ salaries and ensure that imported food meets Swiss standards. That was rejected by 68.4 percent of voters.

Thee are two ways to describe the joint proposals. One is as described above, as the proposers would have it. The other is even more protectionism for farmers. And in a representative democracy such as the US or UK it depends on who manages to get people shouting at their elected representatives. Something the concentrated interest is always rather better at precisely because it is concentrated. Thus we tend to find farmers winning these wars. In a popular democracy the whole thing has to be put to the actual people who then vote. The power of the concentrated interest is limited and that would be my explanation for the loss here. The decision was actually made both on the basis of an informed and also interested electorate.

Rather a good way to do it, don’t you think?

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“to promote environmentally sound, animal-friendly and fairly produced food” is to enable the bureaucracy to constrain farming by virtually any vague-and-fluffy affectation.

There is no threat to farm “sustainability” as long as the sun shines and people stay hungry, though methods may change. By the way: Why have farms in the mountains? Importing food makes the most sense. Should the EU go Nazi again and put Switzerland under siege, my country will airlift.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole

Yes, a recentish minibreak in Basle revealed eyewatering prices everywhere (no surprise). But given that both France and Germany are only about 10km away, and border formalities minimal, I wondered how local businesses survive – despite being a pleasant enough city, it’s not really a tourist hotspot.