Fox and Hounds contributor Joe Mathews is currently attending a conference in Switzerland on direct democracy, and is sending special reports on his experiences in Europe and how they contrast with California.

Think like a philosopher and write like a farmer – That’s the motto of the In-House Drafting Committee, one of the most interesting government offices I’ve come across. The committee handles the official translation of all legislation — including initiatives and referenda — in Switzerland. It’s a crucial role in a country with three major national languages — German, French and Italian. They do not have a light hand–they do serious editing for clarity and for constitutionality. The office has an interesting collection of people: historians, political scientists, linguists and two– count ’em, two — theologians. (They’re considered particularly good on questions of ethics, morality and the original meaning of texts).

It’s an article of faith that Switzerland’s diversity, particularly in language, is both a challenge and an advantage for the country’s democracy. "Ideas tend to be expressed more clearly when they have to be translated," one staffer explained to me. I asked if there is often resistance to the changes they suggest in ballot initiatives filed by citizens. The answer: no. The committee essentially provides legislative drafting to initiative sponsors. The initiative writers can reject the suggestions of the drafting committee, but they rarely do. The committee eliminates ambiguity, make initiatives shorter, and make the terms so clear that their meaning will be clear in three languages. That’s what it means to think like a philosopher and write like a farmer.