Simulation hypothesis

Is this world real?

Already in ancient times philosophers imagined that there is no way of telling that the world around us is real or that other people have a mind of their own. Perhaps I am the only one who is real while the rest of the world is my imagination. This could all be a dream. Some major religions claim that gods created this universe and that we are like them. In the Bible it is written that God said: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.”

For a long time it was impossible to clarify why this world might not be real or how the gods might have created it. More recently advances in information technology changed that. This universe could be a virtual reality. We are inclined to think that what our senses register is real, so we may ignore evidence to the contrary. For instance, you may think you see a pipe when watching an image of a pipe. The caption of the picture makes you notice: this is not a pipe.

Do we live inside a computer simulation?

In 1977 science fiction writer Philip K. Dick was the first to claim that we do exist in a computer-generated reality. This is the simulation hypothesis. He came to this insight after experiencing a psychosis. If he is right then his name suggests that our creators do like to joke around. Professor Nick Bostrom explored the probability the simulation hypothesis being true in the simulation argument. It states that we almost certainly live inside a computer simulation if certain conditions are met.

According to science this universe started off fourteen billion years ago with a big bang. Ten billion years later life on this planet began to develop out of chemical processes. It took another four billion years for life to evolve into what it is today. The first humans arrived on the scene 400,000 years ago. Agriculture started 10,000 years ago. Modern science began only 500 years ago. There is no evidence of an intelligent creator, the laws of physics always apply, and we are biological organisms made out of carbon and water.

For the purpose of the argument this universe and our civilisation can be called real if the above is all true. If this is all appearance, and we only exist inside a computer, this universe can be called a simulation.

Bostrom argues that there may be many different real human civilisations as there might be parallel real universes containing human civilisations. The humans in those civilisations may at some point enhance themselves with bio-technology and information technology, live very long and acquire capabilities ordinary humans don’t have. For that reason these beings aren’t humans but are called post-humans. These post-humans may run simulations of human ancestor civilisations. In that case we may be living in one of those simulations ourselves. Bostrom argues that at least one of the following must be true:

  1. Nearly all real human civilisations end before enter the post-human stage.
  2. In any post-human civilisation only an extremely small number of individuals are interested in running simulations of a human ancestor civilisations.
  3. We almost are certainly living inside a computer simulation.1

It comes with the following assumptions that appear realistic to many experts in the relevant fields, but are not proven:

  • The available computing power in post-human civilisations is sufficient to run a very large number of simulations of human ancestor civilisations.
  • The human consciousness needs not to reside in a biological organism, but can be implemented in a computer, perhaps in a limited form that appears realistic.1

Bostrom then concludes that if you believe that our civilisation will one day become post-human and will run a large number of human ancestor civilisations then you must believe we are currently living inside such a simulation.1 That is because we don’t know at what point in time we are, before or after the invention of virtual reality universes. If every year has an equal probability of this technology being invented, and we are going to create this technology in the next 10, 100 or 1,000 years then it will not happen later than that. By then we will have done it. But what are the odds of it happening in the next 10, 100 or 1,000 years compared to the billions of years that already have passed?

Bostrom doesn’t try to guess the likelihood of the options. There are too many uncertainties. The available computing power of post-human civilisations might be insufficient. Or perhaps nearly all civilisations will die out before becoming advanced. Or perhaps post-humans will differ from us to the point that they will not be interested in running simulations of humans. Bostrom further assumes we have no information as to whether this universe is real or not. But that may not be true.

Post-human motivations

These simulations may be realistic in many ways but may not be realistic in some aspects. If that is somehow noticeable then we may be able to know. To see why a simulation may not be realistic in some respects, we have to look at the possible motivations for post-humans to run simulations of human ancestor civilisations. Even though it is not at all certain, post-humans may have similar motivations as humans. Hence, these simulations might be made for research or for entertainment.

A research application could be running what-if scenarios. So what if a giant meteor hits the surface of the planet? What if China never became unified? What if there never were religions like Christianity and Islam? Or what if a deadly infectious disease breaks out? Countless scenarios can be imagined. Post-humans might be interested in running them and see how humanity would cope. In that case the simulations may be realistic.

Possible entertainment applications for simulations are playing games or making your imaginations come true. Such a simulation may not be realistic in some aspects because it reflects someone’s imagination. Chaos theory suggests that even small changes in the initial conditions can have a dramatic impact on future developments so in order to guarantee a particular outcome you might need complete control over what happens. This doesn’t apply to games as unpredictable outcomes is what makes games interesting.

Real or fake?

If the simulation is in some ways not realistic, that may be noticeable. In order to notice it, we need to have an idea of what is realistic and what is not. We only have our universe and our state of knowledge about its past, its laws of physics, and our human nature, to make such a guess. If this universe is indeed real, then it must be realistic by definition. If we have sufficient knowledge about reality, it may be possible to discover that we live inside a simulation. If this universe is real, then the following seems to apply:

  • There is no evidence of an intelligent force coordinating events in this universe.
  • The laws of physics are always the same and cannot be breached.
  • We are biological organisms made out of matter and our consciousnesses reside in our bodies.

Evidence to the contrary may indicate that we do live inside a simulation. Meaningful coincidences suggest that there is an intelligent force directing the events in this universe. The paranormal seems to flout the laws of nature. Evidence for reincarnation suggests that we are not biological organisms. But meaningful coincidences can happen because of chance. And there may be laws of physics we do not know of. And there is plenty of evidence of the consciousness residing in the body while only a few people remember a previous life. Making a convincing case for the simulation hypothesis requires clarifying why simulation is a more plausible explanation for these phenomena.

1. Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom (2003). Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255.

Life in Vragender in 1949

Only two decades earlier

My life has always been comfortable. We had a car and television. There was central heating. But it hasn’t always been like that. The childhood lives of my parents was very different. It was the life most people led for centuries. They grew most of their food themselves. The winters were cold. There was only one stove. They had no electricity, telephone, car, radio or television at first. Water they took from a pump. My grantparents were small farmers.

And that was only two decades earlier. There already was electricity in the cities, and in many villages too. But my parents lived in an area called Achterhoek, which translates to Rear Corner. And they didn’t live in a city, not even a village, but on remote farms. Remote in the Netherlands means that the nearest village is a few kilometres away. And a remote farm in Rear Corner was as remote as it could get in the Netherlands.

What a difference a few decades make. My son grew up with computers, Internet and smartphones. Compared to the dramatic changes my father and mother have witnessed, the changes that came later were rather insignificant. My father likes to talk about the old times. Before he went to school he had to milk the cows. There were lots of chores to do. My mother’s childhood had been like that too but she rarely talked about it. My mother’s family was quiet and reticent while my father’s family was noisy and outgoing.

My mother had three sisters and three brothers. My father had two brothers and two sisters. Both lived on a small farm. My father’s parents grew a few crops. They had a horse, a few cows, some pigs, and chicken. Neighbours were very important. If a farmer fell ill, the neighbours would step in and run the farm as long as needed. After the war my grandfather erected a windmill with batteries. They were one of the first in the area to have electric lights. Electricity from the grid came in 1952.

Then a local shop owner came by and showed them a radio, my father recalled. My grandfather didn’t want to spend money on a luxury item so the shop owner said he could try the radio a month for free. After a month my grandmother and my aunt had discovered a great radio show and wanted to keep it. And so my grandfather was pressed into buying a radio. In the same fashion a television set came in a decade later.

My father recalled when he saw a car for the first time. He was biking with his father. He said: “When I grow up I want to have a car too.” My grandfather then tried to teach him some realism: “You will never own a car. Only the physician, the notary and the mayor have cars.”

By the end of the 1960s the Netherlands had become wealthy. I was born in 1968 and have never known poverty. It may be easy to forget that most people in history have been poor and that many people today still are. But for me that was not so easy. An important lesson my parents taught me was that our comfortable lives come from hard work and that we shouldn’t take it for granted. My father worked long hours as a manager of a road construction company. “To give us a good life,” he said.

He is an outdoors man, a hunter, and well aware of what happens in nature, for instance the struggle for survival in the animal kingdom. Most people nowadays go to the supermarket to buy their food. At best they have a vague notion about farmers, crops and livestock. He grew up on a farm so it is hard for him to accept that city people take the living conditions farm animals seriously. “They know nothing about farm life or nature,” he says. And he balks at the idea of artificial meat.

My father is politically conservative, but he is also innovation-minded and very interested in improving things. He was keen on learning the newest management techniques from Japan about giving people on the workplace more responsibility to manage their own affairs. When the first home computers became available, he bought one for me. “Computers will be the future and you must learn about them,” he said to me. That was in 1984.

The lives of people completely changed in a few decades. It is happening everywhere. Millions of people in China can tell similar stories. In the past people worked with their hands and used their own judgement. Now we sit behind screens and watch graphs and check parameters. And perhaps our lives will be quite different a few decades from now.

But poverty is still on our doorsteps. We are running out of resources and pollution is running out of control. If societies break down, we will not gracefully return to subsistence farming. Many of us will starve. Most people live in cities nowadays and do not have the skills to survive. But perhaps we can fundamentally change our lifestyles in two decades. It has been done in the past.

Featured image: Picture from Vragender where my father came from (1949). http://www.oudvragender.nl.

Naomi Campbell

About models

What are we talking about?

When you hear about models it is often about people like Naomi Campbell or Heidi Klum. Yet, there are far more fascinating models out there. They may not dwell in the spotlights but everyone employs them. Scientists are the most heavy users. These models are simplifications or abstractions of reality and are used to explain things or to make predictions.

Game theory model

Indeed these models are as sexy as the scientists using them so a picture might not have drawn your attention. But then again, sexy is just a temporary phase in life. So what kind of models are we talking about? You can think of:

  • models to calculate the trajectory of the planets in the solar system
  • models to forecast the weather
  • models to predict the spread and the mortality of a virus
  • models to estimate the impact of a proposed measure on the economy
  • models to predict the impact of climate change

In the 1970s weather forecasts were of poor quality compared to today. And they didn’t go a lot farther than the day after tomorrow. Today predictions are more accurate and go up to two weeks in advance, even though the longer term predictions are not as accurate as those for today or tomorrow.

This improvement is the result of weather forecast models and computers. Computer models have improved over time, and a lot of hard work of scientists has gone into them. Usually about 50 different models are used together to make a weather prediction. Models are important tools to make sense of what happens in the world. There has been a course named Model Thinking by Professor Scott E. Page of the University of Michigan on the Internet. Much of what you read here comes from this course.

Why use models?

When making plans for the future, models can be useful. You can ask yourself, what might happen if you choose a particular action. An economist might use models to predict the consequences for economic growth of a proposed policy measure. Predictions made with models do not always come true. For instance, most economists didn’t see the financial crisis of 2008 coming despite all the models they had at their disposal.

In 1972 a group of scientists using a computer model warned that we would have run out of oil and some other crucial natural resources by 2010. They may have been a few decades off the mark but their warning made people and policy makers think about the fact that the resources of our planet are limited.

When models fail people may start to doubt the experts. This can be dangerous. On average experts do better than uneducated guesses. Only, small errors can lead to dramatic misses so an uneducated guess can sometimes be more accurate than an expert calculation. Experts usually don’t make the mistakes laypeople make so they do better on average.

Models can be wrong because they are simplifications and don’t take everything into account. For instance, an economic model to predict demand for goods and services doesn’t include the preferences and budgets of each individual consumer. If you had all that information, you might be able to make very accurate predictions, but that may be impossible.

There are good reasons to become familiar with models and the issues that come with them. Models can make us think clearer. People who use models usually are better decision makers than those who don’t because they have a better understanding of the situation. Models help us to use and understand data. And they assist us with designing solutions for problems and setting out strategies.

Using multiple models together

Proverbs can disagree with each other. Two heads are better than one but too many cooks spoil the broth. And he who hesitates is lost while a stitch in time saves nine. Contradictory statements can’t be true at the same time but they can be true in different situations or times. It may be important to know which advice is best in which situation, or more often, which combination of advice.

Models are better than uneducated guesses and using more models together can lead to better outcomes than using a single model. That is why up to fifty models are used to make a weather prediction. People who use a single model are not good at predicting. They may be right from time to time just like a clock that has stopped sometimes shows the correct time.

Smart people use several models and their personal judgement to determine which models best apply on the situation at hand. Only people using multiple models together make better predictions than mere guessing but they can be wrong. Still, models can help us to think more logically about how the world works, and eliminate a lot of errors we would make otherwise.

Model thinking

When you plan to work with models, you need to think logically from assumptions to conclusions, and then verify the outcomes with the use of experiments or gathered data. This way of working is called model thinking. It gets even more complicated when you use different models together as the outcomes may differ. And so you might have to consider which models apply best on the situation at hand and evaluate the different outcomes. Model thinking usually consists of the following steps:

  • name the parts

A model consists of parts. For instance, if you want to figure out which people go to which restaurant, you need to identify the individual people as well as their preferences and budgets. You also need to identify the restaurants and their menus and the price of those menus. And so the parts are the individual people, their preferences, the restaurants, their menus and the price of each of those menus.

  • identify the relationships between the parts

A model comes with relationships between the parts. For instance, the financial system is interconnected because financial institutions lend money to each other. If one bank fails, loans may not be repaid, and other institutions may get into trouble too. And so it might be a good idea to identify the relationships between financial institutions and how much they depend on one another.

  • work through the logic

Suppose you want to calculate the length of a rope that you want to tie around the earth at one metre above the surface. Assume the Earth’s circumference to be 40,000 kilometres. The formula for circumference C is: C = πD, where D is the diameter of the Earth. In this case C = π(D + 2m) = πD + (π * 2m) = 40,000 km + 6.28m.

  • doing experiments

You can design a model on a drawing board and then reality may turn out to be quite different. Model need a reality check. For instance, if people are often jammed near the exit of a room, you could explore the effects of putting a post before the exit to prevent people from pushing each other.

  • identify logical boundaries

With the use of models it may be possible to identify boundaries. For instance, if you think of allowing interest rates to go negative, you may want to estimate how low interest rates can go. If interest rates go below a certain level, for instance -3%, most people may stop saving so the interest rate can’t go lower. To estimate that interest rate, you may need a model predicting savings at different interest rates.

  • communicate the findings

If you have used a model then you may have to expain your findings, and therefore the use of the model. For instance, to explain why interest rates can’t go below -3%, you may discuss how you have used the model to come to your conclusion. To support your model you may have used a survey asking people at which interest rate they will stop saving.

Outcomes

Models come with different types of outcomes. Models can help us predict which of type of outcomes will materialise in reality. Possible types of outcomes are equilibrium, cycle, random, and complex.

  • equilibrium

Equilibrium outcomes end at a specific value and stay there until conditions change. For instance, if you set the thermostat of the central heating to 20°C while the room is 17°C, it will turn on the heating until the room is 20°C and stop once the temperature has reached this level. By then the water in the device might be heated to the point that the room will heat up further to 21°C.

But the heater will remain off as long as the temperature is above 20°C so the room will cool down after some time as long as the outside temperature is lower. The heater will only start again once the temperature goes below 20°C. So after some time the temperature will be close to 20°C and remain so until you set the thermostat to another temperature.

  • cycle

Outcomes of the type cycle show a repeating pattern. For instance, there is a business cycle in the economy causing growth to alternate with slumps. Therefore a model for economic growth could identify a trend, which is the average economic growth over a longer period of time as well as cycles of growth and slumps.

  • random

Random outcomes are impossible to predict even though there may be boundaries or a limited number of possible outcomes. For instance, if you play a game of cards, it is impossible to know on beforehand which cards you will get even though you may know that you won’t get a joker card if it is not in the game. Likewise, if you throw a dice, you can’t predict the number but it will be between one and six.

  • complex

Complex outcomes are hard to predict but they are not random. For example, the demand for oil and the supply of oil tend to slope up in a fairly predictable manner. The price of oil depends on all kinds of things, such as reserves, people in markets, and politics, so an oil-price model is probably complex. The model might be wrong quite often too but it may do better than mere guessing.

Using and understanding data

An important application of models is using and understanding data. If you can make sense of data, you may find information that you can use. This can be done in the following ways:

  • understand patterns

There may be patterns in the data. For example, there may be fluctuations in economic growth that can be explained by a business cycle model.

  • make predictions for individual cases

A model can give a relationship between different variables so you can predict an unknown variable if the other variables are known. For example, the price of a house may depend on the neighbourhood and the number of square metres. So, if you know the neighbourhood and the number of square metres, and the relationship between these variables and price, you can predict the price of a house.

  • produce bounds

For example, if you use models to estimate predict the weather two weeks from now, there is too much uncertainty to come up with an exact temperature, so a model will probably produce a range with a lower bound and an upper bound of the temperatures that might occur.

  • test

You can use models with the data to ‘predict’ the past. In this way you can test models and check how good they are. For example, if you have the economic data from 1950 to the present, and you have a model that predicts the unemployment rate based on the economic data of previous years, you can use the data from 1950 to 1970 in the model to predict the unemployment in 1972, and then check whether or not the prediction is close to the real unemployment figure of 1972.

  • predict other things

For example, you may have made a model that predicts the unemployment rate, but as a side benefit it might also predict the inflation rate. Another example is that early models of the solar system and gravity showed that there must be an unknown planet, which turned out to be Neptune.

  • informed data collection

For example, if you want to improve education, and make a model that predicts school results, you have to name the parts, such as teacher quality, the education level of parents, the amount of money spent on the school, and class size. The model determines which data should be collected. There is no reason to collect data on school size if you don’t use it in you model.

  • estimate hidden parameters

Data can tell us more about the model and the model can tell us more about reality. For example, a model for the spread of diseases is the Susceptible, Infected, Recovered (SIR) model. If you have the data of how many people are getting the disease, you can predict how the disease will spread over time.

  • improve

After you have constructed a model, you can use data to improve it and make it closer to the real world.

Making decisions, strategies and designs

Models can help with making decisions, setting out strategies and designing solutions. A few examples can illustrate that:

Financial contagion risk
Financial contagion risk model
  • decision aides

Models can be used to make decisions. For instance, at the time of the financial crisis of 2008, you could have made a model of financial institutions like Bear Sterns, AIG, CitiGroup, and Morgan Stanley with the relationships between them in terms of how their success depends on another. As some of these companies were starting to fail, the government had to decide whether or not to save them. This model can help to make that decision. The numbers represent how much one institution depends on another.

So, if AIG fails then how likely is it that JP Morgan fails? The number 466 is big. The number 94 represents the link between Wells Fargo and Lehman Brothers. If Lehman Brothers fails, this only has a small effect on Wells Fargo and vice versa. Lehman Brothers only has three lines going in and out and the numbers associated with these lines are relatively small. For the government this can be a reason not to save Lehman Brothers. AIG has much larger numbers associated with AIG and can be a reason to save AIG because a failure of AIG cancause the whole system to fail. This is why some financial institutions were deemed ‘too big to fail’.

  • play out different scenarios

History only runs once. But with models of the world, you can play out different scenarios. For example, in April 2009, the Federal Government decided to implement an economic recovery plan. You can run models of the economy and look at the unemployment rate with and without the recovery plan. It doesn’t mean that what a model shows would really have happened without the recovery plan, but at least the model provides some understanding of its effect.

  • identify and rank levers

It can be worthwhile to implement the measures that have the most effect. For example, one of the big issues in climate change is the carbon cycle. The total amount of carbon on Earth is fixed. It can be up in the air or down on the earth. If it is down on the earth then it doesn’t contribute to global warming. If you think about intervening, you may ask where in this cycle are there big levers? Surface radiation is a big number. If you think about where to interfere, you want to think about it in terms of where those numbers are large.

  • help to choose from policy options

Suppose there will be a market for pollution permits. We can make a simple model and tell which one is going to work better. Suppose a city has to decide about creating more parks. More parks might seem a good thing but if people want to move there and developers build large apartment buildings around them, it might not be such a good idea after all.

Featured image: Naomi Campbell at Festival de Cannes. Georges Biard (2017). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. Model Thinking [link]

Wörgl bank note with stamps. Public Domain.

Cash for negative interest rates

The problem with cash

Negative interest rates may be here to stay. Interest rates are the result of supply and demand for money and capital in financial markets. The factors that have caused interest rates to go down are still in place and may not go away. And so it may be better to allow interest rates to go down further and into negative territory. For that reason, we may need a holding fee on central bank money.

Most money is in bank accounts. It is loaned to banks by depositors. Central bank money is different. It is not a loan. The central bank money we all know is cash. But banks have accounts at the central bank. The balances in those accounts are central bank money too. So, if the central bank sets the interest rate, it is the interest rate on central bank accounts.

Cash comes with an interest rate of zero. Cash can be an attractive investment when interest rates on bank accounts are negative. Depositors may take their money from the bank and put their savings in cash. In Switzerland, where interest rates are the most negative, bank notes of 1,000 francs and safe deposit boxes are in short supply. Hence, interest rates can’t go further down as long as cash remains the way it is.

When people stop lending money and take their money from the bank, the economy runs into trouble. With a holding fee on central bank money of 10% per year, it can be attractive to lend out money at negative interest rates like -2% because you don’t pay the holding fee on money lent. That includes money in bank accounts. And so you may keep your money in the bank even when interest rates are negative.

Cash as a loan to the government

Only, a holding fee of 10% per year would make cash unattractive. And in Wörgl people had to buy stamps and glue them to the banknotes to keep them valid. This is cumersome. If the interest rate on cash would be a bit lower than interest rates on bank accounts, that might be enough to stop people from hoarding cash. And if we do not have to glue stamps on banknotes, cash would remain practical to use.

So if cash is a loan to the government rather than central bank money, the interest rate on short term loans to the government could be applied. That rate would be much better than the holding fee, for example -3%. There would be an exchange rate between cash and central bank money. The value of cash could gradually decrease at a rate of 3% per year so you don’t have to glue stamps on bank notes to keep them valid.

Human psychology

Negative interest rates reduce the balance in your account while inflation is stealthy. Wage changes are more visible than price changes as some prices go down while others go up. Even when negative interest rates and deflation are a better deal, people might not opt for it. Psychologists have found that for most people the pain of a loss outstrips the pleasure of a similar gain, which makes them risk-averse.

When interest rates are negative, money disappears so inflation will probably be lower. There might even be deflation, which means that prices on average go down. That could be a better deal than printing money to produce inflation as this money usually ends up in the hands of the rich while everyone else pays for the inflation. But most people simply do not like see their account balance go down because of a negative interest rate.

They prefer the illusion of a small gain that amounts to a loss in reality to the illusion of a small loss that is a gain in reality. And there is a risk that the expected benefits from negative interest rates do not materialise. It is not rational but human psychology is the way it is. There may be a fix for that by hiding negative interest rates and make them look like inflation. To explain how, we have to look at the characteristics of Natural Money:

  • Central bank money carries a holding fee of approximately 10% per year. If you own central bank currency then € 1,00 turns into € 0,88 after a year. This can make lending at negative interest rates attractive.
  • Interest rates on bank accounts might be around -2% per year in terms of central bank money, so people don’t pay the holding fee but the interest rate banks offer.
  • Cash is a short-term loan to the government and carries the interest rate of short-term government loans, which might be -3%.
  • Central bank money and cash are separate currencies. They have an exchange rate. Cash gradually loses value relative to central bank money.

Making cash the money in people’s mind

If balances of bank accounts are expressed in cash rather than central bank money, negative interest becomes hidden from the public. The interest rate on short-term government loans is one of the lowest. Banks must be able to offer at least this interest rate so people won’t see their money disappear because of negative interest. And if prices in shops are expressed in cash, cash will become the currency in people’s minds.

If the interest rate on cash is -3%, the value of cash goes down by 3% per year in terms of central bank money. So if a bank offers an interest rate of -2%, and the account is settled in cash, it appears as if the interest on the bank account is +1%. And if the deflation rate is 1%, prices go down by 1%. Meanwhile cash goes down 3% in value so that it appears there is an inflation rate of 2% as cash prices go up by 2%.

It is a trick to prevent people from acting against their best interest. Nowadays the interest rate on bank accounts is 0% and inflation is 2% so you would lose 2% in purchasing power per year by holding money in a bank account. In the example above the loss is 1%, which is a better deal. Natural Money can be a better deal for account holders. The economy is expected to do better so real interest rates can be higher.

Critics might argue that we could be fooled by this scheme, just like we were fooled before by inflation. We won’t notice the negative interest rate, just like we didn’t notice inflation previously. But separating cash from central bank money and expressing prices and the value of bank accounts in cash can clear the psychological barrier that stands in the way of adopting negative interest by the public.

Central bank money should remain the accounting unit in the financial system. Bank accounts should be accounted in central bank money, just like debts and interest rates as well as prices of financial assets like stocks and bonds. A similar situation existed in Europe between 1999 and 2002 when the digital euro was already introduced while cash was still the national currency.

The assembly of the canton Glarus

Swiss democracy

In the interest of the people

For a society to function, it needs an order only a government can provide. Over time more and more people came to believe that a government should work in the interest of its citizens. That is quite a leap. Traditionally governments were often a kind of crime syndicate providing a protection racket. Citizens paid taxes to a lord or a king who provided them with security against other lords, kings and ordinary criminals.

Even today many governments work in the interest of their elites while officials take bribes. Except for Northwest Europe, Canada and New Zealand, governments range from a bit corrupt to highly corrupt. Even when a government isn’t corrupt, it might be incompetent. If a business provides poor service you often can go to a competitor. Poor quality governments are harder to avoid as it often involves relocation.

country-corruption-map
corruption per country (flaxen = most clean, crimson = most corrupt)

The above graph from Transparency International gives an indication of corruption in each country. Poverty is a cause of corruption but corruption is also a cause of poverty. If a government is corrupt, money is transferred to unproductive people. Investors will be wary of making investments so interest rates need to be higher to attract capital. This makes fewer investments profitable so the country will be poorer.

Non-corrupt high quality government isn’t easy to come by. And democracy doesn’t guarantee that a government does its job well. But if a government already is of good quality, democracy can make it more responsive to the interests of its citizens. But democracy can undermine the effectiveness of a government if citizens allow their narrow personal interests to prevail over the general good.

Main features

The Swiss have the most trust in their government.1 That may be because of the unique features of Swiss democracy. Switzerland is also a wealthy country, partly because Swiss banks have been a safe haven for criminals, tax evaders and dictators all around the world. For instance, Switzerland has been important for Nazi Germany’s war effort by facilitating trade with the outside world.

These issues shouldn’t cloud the evaluation of the Swiss political system. The Swiss have a unique combination of representative and direct democracy. The government and parliament administrate the country but if citizens feel the need to take matters in their own hand, this is possible.

Switzerland uses direct democracy in the form of referendums more than any other country in the world. These referendums are binding. The government must respect the outcome.2 The Swiss use the following types of referendums:

  • mandatory referendums on changes in the federal constitution
  • optional referendums on other federal laws that will be held when 50,000 eligible voters demand for it
  • similar rules exist on the state and communal levels, but the constitutions of the states deal with the specifics
  • citizens can propose a change in the constitution via a popular initiative, and the electorate can decide whether to accept the initiative, an alternative proposal from the government or parliament, or to keep things unchanged

Switzerland is a federation of 26 member states called cantons. The member states have a large degree of independence. The Swiss constitution promotes making decisions at the lowest possible level and delegating power to a higher level if that is deemed beneficial.

The citizens of the Swiss states elect the Council of States (Senate) by majority vote. They can cast as many votes as there are vacant seats. Voters can propose representatives and influence the fractions of different political parties.

The Swiss elect their National Council (Congress) every four years by proportional representation. The people vote for a political party. Optionally they can vote for a specific person on the candidate list of the party.

Executive power has been distributed in Switzerland. The daily affairs of government are performed by the Federal Council consisting of seven members. It is customary that all major political parties are represented in the Federal Council.

Constitutional changes need a double majority, which means that majority of the electorate as well as a majority of the cantons must support it.

Most Swiss communities use direct democracy to make decisions. In a few small cantons people can vote directly by the show of hands.

Evaluation

The use of representatives in combination with referendums means that citizens aren’t burdened with the daily affairs of government but still are in full control as they can vote on any issue if they feel that is needed. Direct democracy allows for a more fine-grained alignment of government decisions with the wishes of the citizenry as on some issues the majority might be liberal and on some others it might be conservative.

Before laws are introduced, interest groups such as state governments, political parties and non-governmental organisations are consulted, and their concerns are taken into account. As referendums tend to come down to yes or no questions, this consulting is important.

Proportional representation allows for multiple political parties that more closely match the preference of voters. New parties can emerge more easily. It also means that small shifts in voter preferences tend to have little effect on the political landscape.

Swiss voters can influence the make up of the political fractions of multiple political parties, which means that the people who are elected in parliament for one party are more likely to be acceptable to voters of other parties as well.

All major political parties work together in the Federal Council as there is little room to forward political agendas. That is because citizens can always call for a referendum. In this way referendums can contribute to political stability even when parliament consists of several smaller parties.

The use of direct democracy in Switzerland makes it less relevant who is in government so that political discussions tend to focus on issues and content rather than people and rhetoric. The Swiss tend to be well-informed about the issues that are at stake.

Proportional representation as opposed to win or lose elections foster cooperation as individual political parties don’t have a majority and need to work with other parties to achieve their political objectives.

Proportional representation reduces the need to spend large amounts of money on political campaigns and other manipulations like gerrymandering, voter fraud and vote suppression as the effects of these actions tend to be limited. In the United States a small margin in a swing state might decide who becomes President.

Many countries have strict limits to political donations and campaign spending. Switzerland does not have them. This is not as harmful as it might be without proportional representation and referendums.

Direct democracy undermines the work of lobbyists for a law doesn’t pass if it is not supported by a majority of the voters. And so interest groups need to convince the citizenry rather than politicians.

In Switzerland the Congress represents the nation as a whole while the Senate represents the states. A decision needs the consent of a majority of the parliament of the nation as well as a majority of the cantons.

Most countries have a Congress and a Senate but they aren’t federations like Switzerland. In unitary states the role of a Senate varies. For example, it can focus on protecting the constitution against laws that violate it.

Switzerland doesn’t have a Constitutional Court or a Senate to protect the Constitution. There is no good safeguard of human rights. The majority can vote for stripping the rights of minorities. Switzerland is bound to the treaties it signed but safeguards to protect human rights could be an improvement.

Conclusion

The Swiss are satisfied with their political system. Even though it has a few weak points, there is good reason to believe that other countries can benefit from implementing a similar political system in which the citizens have the final say. Yet, different nations might opt for somewhat different versions of direct democracy.

Some people think that a better political system is possible. There are many ideas but few of them have been tested thoroughly. The Swiss political system has proven to work in practice. It allows citizens to vote on proposals to alter and improve the political system. So even if a better system is possible, the Swiss political system may be the way to get there.

To make direct democracy work, there are conditions that need to be met. The citizens must be informed, reasonably educated and willing to engage in rational discussions. Laws must be thoughtfully crafted with extensive consultations as referendums often boil down to simple yes or no decisions. Mistakes can be made, but they can be learning opportunities as people need to deal with the consequences of their choices.

The Swiss federation can be a model for the European Union and the United States. By delegating responsibilities to the state level it might be possible to reduce bureaucracy in the federation while increasing the legitimacy of the centralised institutions. Swiss democracy might also be a model for a world government if that ever comes to pass.

The Swiss political system promotes a political culture of compromise and cooperation. It is built into their system and therefore their political system is a strong design. For those who are accustomed to divisional politics or politics centred around people rather than issues, it may be difficult to understand that a completely different way of doing politics is possible and that it can work out better.

Featured image: The assembly of the canton Glarus. Democracy International (2014). [copyright info]

1. Government at a Glance Fact Sheet OECD. (2013). [link]
2. Switzerland’s Direct Democracy. http://direct-democracy.geschichte-schweiz.ch/ [link]