In Switzerland, voters determine how much should be paid in taxes, and how those taxes should be used. Isn’t this asking for trouble?
Switzerland is a strange nation. The people are handed the chance to increase their annual leave to six weeks on a silver platter, and what do they do? They decline!
It’s a similar situation with taxes. Thanks to popular votes and town hall meetings, the Swiss regularly go to the ballot box to decide on tax rates and the use of taxes. In September, for example, voters will have the opportunity to decide whether to increase VAT to finance the AHV (old age and disability pension). Meanwhile, the canton of Zurich will decide whether the tax-deductible amount for commuters should be limited to CHF5,000 ($5,250), to leave more money for its tax coffers.
What’s surprising is that voters do not always decide in their own favour. Three years ago, for example, the Swiss agreed to a new law limiting the tax-deductible amount for commuters to CHF3,000. This indirect tax increase was used to finance the rail infrastructure.
Town hall tradition
Where does this Swiss rationality come from? Why do they tend to prioritise the nation's financial health over their own tax savings when weighing up the impact of a new bill? It is because of the tradition of town hall meetings. Since medieval times, Swiss men and women (strictly speaking, Swiss widows) have gathered under a tree, at the church square, or at the inn to decide on their community’s finances and taxes.
The tradition of town hall meetings still exists in most Swiss communities, even though they are now usually held indoors where locals can decide on issues such as tax rates and the community’s expenses. These meetings give the residents a platform to discuss, evaluate, and argue.
Sometimes, residents even agree on issues such as a tax hike. In 2013 for example, the people of Samedan in canton Graubünden accepted a 20% increase in taxes to reduce the community’s debts. That was not the only case, though: the population of Schwyz agreed on a 10% tax increase to finance education and energy-related activities, and to subsidise supplemental childcare at schools. All this was decided upon against the will of the government.
Direct democracy allows every Swiss citizen to act like a politician and take part in shaping the community’s future. With this political maturity, the Swiss have learnt that self-responsibility and long-term thinking are part of self-determination.
Translated from German by Billi Bierling, swissinfo.ch