Arnold Kling  


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I am trying to learn more about the political system of Switzerland. The country has 23 cantons, each with its own parliament! I can find the population of each canton and the number of members in each parliament. I am hoping to find a figure for the budget in each canton. Right now, all I have is the total budget of all the cantons, which is about 16 percent of Swiss GDP, with spending at the national and municipal levels at 12 and 10 percent, respectively.

(I think that the figures that I seek are at the Swiss Federal Financing Administration web site here?, but not in English, and the documents seem to be PDF's, which I don't know how to translate automatically.)

Switzerland has a population of about 7.5 million, so that it is comparable to a U.S. state. For example, Maryland has about 5.5 million.

So a canton in Switzerland is roughly comparable to a county in Maryland. But while Montgomery County has 9 council members, a similar-sized canton might have a parliament of 100 members.

In addition, Switzerland has a tradition of allowing people to vote down unpopular legislation. They form a petition drive, and the legislation goes onto the ballot as a referendum.

It seems to me that the political system in Switzerland is much more decentralized than that in the United States. I am not saying that it is ideal, or even preferable. But the mere fact that Switzerland is not a failed state is intriguing. It suggests that there are viable alternatives to the U.S. model of inequality and excess when it comes to power.

My interest in Switzerland was sparked by Bruno Frey's book, Happiness, which I've recommended. For more on the political economy of Switzerland, I recommend papers by Lars Feld (more). On the issue of voter referenda and direct democracy, I recommend John Matsusaka (for example).

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
midmull writes:

It's actually 26 cantons, with 6 cantons only getting 1 seat on the "Council of States" (pretty much the Swiss version of the senate).
You may also want to check out the Swiss statistics website for those figures you're looking for:

GU writes:


thefinancedude writes:

Ive always found the petition part the best. If we could institute something similar, we're still screwed, but at least it would be agreed on before hand.

Daublin writes:

I spent some time living in Switzerland. If you want to see curious systems in a non-American setting, I believe you will find lots of interest. Let me toss out a few notes, although I must admit I don't know the details of any of it.

Apartment rental is far more carefully controlled than in most American cities. It is the sort of arrangement where it is very hard to lose an apartment once you have one, but also it's very hard to get one to start with. There is a sort of underground market in trying to meet people and get them to pass their apartment on to you. It's really strange if you are used to most American cities, where you show up and talk to the owner and if you like the deal, you take it on the spot. In Switzerland, you *apply* for an apartment, and for any given apartment the odds are you will not be considered up to snuff to get it!

From second-hand experience I can tell you that home improvement is easily a nightmare. Anecdotally, it can take over one hundred signatures to build a modification to your house.

All bills can be paid electronically through, of all places, the post office, and there is no service charge at all to do this. Even little student associations would take their dues via a post-office account. The numbers of such accounts weren't kept secret, unlike the shyness Americans seem to have about account numbers.

There is an available form of insurance that will cover your rental security deposit for you. Instead of paying a security deposit-- which tends to be three months' rent -- you can pay a one-time fee to a company that will cover the risk for you.

Such deposits are held in escrow at banks, even when the apartment owner is the tiniest of organizations.

There is a nation-wide "CASH card" system. You can put electronic cash on a card and then use that to pay for things anonymously and without a PIN.

It is socially common to pay at restaurants with large amounts of cash, despite all the fancy electronic infrastructure they have.

Prices in general seem high. My impression was that there were a lot of trade barriers; at any rate the local magazines often lobbied for joining the EU under the argument that it would lower local prices.

Licenses for driving are very high. I heard of people paying above 1000 CHF total to get the right to drive. In general, all private enterprise seems gummed up by regulation. I got the impression that there were an unusual number of trades that required going to the right schools, getting the right certs, taking the right apprenticeships, etc.

There aren't a lot of kiddie, starter jobs. Even grocery store cashiers tended to be middle aged.

Political activity is high. There are always referendums going, and there are always bleeding-heart posters all over town trying to get you to vote one way or another. ("My Mom is at work even though it's a Sunday", *sniff*.)

The train stations are federal turf, and they tend to have quite a lot of shops in them that stay open when the rest of the canton shuts down.

Imigration is very tight, but guest workers are quite commonly seen.

Recycling companies are big and are tied in with the government somehow. I'm not sure of the details.

Just from the top of my head. Share what you find and think!

Pedant writes:

Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America argued that Switzerland was far too decentralized and would degenerate into anarchy. I think he was proven wrong as wrong could be.

JRip writes:

Frontline did a piece back in April on health care costs and structures in 5 countries. Switzerland was one of the 5.

schelker writes:

There is actually a lot of data around at the cantonal level, from expenditures to revenues, debt etc. However, one needs to be careful when analyzing this data. Besides the cantons even the municipalities enjoy a high degree of autonomy in terms of expenditure and revenue decisions (they levy their own taxes, most importantly income taxes). It is important to note, that not all cantons grant their municipalities the same fiscal autonomy and the division of duties and responsibilities between cantons and their municipalities are not necessarily similar. Therefore, e.g. low municipal spending might just reflect heavily restricted competences and not particularly efficient governance. Hence, there is a substitution effect among municipal and cantonal spending and taxation. This makes it necessary to analyze data including both government levels simultaneously. This is an important aspect, which proved to impact heavily on empirical results when analyzing the influence of decentralization and more importantly the influence of direct democracy on fiscal variables (Schelker and Eichenberger 2003, 2007, Funk and Gathmann 2005).
A paper of mine that essentially deals with the impact of local auditing institutions in Switzerland, but as a side product also reports the effects of decentralization and direct democracy can be found on:
If you are interested in any such data, feel free to contact me.

Krist writes:
There aren't a lot of kiddie, starter jobs. Even grocery store cashiers tended to be middle

Switzerland has an education system that is very different from that of the US. Most graduate from high school at the age of 15-16 and about half of the kids then start an apprenticeship at some company (the rest keeps on studying).
Even when attending college working part time in a field related to one's studies is often a requirement.
As a result you don't find a lot of teenagers at checkout counters, but you do find them in factories, on building sites, in offices and IT departments.

Steve Sailer writes:

Arnold, I wrote a 2000 article on why Switzerland doesn't split along language lines at:

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