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Archive for March 7th, 2018

The Swiss people are normally very sensible when asked to vote in national referendums. Here are some recent results.

Though my favorite referendum result occurred several years before I started writing on this site.

Given all these results, you won’t be surprised to learn that Switzerland is near the top in rankings of economic freedom, trailing only Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Zealand.

But this does not mean that Switzerland is a libertarian nation. At least not in an ideological sense. And we have two new referendum results that underscore this point.

This past weekend, Swiss voters had an opportunity to get rid of the central government’s value-added tax, personal income tax, and corporate income tax.

Ending those taxes would be a libertarian fantasy, but the initiative to extend the levies was easily approved.

More than 84% of voters have renewed the government’s right to tax its citizens and companies for another 15 years. This is a unique feature of Switzerland’s political system of direct democracy and federalism.  …rejection would have been a nightmare for the government. …said Finance Minister Ueli Maurer in January. “If voters were to say no, the Swiss government wouldn’t have enough funds and there’s no way we could find another source of revenue or introduce spending cuts of the same order.”

Voters were swayed by arguments that a no vote would cause too much fiscal disruption. Slashing the central government’s budget by 60 percent might appeal to ideological libertarians, but it didn’t fly with don’t-rock-the-boat Swiss voters.

The direct federal tax and the sales tax together contributed about two-thirds of the Swiss central government’s budget, bringing in around 43.5 billion Swiss francs ($44.25 billion) in 2016. …Should voters reject the measure, the government would have to slash spending by more than 60 percent practically overnight or find new sources of revenue, Maurer told reporters.

Here’s a pie chart showing the revenue sources for the central government.

I would have voted no, of course, and I wish more Swiss voters had lined up against the initiative.

Not because I would have thought that an immediate 60-percent reduction in the size of the central government was feasible. But a larger share of no votes at least would have sent a signal to politicians in Bern that frugality is a good idea.

There was another referendum over the weekend that also produced an unfortunate result. Swiss voters approved continuing subsidies for state-run media.

The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, Switzerland’s public broadcaster is largely funded by a broadcasting fee. This fee, known colloquially as Billag, the name of the agency that collects it, is paid by most companies and essentially every household. The No Billag initiative, is a bid to do away with fee. …the No Billag vote was rejected by 71.6% of voters.

The margin of defeat is especially disappointing since libertarians actively campaigned for this initiative.

Switzerland, like many European nations, has certain television and radio channels that are run by the government. …Together with other classical liberals in Switzerland, Frédéric Jollien is fighting against the royalties imposed by the government for media consumption. 450 Swiss Francs, the equivalent of €382 or $456, is the annual fee that consumers are required to pay, regardless if they want state-run TV and radio channels or not. …Journalists (who, by the way, are exempt from paying this fee) are releasing heavy verbal fire on the campaigners. They claim it would cause massive unemployment in the media sector, that it is anti-democratic, and that it would enable big foreign companies to take over the Swiss market.

Alas, the fear campaign succeeded.

But I hasten to add that this doesn’t mean Switzerland is turning towards statism. I suspect the real story is that the Swiss are content with the status quo.

And the status quo (especially by European standards) is a practical form of libertarianism.

Here’s some of what Dan Hannan wrote last year.

I have always loved Switzerland…its devolved decision-making, its entrenched Euroskepticism. …I am a Helvetophile for many of the same reasons as America’s Founders. James Madison was fascinated by the way Switzerland had “no concentered authority, the Diets being only a Congress of Delegates from some or all of the Cantons.” …George Mason was entranced by the militia system: “Every Husbandman will be quickly converted into a Soldier, when he knows & feels that he is to fight for his own. It is this which preserves the Freedom and Independence of the Swiss Cantons, in the midst of the most powerful Nations.” …Switzerland has stubbornly retained its sovereignty, despite being surrounded by the EU. …Swiss democracy is direct, decentralized and devolved. Most fiscal decisions are taken locally. Result? Swiss voters are the happiest in Europe, their economy is the freest, and their state budget the smallest.

And let’s not forget that Switzerland is still a bright spot on gun rights.

In February 2011, Swiss citizens voted in a referendum that called for a national gun registry and for firearms owned by members of the military to be stored in public arsenals. …Hermann Suter, who at the time was vice president of the Swiss gun-rights group Pro Tell, told the BBC then. “The gun at home is the best way to avoid dictatorships—only dictators take arms away from the citizens.” Apparently many of his fellow Swiss agreed. The referendum was easily defeated. Gun ownership in the country has deep historic roots… guns are popular… Children as young as 12 are taught how to shoot…and are encouraged to participate in highly popular target-shooting competitions. The country’s cultural attachment to firearms resembles America’s in some ways…it has the third-highest rate of private gun ownership in the world… The Swiss Defense Ministry estimates that there are 2 million privately owned weapons in the country of 8.3 million people.

Yet there’s almost no gun-related crime.

Switzerland has a low rate of gun crime, and hasn’t seen a mass shooting since 2001.

And let’s not forget that the fiscal burden of government in Switzerland is comparatively modest.

Not by libertarian standards. Not by historical standards.

But compared to other European nations, Switzerland is a fiscal Shangi-La. The tax burden is lower, and spending consumes a smaller share of economic output.

And this translates into lower levels of red ink.

P.S. I find Switzerland to be a very interesting case study, for reasons noted above and also on issues such as decentralization, privacy rights, gun rights, and private retirement savings. But I’m a policy wonk, so I’m drawn to unusual examples. What does surprise me is that other people must be interested in the country as well. My 2011 column comparing Switzerland and the United States is the 7th-most-viewed piece in the history of this site.

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