Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Trusting People

When riding Swiss trains, the passenger is expected to punch her own ticket before boarding. A conductor may never check, but woe (and substantial fines) betides the Schwarzfahrer who is caught. Equal parts carrot and stick, the widely-used honor system in this country gives us a unique insight into Swissness. How?

Much critical ink has been spilt following in the (large) intellectual footsteps that Bentham and Foucault left as they wrestled with the panopticon.  (The panopticon is a perfect prison, in which a central guard tower surveys the cells arrayed around it like spokes from a wheel’s hub. Importantly, the prisoners can’t know if they’re being watched at any particular moment, and as such essentially police themselves.)

Appropriately, the symbol on those Swiss ticket stamping machines is not a thumbs-up or a smiling conductor.  It is an all-seeing eye:

Is Switzerland a panopticon writ large?  

This is perhaps too easy an assessment. Instead, we might say that the honor system appeals to the Swiss love for small government and limited intrusion, and allows them to feel morally upright at least once daily.  These are closer to the heart of Swissness than a love of omniscient authority. When a Swiss bookshop sends you a paperback in the mail along with an invoice, they enjoy trusting you enough to wait for the payment. You, in turn, enjoy being trusted.  

It is, in fact, a magical phenomenon – it is reciprocal exchange, but delayed just enough to make it alien to modern capitalism. Marcel Mauss reminds us of the power that delayed reciprocity has to strengthen social relationships; the Swiss honor system is therefore neither a quaint economic anachronism nor a concession to efficiency: it is the glue that holds Swiss society together. 

Still, it is hard to stop feeling followed by that eye.

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