Direct Democracy In Switzerland Ch. 11-15

By Gregory Fossedal
11. Education

Walking down the streets of Bern, the Swiss capital, one sees a 
country teeming with education. For every grocery store there appears 
to be perhaps three bookstores. These are generally stocked with 
serious volumes: reference books and computer software galore; 
history; and a plethora of how-to-do-it, solve-it-yourself volumes, 
from home repair to honing your shooting skills. A member of 
Parliament, Dr. Onken, recognizes me and waves hello; Onken operates a 
correspondence learning institute in Southeast Switzerland. Newspaper 
stands are as ubiquitous as in Manhattan, and have more newspapers. At 
a kiosk near the train station, the usual ads for rock-and-roll bands 
and small theater productions are sprinkled liberally with cards and 
flyers of French and Italian tutors, financial management services, 
and computer courses.

One thing to notice about the examples above is that there is no 
mention of a strictly "regular" school for children aged five through 
say eighteen - the K-12 years in the United States. There are many of 
these, too, of course. But one of the striking aspects of the Swiss 
passion for education is that it is not locked up in "the classroom." 
It ambles about the society freely, like the bustling pedestrians on 
the Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich or the cobbled streets along the river in 
Luzern.

This hunger for learning sprawls out across the society and into every 
activity in Switzerland, in a way that is hard to quantify or 
summarize, except by providing some examples that truly seem to be 
common. At a Swiss factory that builds large weaving and sewing 
machines in Aargau canton, we encounter a worker on his break. He is 
sitting by his machine reading a book about electrical engineering, 
which he is studying at the technical school. Visiting a housewife and 
member of the cantonal parliament in St. Gallen, my colleague begins 
the conversation in German - but our hostess replies in fragmented 
English. Her children, she explains, are keen to learn English, and 
she wants to practice so she can help and learn along with them.

Swiss students consistently perform close to the top in international 
standardized tests of math, science, and reading, as Fig. 11.1 
suggests.

Figure 11.1
Math Performance by Country (approx.)

Greece - 495
Iceland - 500
U.S. - 515
Germany - 520
Sweden - 530
Ireland - 535
France - 540
Russia - 540
Switzerland - 550
Japan - 600
Korean - 600

Source:   OECD data compiled by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.

Indeed, if there were tests for fluency in a second or third language, 
the Swiss would almost certainly rank first in that category year 
after year, and their scores on math and other tests, if corrected to 
reflect the fact that many are taking the tests in a second language, 
would be close to the levels of more or less monolingual Korea and 
Japan. People are perhaps more satisfied with the schools than in any 
country in the world - Sweden, Australia, and Germany, in my 
experience, would offer significant competition; the United States, 
Canada, and Britain would not. The Swiss "seem to have great 
confidence in the country's schools," Robert Schneebeli notes. 
"Whenever a problem arises, people think it should be made a subject 
at school."

At the same time, there are interesting features in the system that 
might even cause one to think they take formal schooling lightly. We 
speak here of "the system" as an amalgamation of generalizations about 
the systems of the cantons. Immigrant children are not put into 
separate bilingual tracks but learn in the local language of 
instruction, supplemented by special work. Students generally start 
compulsory schooling at age six or seven and are finished after nine 
years, a fact that was of great concern to my traveling guide and 
companion - who resides much of the year in the United States, but 
remains a Swiss patriot. "How are Swiss children going to compete," he 
kept pressing educators and others, "getting started at this age? The 
children in the United States start school at five, and they can 
already read." (My colleague lives in Princeton, N.J.)

High school graduates receive no diploma as such. Three out of four go 
on to vocational school, which is more rigorous than such schools in 
the U.S. or Britain, but is still "only a vocational school." Some 8.8 
percent graduate from a university, one of the lowest rates among all 
members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 
The state-run universities are impressive, but there are none of the 
great private institutions one finds in most Western countries. 
Private education in general is practically nonexistent, covering 
approximately 3 percent of the K-12 students.

Many of these statistics reflect simple statistical anomalies. For 
example, the Swiss technical schools are not necessarily less 
rigorous, and perhaps more, than an American "university" but are not 
defined as such. On the other hand, critical skills normally imparted 
at a French, American, or British college might not be even at the 
Zürich Technical Institute, where students grumbled when they were 
required to take one or two humanities electives. The Swiss system, 
like Japan's, is inferior at the liberal arts - though not, in the 
Swiss case, at languages.

Table 11.1 compares various policy aspects of Swiss schools for 
primary and secondary children (K-12) to several other developed 
countries.

Swiss parents and educators believe their education system to be 
highly decentralized compared to other systems. It is, in fact, 
decentralized - but perhaps not much more so than many other 
countries.

The basic policy for education in the public schools is set at the 
cantonal level. Officials in Zürich set guidelines for the Zürich 
canton; the cantonal government in Aarau does the same for Aargau 
canton; and so on. The average size of a canton is approximately 300,
000 persons, making this unit of government comparable to a city with 
the population one-half the size of Oakland, California or Washington, 
D.C. The median would be larger.

Cantonal policies are then implemented at the local level, as in the 
U.S., Sweden, Germany, and many other OECD countries. But the Swiss 
administrative units are not markedly smaller or more local than in 
the countries mentioned. There is a much greater degree of 
decentralization of administration than in, say, France, Australia, or 
Denmark. But these countries have school choice or voucher schemes 
which in effect decentralizes education down to the individual family: 
The parents decide which school their child goes to, and government 
assistance follows their child according to their decision.

None of this means that the Swiss are wrong to think their school 
system is decentralized. It may be, however, that their system is not 
as radically decentralized, compared to others, as they sometimes 
think.

The strongest element of Swiss federalism in education is something 
they lack: A federal department, above and atop the general 
administrative apparatus described, to plead for or even impose 
certain policies on its communities and cantons (or states). In the 
United States, for example, the federal Department of Education 
provides only about 10 percent of the funding for

Table 11.1
Swiss Schools Compared

Switzerland
U.S.
Australia
Germany
Sweden

teachers hired by...
parents, board (varies by canton)
school officials
school officials
school officials
school officials

tenure -
no (3-5 year contract)
yes
yes
yes
yes

choice/voucher system -
(no)
(no)
yes
(yes)
yes

union pluralism -
yes
(no)
(no)
yes
yes

noncompulsory religious classes in public schools -
yes
no
(no)
yes
(no)

local control (1 to 10 scale) -
9
5
6
7
7

Source: Alexis de Tocqueville, Institution, selected studies, 1996-
1999. Copyright © AdTI, all rights reserved.
---

public education in the U.S. It enacts, however, more than half the 
volume of regulations imposed on a typical school, and of all the 
forms and reports local schools are required to fill out, an estimated 
80 percent are federal.

In Switzerland, we visited the closest thing to a Department of 
Education, the intercantonal education directorate in Bern. The modest 
office next to a public library takes up one floor; it is smaller than 
the offices of one official, the Secretary of Education, in the United 
States (counting the secretary's conference room and staff assistants)
. Of course, the United States population is approximately fifty times 
that of Switzerland, but even so, its staff of about 2,000 persons 
dwarfs the office we visited: fifteen persons, of whom ten are full 
time, or the equivalent of perhaps a dozen staff. The city of New York 
alone employs administrative staff many times the Swiss "federal 
department." A former U.S. Secretary of Education has called this 
morass of experts and rule makers, who endlessly analyze one another's 
theories and studies, the "education blob."

In Switzerland, by contrast, "the blob" almost does not exist. If we 
compare the amount of money a country spends on teachers with the 
amount it spends on nonteaching personnel - administrators, guidance 
counselors, and others - we arrive at a rough index for the size of 
this class as a feature in any given country's school system. The 
measure is inexact, but suggestive. Figure 11.2 shows how various 
countries rank based on this index. The larger the bar, the more money 
that country is spending on administration and other personnel 
compared to actual teachers. Only Belgium ranks very far below the 
Swiss, and its system includes significantly more private schools than 
the Swiss do. (Private schools tend to have a high ratio of teacher 
pay to administrative pay, partly because they have to compete without 
subsidies in many countries, partly because they often do not have to 
obey as many rules and regulations as the public schools.)

The more distinctive feature of this system is the selection of 
teachers directly by the parents and the communes - with little 
intermediation either from above or from the side (such as a board of 
experts accountable to the parents, but only at periodic general 
intervals). In cantons and communities that still have direct 
democracy, this means at a town meeting. Even in those with less 
direct means, teachers are hired at meetings generally open to all the

Figure 11.2 Education Bureaucracy Index

Denmark about 47
U.S. about 37
Britain about 25
Czech Republic about 19
Canada about 19
France about 16
Switzerland about 13
Austria about 9
Belgium about 5

Source:   OECD data compiled by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.
---

parents - sometimes by all who care to show up and are qualified 
voters, sometimes by large commissions that are easy to obtain 
election to and that seldom vary from any strong sentiment in the 
community anyway. Teachers are hired for contracts of three, four, or 
five years as a general rule. No board of experts intervenes; no 
mandates or regulations from Bern or, generally, even the cantons say 
who can be hired and who cannot, within the technically qualified pool 
of applicants. As these are set by the cantons, the "teacher 
certification" process is less burdensome than in most other 
countries. The programs for teacher training generally require 10 
years of schooling for admission - a little less than a high school 
diploma in U.S. terms. There follows three to five years of further 
schooling; Swiss teachers generally enter the marketplace between the 
ages of twenty-one and twenty-five.

As with many other public positions in Switzerland, the vast majority 
of teachers who seek reappointment after that time receive it for 
another three-to five-year contract. It would be wrong, however, to 
think that this means the system is no different from one in which 
teachers are tenured, and a similarly tiny minority are fired. The 
fact that teachers must seek reappointment helps, to put it bluntly, 
to keep them on their toes. Very seldom will the Swiss capriciously 
remove someone who is doing even a marginally creditable job; the 
Swiss people, like all good managers, like to keep people where they 
are if possible. Yet, the need to respond to the customer is just a 
little sharper. At the same time, the election of the teacher by the 
community serves as a kind of affirmation. It is a public act of 
confidence that the teachers (or anyway, the vast majority) seem to 
appreciate.

"A minority of people in our group have strong reservations about the 
hiring of teachers by the communities and commissions," says Irene 
Hänsenberter of the Dachverband Schweizer Lehrerinnen und Lehrer - the 
Bern office of the largest teachers union in Switzerland. "The vast 
majority, however, is satisfied. It's good that the communities are 
responsible for which teacher their children have. Parents who are not 
involved then cannot complain, because they 'have their chance.' I 
think the people who are involved in the schools are happy with them, 
and this is the majority of people here."

"This system helps keep people involved," agrees Wolf Linder of the 
Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education - the Swiss 
equivalent of the U.S. Department of Education. "People here have the 
feeling that they can change things, that the system responds to them. 
That is a plus. We have our problems in Switzerland, but we do not 
have a problem with parents being involved in their children's 
education."

The Swiss level of satisfaction with their schools is very high. They 
view the schools with perhaps the same patriotism as the army or the 
political system (which the Swiss also prize).

When one asks the Swiss - teachers, parents, officials - why they are 
so satisfied, there is nearly always a pause. The Swiss seem slightly 
taken aback at the notion that, somewhere in the world, people may not 
be as happy. Then, typically, comes an empirical proof, which is fair 
enough, given the data. "They seem to do a good job," a woman on the 
community council in Hittnau comments. "Swiss children do well in 
their basic subjects."

But what if there is a problem?

"Do you mean for me personally, or with the school in general."

Well, let's take both cases.

"I guess they're both the same, actually. I would take it up with the 
teacher. And I think that is what most parents do."

Yes, that is what most parents would probably do in the United States, 
too. In Switzerland, you seem very comfortable with what happens then. 
Why do you think that is?

"Well, the schools usually respond."

Probably it is that simple - in Switzerland, the public schools seem 
to be unusually responsive. The parents perceive them that way, which 
is the same thing. Why are the Swiss schools so responsive? The answer 
is a mix of cultural and personal traits, policies that have directly 
to do with education per se, and broader institutional and political 
arrangements.

The Swiss tax code, for example, does little to encourage private 
education, providing tax deductions for gifts to such institutions 
only in narrow cases having to do with large corporate or individual 
trusts. The result, however, has been to focus all attention and 
interest on the public schools, for compulsory schooling, and even the 
universities. As there is very little in the way of a safety valve for 
the frustrated or the alienated, they work for a solution within the 
political system.

The Swiss polity, of course, makes such action somewhat easier than in 
other countries. Even if the recourse to teacher elections does not 
prove effective, "there is," as a public school teacher in Basel told 
me, "always the ballot box." In the cantons of Bern, Zürich, and 
Basel, three of the country's largest, there were dozens of referenda 
and citizen-led ballot initiatives on education policy. In Bern in the 
1990s, Ms. Hänsenberter of the teachers union estimates, approximately 
one-third of all ballot initiatives concerned education policies. 
"When people are especially frustrated," she adds, "or simply have a 
strong idea about something, it grows even larger."

Indeed, many of the proposals - perhaps half - emanate from teachers 
and their unions themselves. "It is one of their major activities," a 
teacher from the Ticino says. The union proposals do not fare any 
better, and perhaps do a tad worse, than those proposed by small 
groups of parents and teachers.

The initiatives that do pass, such as a referendum on parental rights 
in 1992 in Bern, enable the Swiss education to make constant, rolling 
improvements in itself over time. Other education systems seem to be 
more sticky. Precisely because education is so important, the smallest 
decision over a textbook, the conduct of a school nurse's office, or a 
song at the winter festival can become a heated controversy. This is 
not to dismiss the concerns or motives of those who engage in these 
battles; rather, to empathize with the fact that such matters will be 
fought out, if they must be, and if not given an outlet that is 
constructive, they will be fought destructively.

Alexis de Tocqueville noted this during one of the French 
parliamentary debates over policies allowing parents to use their 
family's education support from the government to send their child to 
religious schools. "When men cannot argue about principles, they will 
argue about interests, and then, personal morals. Soon we will be 
debating nothing but canals and conflicts of interest." The broader 
Swiss political system, by allows voters who cannot get the policy 
they want from the school administration, or the teacher, to appeal 
directly to parents and teachers as a whole - and, of course, allows 
teachers and administrators the same privilege.

Over time, of course, the most important impact of this process may, 
ironically, be pedagogic. By constantly empowering even the smallest 
voices to set off a legislative debate and making frequent recourse to 
the jury of the people, the Swiss education system, in combination 
with the political, leads a constant dialogue. And, unlike an 
abstract, academic discussion where nothing changes as a result, this 
is, if one may co-opt a 1970s phrase, a "meaningful dialogue."

Responsiveness may help explain why Switzerland is able to offer 
religious instruction in its public schools with little rancor or 
controversy. This is not to say school curricula are theologically 
based throughout such courses as science and history. But each canton 
is allowed to encourage religion and even "establish" a particular 
church. Elementary schools in Geneva, Vaud, the Ticino, Bern, Luzern, 
Schwyz, and Zürich cantons allowed me to visit for parts of a day to 
get a flavor for the instruction in different languages, urban and 
rural settings, and among contrasting confessional preferences.

The younger Swiss students in the rural cantons often dressed 
uniformly, as if a certain type of dress were the norm, but not as in 
a parochial school. Those in Zürich and Geneva were less uniform, but 
still relatively disciplined in appearance and behavior compared to 
American, French, and British children. On the walls were occasional 
religious items. They were not sufficiently plentiful to make one 
think oneself in an American parochial school, but there were enough 
of them to make it clear one was not in an American public school 
either. At the school in Zürich, but only there, one noticed several 
artworks with a star of David or Hannukah menorah, one a beautifully 
conceived scene rising up over what appeared to be Lake Constance. 
Otherwise the images were all Christian - usually neither 
distinctively Protestant or Catholic, though occasionally in the older 
grades, especially in Schwyz and Bern, one could make out what seemed 
to be ideas from one branch or the other.

In Hittnau, an outlying suburb of the city of Zürich in Zürich canton, 
the town minister sits in as some of the other town leaders and the 
leaders from the school plan out various repairs and events. The 
meeting is seamless; there are no large transitions between "religion" 
and "other" civic affairs, and it does not feel awkward to have the 
subject change from the new pipes that are going in, to next month's 
church festival. In Schwyz, a Catholic priest strides up the steep 
hill toward one of the schools. He has classes and coaches soccer in 
the afternoon, and will probably hear a confession or two on the side 
as he makes his rounds. The presence is very low key, but widespread. 
Even in Bern, which is relatively more cosmopolitan and wears no piety 
on its sleeve, such symbols are common.

When one asks Swiss officials or individuals who are in the majority - 
that is, who within their canton adhere to the faith that is the 
cantonal one, Catholic or Protestant - about this mixing of religious 
and secular affairs, they seem partly to expect the question, partly 
to have a difficult time grasping it. The Swiss take for granted that 
this overlap does not constitute an imposition on the minority 
provided it is bounded. "Remember, there is nothing compulsory about 
religion in Swiss schools," a member of the Hittnau community council 
told me. "Freedom of conscience is strictly protected." In many 
countries, though, even this degree of interaction and in this spirit 
would be regarded as a grotesque offense against the minority.

The responsiveness of the schools in Switzerland - and, for that 
matter, of most institutions - explains a portion of the difference. 
When people feel involved in a process, their day-to-day opinions 
heard, they are less likely to feel alienated from it even if a 
particular policy does not suit their preference. If only some aspects 
of policy - such as the religious element in the schools - were merely 
transferred from Switzerland to other countries, one might not see the 
same harmonious result. It is also worth remembering, however, that 
for hundreds of years, the Swiss were bitterly divided over religious 
questions, and in particular, between the Catholic and Reformed 
churches.

The schools, of course, also operate within a cultural context.

"In Switzerland," as a Catholic priest told me in Bern, "sometimes, 
the minority gives way to the majority." The very formulation, with 
its deliberate irony, suggests something the Swiss know in their 
bones, though they have had to work many years to achieve it. In 
Switzerland, the majority, as scholar Carol Schmid puts it, often 
"does not behave like a majority."(1) That is to say, there are 
majorities in Switzerland - Protestants, German-speakers, and others - 
that abstain from establishing certain practices they might otherwise 
prefer, out of a deliberate respect for the minority. There are 
practical and self-interested considerations as well, including the 
social peace. This deference, however, goes well beyond a narrow 
pragmatism.

One sees this in the Swiss schools in many practices. In German-
speaking Switzerland, students assiduously study French or Italian in 
order to meet the requirement that they be fluent in one of the 
national languages other than their own. In the French-speaking 
portions, German is studied, though with less enthusiasm. The French-
speaking Swiss, paradoxically, as Schmid writes, "behave like a 
majority," in the sense that they are confident in their rights and 
status, feeling less need to assert them because of the arrangements 
made to suit them and the respect of the German-speaking majority. 
Schmid offers an elegant suggestive proof of this by interviewing 
Swiss students and asking them to estimate how many Swiss speak German 
as a first language, French, and Italian. The German-speaking 
students, because of the complex cultural signals they receive about 
the importance of French, consistently overestimated how many Swiss 
speak it as a first language, and underestimate the size of their own 
group, the German speakers. The French-speaking students, confident in 
their status, likewise underestimate the Germans, and overestimate 
themselves. And both groups, German and French, overestimate how many 
Swiss speak Italian as a first language. Italian television, radio, 
and other cultural affairs all receive a disproportionate share of 
public funding, for example - the majority deliberately accommodating 
the minority. In modern times, one even sees this approach extending 
to the Jewish community, and being felt and appreciated by the Jewish 
community itself. That it is not more so has largely to do with the 
fact that Jews are still a tiny (about one percent) share of the Swiss 
population. The matter of Jewish life and culture in Switzerland is 
taken up in a separate discussion.

There is a price for this kind of educational system, but the Swiss - 
teachers, parents, and students - seem willing to pay it. You see it 
on a late evening in February, walking along the river in Baden. A 
single light is burning in the elementary school, which looks to hold 
normally 100 to 150 children. Inside what appear to be one teacher and 
several parents, several mothers and a father or two, are working on 
some kind of stand or bleachers for what looks like it will be an 
historical presentation the next day. Though they are inside, they are 
wearing medium-weight jackets - it appears the heat is either not 
working, or turned down to save money.

To teachers in the U.S. or Britain, that kind of volunteer help might 
sound like a Godsend, but the educators pay a price as well. After 
all, in many Western countries that kind of volunteer labor by 
parents, and late-night work by one of the teaching staff, could be 
construed as a violation of the union work contract.

"We supported the passage of a parental responsibility policy in 1992,
" Ms. Hänsenberter of the teachers union notes. (The measure also 
asserts parental rights.) "And it passed. Now sometimes the parents 
take too much responsibility. Still it is the best thing to have too 
much civic responsibility than too little."

Note

1.Conflict and Consensus in Switzerland, Berkeley, University of 
California Press, 1981


 12 Taxes

In no country on earth do the people think taxes are too low or too 
simple, or the burden imposed by the authorities to enforce them too 
light. Switzerland is no exception to this rule. "The taxes on capital 
and investment," says Hans Bär, the former chairman of Julius Bär, a 
respected investment bank in Zürich, "are too high." Edwin Somm, the 
former chairman of Asea-Brown-Boveri, the giant Swiss engineering 
firm, agrees. "There are a number of changes that must be made in the 
tax code to ensure competitiveness," he argues - and then pulls out a 
series of charts that detail, Ross-Perot-like, what sectors suffer 
from the rates that are too high, and which ones have allowances too 
wide or too narrow. George, affable, six-foot-five porter at the front 
desk of the Bellevue Hotel in Bern, agrees. "The Swiss tax system is 
not that great," George offers. He pauses. "What are you comparing it 
to?"

The question illustrates the fact that if the Swiss are unhappy with 
their taxes, they are probably less unhappy than in most other 
countries. Asked if there are things they would like to change about 
their tax code, most people in Switzerland answer yes. Asked if they 
would trade their tax laws for the tax laws of Germany, Japan, or the 
United States, most Swiss quickly answer no.

Certainly a part of the reason for this is the simple fact that Swiss 
tax rates are somewhat lower than in many Western countries. Their 
value-added tax is the lowest in Europe, a cause of some friction vis-
à-vis the rest of Europe and apprehension among the Swiss, who fear 
they may have to choose between integration and their low-tax 
traditions. Swiss income tax rates are among the lowest in the 
industrial world, as Table 12.1 illustrates.

Similarly, the Swiss value-added tax is about half that of the rest of 
Europe. (The United States had no value-added tax at the turn of the 
century, though one was occasionally proposed. The U.S. does, however, 
have sales taxes; the Swiss do not.) Taxes on corporate and investment 
income are on the one hand slightly lower than the average for other 
countries - but the differential for these is much smaller than in the 
personal income codes.

Table 12.1
Personal Income Tax Rates by Country

Country
Highest rate of tax on wage income

Hong Kong 13%
Bolivia 19%
Botswana 30%
Switzerland* 36%
Mexico 38%
Chile 44%
Great Britain 46%
United States 47%
Israel 50%
Japan 62%
France 64%
Germany 65%
Russia 67%

Source: Author's calculations derived from Coopers and Lybrand annual 
tax summary and cantonal revenue authorities; Swiss cantonal data from 
Dr. Nico Burki, Burki-Rechtsanwalte, Zürich.

* - Swiss federal income tax rates do not exceed 11 percent, but as 
the tax is fundamentally cantonal and even communal in nature, 
comparisons are difficult. The 36 percent figure is close to the 
highest one would pay as a combined effective rate in a typical 
canton, such as Luzern, Glarus, or Fribourg, as the U.S. figure is 
based on a typical state, such as Illinois or Virginia. Even this is 
not the highest possible figure: In the cantons of Geneva and Zürich, 
for example, the combined rate reaches 44 - 46 percent. It is common 
in these cantons, however, for high-income taxpayers to establish a 
residence in neighboring communities, avoiding the highest rates. Note 
that even at 40 percent, Switzerland would still have among the lowest 
tax rates in the developed world.
---

Although these low rates are an important part of the code's 
relatively high acceptance by the Swiss people, they are by no means 
the only factor. Another is the relative simplicity of the code and of 
the reporting of income. In the cantons of Ticino, Geneva, and Aargau, 
officials allowed me to see the basic forms that taxpayers use to pay 
their income tax. The resulting documents looked like one of those 
postcard returns designed by various U.S. politicians to show how easy 
taxes would be if their "super simple reform tax code" were adopted. 
The simplicity of the forms becomes a metaphor, not only that the 
process is not complicated but that there is a rough, simple fairness 
to it - and that the government, at least by appearance and in the 
Swiss case in reality, is not itself extravagant. Swiss who have lived 
abroad in France, Germany, or the United States generally compare the 
process of paying taxes in Switzerland favorably with that in these 
other countries.

Another cause of the relative acceptance of taxes in Switzerland is 
the balance of the code between different types of income. Many 
national tax codes are built upon the idea, whether stated or not, 
that certain types of activity are "good," and some bad - or at least, 
not as good as the favored activity. Accordingly, they may tax various 
activities at very different levels. This introduces an element of 
seeming unfairness into taxation, and encourages envy and divisiveness 
politically, as some groups seek to expand their privileges still 
farther, while others strive simply to gain equal treatment.

Thus some codes tax foreigners heavily (the Arab states, for instance) 
while others (Russia, much of the former Soviet Empire) literally tax 
their own people more.(1) Some codes tax corporate income higher than 
personal income, feeling that large enterprises need to be controlled 
or that they have more money and can therefore afford to pay more. 
Others tax companies (Europe, the United States) at much lower rates 
than people, in the thought that "investment" is good and creates 
jobs, while people having those jobs spending money on things is 
"consumption" and is not as good for the economy. Treatment of income 
by capital gains also varies widely. Some countries tax such gains 
more heavily than wages; others, such as the U.S. and Europe, more 
lightly; others have no capital gains tax at all; while in some 
countries, capital gains are simply treated the same as rents, wages, 
profits, or other incomes. Switzerland has no federal capital gains 
tax as such; the rate is zero. And many of the cantons treat capital 
gains the same as regular income in applying income tax rates, which 
are applied locally. Many cantons tax real estate sales, while gains 
on the disposition of other personal property is tax exempt. Business 
capital gains and income are all taxed - and at rates as high as 50 
percent.

The distortions that result from such differential taxation can appear 
comical to the outsider. In Britain in the 1970s, for example, the 
rate of corporate automobile ownership exceeded the rate of personal 
automobile ownership for a time. The combination of high tax rates and 
generous write-offs for "business transportation" made it much more 
economical for companies to provide transportation to many of their 
employees than to pay them wages, taxed at high rates, so they could 
buy cars of their own. But to the citizens of a country, such 
exceptions and imbalances can be infuriating. In the United States, 
so-called "flat" tax systems were proposed which in fact taxed wages 
at rates of 20 percent and more, while taxing capital gains at 0 
percent.

The Swiss code has its share of these elements, particularly when it 
comes to farming activities. On the whole, however, rates are 
balanced. Wage income, capital gains, and corporate income are all 
taxed - none at more than 40 percent, few at less than 10 percent. 
This attribute has been called "longitudinal fairness" - a fairness of 
taxing not merely the rich and the poor at fair rates, but at taxing 
different types of activity at a reasonably even rate.

The Swiss tax on total net assets - a wealth tax - broadens the base 
still further, and enables a somewhat lesser penalty on the production 
of wealth to be traded off for a low-rate tax on static wealth. This 
is a tax with many attractive elements (if, of course, it is not 
simply layered on other high tax rates). Of course, one can argue 
whether such designs are, in fact, the most fair. The Swiss seem to 
regard this approach as acceptable. It is worth noting that a tax on 
wealth, or accumulated riches, may have a very different impact on the 
incentive to take risks, add value, and create jobs, than a tax on 
profits, gains, or income.

By other measurements of fairness the code performs reasonably well. 
The richest Swiss do not appear to pay as high a percentage of the 
national income tax as in the United States, Japan, or Germany. The 
actual rate that applies to their income is even lower, comparably, 
than in those countries: In the United States, the federal tax rate 
goes from 0 percent to 38.5 percent, and in such populous states as 
California and New York, from 0 percent to more than 10 percent.

>From a redistributive point of view, then, the code is "less fair." 
This does not appear to bother the Swiss for several reasons, the 
first of which is they are not especially focused on comparisons of 
wealth, and in particular, have little desire to achieve economic 
equality through government redistribution. If a wealthy Swiss were to 
engage in great displays of wealth, he would be thought rude, and 
would be shunned by most of the society; but this social "tax" on the 
rich is thought, in part, to obviate efforts to seize property through 
the tax code or other means. In Switzerland, even today, one finds 
relatively lesser extremes of wealth in fact than in the United 
States, Britain, France, or even Germany. And there is almost no 
display. Corporate salaries in the multimillions of dollars, as seen 
in the United States and Europe, are less common, though no longer 
unheard of.

The Swiss comfort themselves in the fact that if the rich do not face 
extreme rates of taxation on paper, neither can they arm themselves 
with an array of loopholes to escape paying any taxation in fact. Nor 
are the most productive and creative members of society driven 
overseas by confiscatory schemes. A young police officer who discussed 
taxes with me at a coffee shop in Zürich commented that "what matters 
is that everybody pays some fair amount." Unlike many of their 
European and American counterparts, the Swiss do not have the nagging 
sense that while, in theory, the rich are paying half or more of their 
income in taxes, in practice, there are some who pay no taxes at all. 
Nor do they have much desire to tax others at such rates, even if it 
could be achieved.

To some extent, the tax code causes and reinforces these attitudes. To 
some extent, the society's condition of few extremes causes this tax 
code to be acceptable. In societies with greater disparities of 
wealth, and greater envy, it might not be.

Switzerland's size and position contribute to the country's 
determination to keep tax rates under control, indeed low by 
developed-country standards. Always dependent on trade and economic 
competitiveness, the Swiss are economic internationalists. They have a 
keen eye for the importance their own "domestic" tax or monetary 
policy will in fact have on their position in the world economy. A 
factory worker in Baden who talked to me at the train station had a 
relatively extensive knowledge of the different cantonal tax systems, 
praising Zug for its extremely low personal income tax rates. He had 
some knowledge, though not as detailed, of foreign systems. For 
example, while he could not quote personal income tax rates, he knew 
that they were higher in nearly all the surrounding countries. He also 
appeared to have a detailed sense of how the different rules for 
value-added taxes affected his wife's shopping habits when the family 
goes shopping in Germany.

Even so, there is reason for concern that the combination of various 
income taxes, social insurance rates, and the assets tax have begun to 
scare away some of Switzerland's most talented and productive members. 
This was especially acute in the 1980s when the United States and a 
number of other countries in the Americas slashed their tax rates 
while Europe cut rates, but not as much; and the Swiss, while starting 
from a very low-tax base, endured mild increases, later followed by 
the imposition of the value-added tax.

Where there is redistribution, the Swiss prefer to carry it out in a 
positive way than in a punitive one. For example, the educational 
system has a leveling impact, but does so more by lifting up and 
empowering the working class than by limiting the rich or the 
productive. Similarly the social welfare system carries out 
assistance, and needs no large base of revenue because the number of 
cases where it must be used is relatively small.

Swiss government spending tends to be concentrated not in transfer 
payments, such as public assistance, but in education, public works 
projects such as tunnels and roads, and other investments and value-
added activities. These tend to help the middle class, rich, and poor 
alike, but surely they help the poor the most by expanding the base of 
potential production, spurring employment opportunities. They also 
yield a visible result, products and public goods - parks, bridges, 
buildings - that give the taxpayer some tangible return for his 
payments.

The result is a sense not so much of equality, as of community. There 
is a difference between feeling that everyone contributes, and feeling 
that everyone contributes the same, or contributes enough. The Swiss 
do not necessarily enjoy the latter sensations, but they are perhaps 
less focused on these. They do share a sense that for the most part 
everyone contributes something and everyone enjoys some benefits, from 
the state and, thus, from the money it collects in taxes. They sense, 
economically, that their tax code is sufficient, and this in itself is 
a relative rarity in modern societies.

Politics play a role in the tax code's acceptance in Switzerland. It 
is remarkable, in fact, that with all the turmoil over taxes in most 
countries, the interconnection between the tax code and political 
institutions is seldom considered. In Russia, for example, political 
corruption and slack tax revenues are discussed in isolation, when by 
all appearances the country's onerous tax code helps generate black 
market activity, both economic and political. In the United States, 
frustration with the tax code is seldom addressed in its political 
dimension. This is not to say that Switzerland structured its 
political system with the intent of smoothing over the difficulty of 
tax collection common to Western societies. The political system does, 
however, have an impact. There appear to be two political structures 
in Switzerland that substantially ameliorate the classic tension of 
taxation.

First, of course, is the system of direct democracy at the federal and 
still more so the cantonal and communal levels. In one way, the 
ability to challenge any federal tax increase by means of the 
facultative referendum has proven a powerful tool for keeping tax 
rates down. And this is an important element; it is, however, only the 
most superficial result of the Swiss populism. The voters have the 
same power, indeed greater power, to limit taxes at the cantonal and 
local levels - yet they have proven more willing to approve new and 
higher taxes at those levels than the voters in perhaps any other 
country in the world.

As Tocqueville observed in the nineteenth century, "it is the cantons 
and the communes that provide things to the people" - services and 
goods, schools and roads. Although the Swiss polity is somewhat more 
centralized today than when he made those remarks (1848), it is 
nevertheless still one of the most decentralized systems in the world. 
And local government is highly popular - in large part because of the 
extreme degree of popular participation in it. Almost no tax may be 
increased without a popular vote - in many cases, at a direct popular 
assembly, where the electorate may confront the politicians or other 
voters who propose the new burdens face to face, "looking them in the 
eye," as the Swiss like to say.

The phenomenon can perhaps be best understood if we compare the 
process by which taxes might be raised in Switzerland to that of other 
countries that have representative - but not direct - democracy. In 
the United States or Europe, most tax changes or increases are passed 
by a legislature, typically by narrow margins, and with much political 
agitation. The agitation must be greater, not lesser, because of the 
fact that everyone seeking to influence the decision knows there is no 
ultimate check by the people. The political message of the electorate, 
everyone realizes, is filtered before it reaches the few dozen elites 
who will make the decision - and accordingly, all concerned seek to 
turn up the volume in order to get their message across. Voters, who 
do not enjoy the privilege of acting as legislators themselves, pay 
less attention to the merits and details of such issues than they 
would as quasi-legislators - they must spend a proportionately greater 
amount of their time contriving ways to make their voice heard by the 
system. Likewise, their leaders, of whatever party, spend 
proportionately greater energy and time trying to stir up the passions 
of voters, and alert them to their direct interest on an issue, than 
in educating the electorate toward what all know will be the ultimate 
decision - a vote by the people.

As a result, not only is the process less educational, for leaders and 
the people alike, but it results in the feeling that the popular 
wisdom has been cheated. How many of the major tax votes in the United 
States, for instance - 1981, 1986, 1990, and 1993 - were passed by 
narrow margins, with many of the decisive votes determined by lobbying 
and other pressures having little to do with the overall merits of the 
change? How much was the electorate stirred up and urged by both sides 
to contact their representatives - but, in the end, without any direct 
voice in the outcome? The elitism of this process renders the 
legislative process more vulnerable to manipulation at the same time 
that it creates the appearance of a rigged game and alienates the 
voter from the result.

As a review of the initiative and referendum process suggests, it is 
more difficult to raise taxes in Switzerland than in perhaps any other 
country. Yet, taxes are raised and altered from time to time. And when 
they are, there is less resentment than elsewhere, because the burdens 
are self-imposed.

The resulting feeling of self-responsibility and accountability by 
voters is perhaps analogous to the findings of doctors who have 
studied medication by patients in U.S. hospitals. For many years, the 
common practice among doctors was to oversee the administration of 
painkillers closely. Wise physicians, of course, consulted closely 
with their patients regarding the amounts and timing of the doses. But 
it was generally thought that the doctor must make the detailed 
decisions - their objectivity, and more so their expertise, meant that 
their judgment would be far superior to that of the patients, who 
would naturally tend to overdo the doses of such medication in order 
to relieve their pain.

In studies in the early 1990s, however, doctors decided to give some 
patients control over the administration of their own painkillers. 
(The patients were of course monitored to make sure they did not go 
outside of a certain band of safety; but within that very wide band, 
they applied the medication to themselves). The result, perhaps not 
surprising, was that they complained much less about pain than they 
had when the doctors were administering the medicine - the complaints 
dropped to less than one-third of the previous level. Perhaps more 
surprising, the amount of painkiller used by the patients plummeted. 
On average, use of the medications fell by more than 40 percent. And 
in only 10 percent of the cases did use of the painkiller exceed what 
would have been prescribed by the doctor - and then, generally, by 
only small amounts.

Even if a giant computer or highly sophisticated doctor could have 
somehow determined what patients would have chosen to take and when, 
the result would not have been the same. It was the feeling and 
reality of control that enabled patients to ration use of the 
painkiller in their own. There was no need to complain to the doctor, 
because each patient knew that in duress, if he or she felt a need for 
a sudden increase of dose, it was available. While the Swiss do not 
have the privilege of setting their own tax rates individually, they 
do enjoy, as a people, a degree of control over the process seen in 
few other political systems. As a result, tax rates are lower - but 
they also arouse less resentment when they go up.

There's a second reason for the relative lack of turmoil over taxes in 
Switzerland: the high degree of variation in tax rates among the 
cantons. In the U.S. and most of Europe, the fact that income taxes 
are largely and in some cases wholly the province of the central 
government leads to a situation in which there is little variety in 
tax rates. This can best be understood if we compare tax rate 
variation in Switzerland to that of another country, such as the 
United States.

In the United States, a person living in New Hampshire, Florida, or 
Texas - three states with no income tax and thus the lowest possible 
combined rates in the country - a worker still winds up paying 
approximately 45 percent of her or his income in taxes.(2) If the same 
person lived in New York or California, which with personal income tax 
rates close to 10 percent are among the highest tax states, state tax 
rates (deductible against the federal tax) might push the combined 
rate up by five or six points in the highest bracket - for a combined 
total of a little more or less than 50 percent in the top bracket. All 
other states fall somewhere in between. Thus, the spectrum of 
possibility for a high-income earner in the U.S. would be a lowest 
possible tax rate of 45 percent, and a top possible combined rate of 
50 percent. That's not a lot of difference, and it provides little in 
the way of choice for different people with different preferences. 
Someone living in New York who really hates high tax rates could move 
to New Hampshire, but would only be a few percentage points better 
off. On the other hand, someone living in Texas who misses the high 
level of social and other services in Massachusetts or California and 
doesn't mind paying for them can indeed move there. But they may find 
the milieu less satisfactory than they hoped for, because the 
uniformity of income tax codes and other revenue sources, a product of 
both higher federal rates and deductibility of state income taxes has 
made for a relatively similar picture on the revenue and spending side 
of most state budgets.

 In Switzerland, the combined rate of income tax ranges from as low as 
24 percent (Zug) and 26 percent (Schwyz) in some of the older, central 
cantons to as high as 43 percent (Zürich) and even 46 percent (Geneva) 
in the largest cities. Not surprisingly, such cantons as Luzern (35 
percent), Glarus (35 percent), and Fribourg (36 percent) fall in the 
middle. The combined spectrum of possible tax rates thus moves up and 
down by 22 percentage points, or about 90 percent, expressed using the 
24 percent lowest top rate as a baseline. (Note: Tax rates mentioned 
here are rounded off).

This variation contributes, like many other aspects of Swiss 
federalism, to a subtle and ongoing social peace. Citizens who 
strongly dislike taxes and prefer the more dynamic but less protective 
environment of a small local government tend to congregate in the 
cantons that fit that model. Those who prefer a larger economic role 
for the state, and don't object to the costs, tend towards Geneva, 
Zürich, and the cities.

A third important reason for Switzerland's relative calm over taxes is 
local administrative control of tax payment and enforcement. The Swiss 
have no equivalent of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service - a federal 
agency charged with vast powers to gather information and enforce 
penalties. There is, in fact, no Swiss "IRS" concerning the income tax 
at all, and the small tax enforcement office that does exist handles 
mainly customs issues. The Swiss have a handful of officials that help 
ensure accurate payment of the value-added tax, but this compares to 
agencies in Japan, France, and Germany that employ agents into the 
thousands.

Income taxes are paid to the community, which reports and divides 
income with the canton; the canton in turn reports and directs income 
to the federal government. Even at the community level, means of 
enforcement are few. When asked what they would do if someone were not 
paying their taxes, or how it would even be discovered, the town 
council members in Hittnau shrugged. "People would not want to do that 
in their own community," one of the council members speculated. "It 
doesn't seem to be a problem - people not paying their taxes." Indeed, 
international surveys of corruption and tax problems generally place 
Switzerland near the bottom of countries with substantial tax 
avoidance. By contrast, countries with large and powerful tax 
enforcement administrations, such as the United States, often report 
significant tax evasion. This problem appears to be acute in countries 
such as Russia and Nigeria, which have high rates of taxation.

This does not mean, of course, that if other countries were to 
eliminate their tax collection agencies, a sudden surge of payments 
would result. The opposite might be the case, unless other aspects of 
the system were adopted, not to mention the Swiss political culture of 
what can only be called a kind of local communism. The Swiss 
insistence on privacy is such that neither federal nor local 
authorities have access to banking records, even in cases of suspected 
tax evasion - which in Switzerland is a civil offense but not a 
criminal matter, much less a felony. Nor are such matters commonly 
discussed even in close circles. Asked why such matters do not, for 
example, get leaked to the press, Ivan Pictet, a respected private 
investment banker in Geneva, explains that "there is such respect for 
privacy that one doesn't see that happening." The Swiss appreciate the 
protections they enjoy, and the fact that their government is 
constrained - and so, sensing that to abuse these privileges would be 
to lose them, they respect the system voluntarily. "People do not want 
to see a system they like challenged by irresponsible behavior," 
Pictet continues. He was talking not simply about tax privacy, but 
privacy in general; and yet, to hear a taxpayer from a Western country 
describing the tax code as a system the people like is somewhat 
arresting.

Nearly all income tax systems rely to some degree, usually a large 
one, on voluntary compliance. The Swiss system, unconsciously, is well 
suited to this. Unlike consumption taxes or customs, the income tax is 
an unusually intimate tax, one that touches nearly everyone in 
society. Yet unlike consumption or property or other taxes it does not 
deal in the realm of tangibles, of purely physical goods more easily 
seen and rationalized. For this very reason it is perhaps most suited 
to the kind of sensitive, intimate treatment as in Switzerland is 
afforded by the fact of strong, generally popular local government.

One does not want to overdo the tired metaphor that government and 
community are "like a family," but among the Swiss, there is something 
to this metaphor. This is particularly so since the level of 
government that is most active and most real in the life of the 
average Swiss is that which is smallest and most intimate. The Swiss 
commune is capable, in scale, activity, and psychology, of acting 
somewhat like a family.

To recreate these results, one would have to recreate not only 
Switzerland's minimalist enforcement bureaucracy, but much of the 
whole society. This would include Swiss federalism, with its weak 
center and (more important) strong communities. It would also include 
the system of direct democracy - and the feeling of popular 
empowerment that accompanies all these formal institutions. That the 
Swiss tax code can even function, given the degree to which it relies 
on the voluntary patriotism of its people is, however, evidence of the 
inadvertent genius of Switzerland's political arrangements.

Notes

The statistics and examples that follow are taken from a survey of 
world tax codes excerpted in Gregory Fossedal, "What the Tax Reformers 
are Missing," Wall Street Journal, 7 November 1997.

This is the top federal rate of 38.5 percent plus Social Security plus 
zero rate for state and local income. On paper, Social Security taxes 
are paid half by the employer, half by the employee, but however they 
are accounted for, they represent a "wedge" between what the employer 
pays and what the worker receives.


 13. Crime

Swiss crime rates are not the lowest in the world, but they are close. 
Japan suffers fewer murders per capita. Scotland is more free of 
(reported) cases of rape and other sexual assault.

As in many other fields, then, Switzerland cannot quite claim to be 
number one. But the country ranks near the top in the effectiveness of 
its criminal justice system on all measures. And it performs 
respectably, indeed well, over a number of different crimes and crime 
measurements, as Figures 13.1 through 13.3 suggest.

The Swiss disagree about what causes these statistics, though the 
discussion is a happy one. Some stress societal factors. Switzerland 
enjoys high employment that has exceeded 98 percent for most of the 
century. The people have an ethic of citizenship and cooperation that 
all countries strive to instill, but Switzerland seems to succeed in 
instilling this ethic to an unusual degree.

These factors, though, are to some extent products of the regime and 
of policy: We see the hand of political institutions, though 
indirectly. Economic performance is partly a function of tax, 
monetary, social welfare, and other policies. Swiss citizenship is 
partly a traditional and historical phenomenon, but also a result of 
such institutions as the national militia, the schools, strong local 
government, and direct democracy. The army, with its universal male 
service, may play a double role. On the one hand, this is a society in 
which a large share of the population owns and maintains a firearm and 
knows how to use it responsibly. Guns are taken seriously, but they 
are a part of life; nearly every Swiss male between twenty and fifty 
years old has his rifle ready at home and practices regularly. The 
army also serves to tighten the bonds of citizenship and friendship, 
of community and shared duties. This will be less so as the services 
reduce their size and extent in the years to come, but is still a 
factor. While it is not impossible that people in this relationship 
would commit crimes against one another, it stands to reason that such 
individuals would be less prone to crime.

Figure 13.1
Murder Rates by Country. Intentional homicides reported per 1 million 
population (approx.)

Russia - 110
Scotland - 90
U.S.A. - 90
Finland - 80
Sweden - 70
Italy - 65
Israel - 45
Denmark - 45
Germany - 37
Norway - 25
Switzerland - 23
Japan - 10

Source: Author's calculations from United Nations' data.
---

Figure 13.2
Rape Crimes Per 1 Million Persons. Forcible rapes reported per 1 
million population, 1991.

Korea - 165
Russia - 95
Scotland - 95
Sweden - 95
Denmark - 90
Norway - 85
Germany - 80
Finland - 75
Switzerland - 65

Source: U.N. data from country reports; author's calculations.
---
Figure 13.3
Total Drug Offense and Drug Trafficking Rates (approx.)

Norway - 75
SWITZERLAND - 100
Denmark - 185
Israel - 450
Germany - 500
Scotland - 575
Canada - 675
U.S. - 1000
Sweden - 1075

Israel - 900
Germany - 1400
Scotland - 1500
Canada - 1600
Norway - 1800
Denmark - 2000
SWITZERLAND - 2500
Sweden - 2800
U.S. - 3800

Top, drug offenses (possession or sale) per 1 million persons.
Bottom, drug trafficking offenses alone, also per 1 million persons.

Source: U.N. data, author's calculations.
---

Likewise, the high degree of racial and religious harmony in 
Switzerland does not result from lack of diversity, but from the way 
the country deals with diversity. In the United States, two-thirds of 
all arrests for violent crime are among blacks, Hispanics, or Asians, 
whereas they constitute less than a quarter of the population. Indeed, 
a large share of U.S. violent crime, tragically, involves blacks 
attacking other blacks. Switzerland offers a nice refutation of the 
idea that Western European countries have been able to achieve low 
crime rates, particularly for violent crimes, only because of their 
ethnic homogeneity. While there are European countries with strong 
ethnic or language uniformity, Switzerland is not one of them. The 
Swiss do have a problem with foreigners and crime, particularly in the 
drug area, where about 60 percent of arrests are of nonnative Swiss. 
And it has some racial overlap - many arrests and deportations are of 
Dominicans, or Moslems from various Eurasian countries. But there is 
no major linkage between crime and race per se. Minorities do not feel 
the system is stacked against them as minorities, and the white 
majority, by and large, does not fear that certain racial groups are 
violent or criminal as such.

Others stress the contribution made by the courts and justice system 
directly. These must have some importance. Switzerland's court system 
is not as distinctive in structure and operation as are its executive 
branch or its legislative processes. There are, however, important 
differences between the Swiss system and other European countries, and 
these are somewhat sharper still compared to the United States.

The Swiss, for example, make use of the jury, but not as frequently as 
the United States and Great Britain. It is one of the few areas in 
which the Swiss system is markedly less populist than the rest of 
Europe and America, in the literal sense of relying on the people to 
render decisions. In most features, however, the Swiss legal system 
remains highly dependent on the wisdom and initiative of citizens as 
such, and somewhat less reliant on the expertise of attorneys and 
magistrates than is common in Europe and the United States. If juries 
are less frequent, so are appeals from a jury's or judge's decision in 
the lower courts. A comparison of the Swiss appeal rate for major 
criminal cases with that of the U.S. illustrates the slightly 
different spirit that animates the two systems.

In U.S. federal and state courts, felony convictions are appealed some 
60 percent of the time. In some states and in serious cases (drug 
cases and murder in New York and California, for example) the figure 
approaches 90 percent. About four in five decisions are eventually 
upheld. But more than 15 percent of convictions are, in fact, sent 
back or "overturned." And even those that are not sent back are 
subject to extra delay and expense. The original trials themselves, 
too, are affected. Judges and attorneys on all sides must take extra 
steps and put in many hours of work in an effort to avoid having key 
parts of their case thrown out - or to lay the foundation for later 
appeals that will undermine the case of their opponents.

In Switzerland, about one-third of convictions for serious crimes are 
appealed - and generally to the cantonal, not the federal court. This 
not only removes one layer of likely complication, but also makes the 
system more intimate. The judges and magistrates of the local courts 
know the thinking and the tendencies of their cantonal supreme court 
members personally and well - certainly somewhat better than, say, a 
typical U.S. judge would be acquainted with his federal circuit court 
of appeals judge, or still less, a justice on the Supreme Court.

Furthermore, since each canton makes its own rules of procedure, there 
is more intimacy within each canton among the judges and attorneys. 
The practice of law is somewhat more local in character, somewhat more 
specialized by geography and people than by area of expertise. An 
attorney who wanted to make a career of filing boilerplate lawsuits or 
criminal appeals on a certain narrow set of issues would find herself 
or himself needing to study the differing laws of many different 
regions.

The U.S. and other European court systems, to be sure, have 
decentralization and diversity of their own, and Switzerland has some 
uniformity. As a matter of degree, however, the Swiss system is 
substantially more dispersed than the U.S. This is probably one of the 
prime causes of the different nature of the appeals process, and the 
large disparity in the frequency with which it is used. A Swiss lay 
judge who was on the community insurance court, Fred Isler, told me 
that his court's decisions were only rarely overturned - "it happened 
about as often as we have strikes in Switzerland," which is to say, 
once or twice a year, and in some years, not at all. A justice on the 
cantonal supreme court for Aargau Canton, Ernst Roduner, did not 
remember a case in which any of his court's decisions had been 
appealed to the federal court on grounds of procedure. "They really 
leave it to us," he said - meaning the cantons. Although the federal 
supreme court can strike cantonal laws if they contradict the federal 
constitution, they cannot, as mentioned earlier, do so with federal 
laws. As a result there is a more humble approach to the cantonal laws 
as well, an ethos of lawyerly restraint toward the laws the people 
have made that one sees throughout the court system. "I am familiar 
with the practices in the United States, France, and some other 
countries which are more centralized and uniform," continued Justice 
Roduner, "and there are many advantages to this. It is not our system, 
however."

The Swiss, in fact, not uncharacteristically, are somewhat concerned 
that their system may be out of step with Europe and the United 
States. Some believe it has too many idiosyncrasies and contradictions 
to function smoothly. There are repeated appeals, as in the education 
field and among tax authorities, to bring greater uniformity to the 
code. Judges and lawyers from different cantons meet periodically and 
have made some strides at bringing greater order to the system, 
particularly within the three language blocks. Valais, Geneva, and 
Vaud, for instance, three of the French-speaking cantons, have 
coordinated their procedure laws, as have Zürich, Aargau, and Luzern, 
to a lesser extent, in the center-east. Still it remains a highly 
divided system of unique components. Even the language barrier, while 
not huge in absolute terms for most Swiss, is a subtle factor in 
reinforcing the decentralization of the courts. In the end, the 
dominance and differences of the cantons may be a blessing, though a 
mixed one.

Thus the Swiss court system places a heavy trust in the people, and 
relies on them to perform competently. Once a decision is reached, 
either by a jury, judge, or magistrate chosen directly or by a highly 
accessible assembly, the system is loathe to overturn it. It is not 
impossible for a judge to reverse what the people have decided, but it 
is less likely. When this system is abused, the remedies are 
themselves, likewise, popular in nature. "We have to be reappointed," 
Roduner points out. "The laws we implement are subject to the direct 
democracy." In this way too, the system is highly citizen based.

The influence of initiative and referendum on the legal profession is 
also apparent. Because of popular participation directly in the 
legislative process, the laws have an added aura of legitimacy and 
invincibility. To go against or ignore or overturn them, judges would 
be going just a little bit more against the people themselves, the 
very source of the state's authority. What the people have made, to a 
greater extent, is more difficult to break. This is not to say that a 
good judge in the United States or Germany or France will overturn the 
laws of the representative assemblies for light or capricious reasons. 
There is, however, somewhat less of a stigma attached to this than 
there is in Switzerland, and somewhat more of a feeling of 
independence from the popular check.

Another aspect of the system's populism is its reliance on sheriffs 
and the courts, much as the Swiss education system relies on teachers, 
to make decisions and administer laws with little review by higher 
bureaucratic authorities. Swiss police spend more than half their time 
on crime prevention, and little of it filling out forms or defending 
decisions to review panels. In the United States, by contrast, 
according to the Department of Justice, "police spend one-third of 
their time on crime prevention," and comparably more responding to 
other authorities within the system. To my surprise, Swiss attorneys 
report that the initial trial phase for a serious crime is not 
significantly shorter than in France, Germany, or the United States, 
and slightly longer than in Japan. Once a trial is over and sentencing 
occurs, however, generally a matter of nine to twelve months for major 
offenses, the process is generally at an end, whereas in many Western 
countries there would follow a long cycle of appeals.

The value and reliance the Swiss place on police can be measured by 
the relative salaries and composition of the system. In Zürich, a 
judge's salary is approximately twice the average salary of a cantonal 
police officer. In most U.S. and British cities, the judge's salary is 
more than triple the police officer's. There also appears to be a 
higher population of police officers compared to judges in the Swiss 
system, although statistical comparison is rendered difficult by the 
fact that Switzerland has very little by way of a federal police 
force, almost none, leaving law and crime matters to the cantons. A 
typical Swiss judge has far less administrative support staff than a 
U.S. judge. The cantonal judges who spoke with me typically had a 
secretary working for them - whose labor they shared with another 
judge or two in the more austere cantons. In the United States, it is 
not infrequent for a federal or state appellate judge to have three or 
four clerks, themselves lawyers or law students, plus administrative 
staff.

The professional background and demeanor of judges is likewise less 
formal. In the U.S., one rarely encounters a judge who does not have a 
law degree. Only one-third of all U.S. judges are "lay judges" as a 
whole, and even fewer at the federal and state appellate courts. In 
Switzerland, there are 751 "professional judges" and 1,672 "lay 
judges." There is significantly more turnover among the Swiss judges, 
none of whom have life tenure. In a random survey of cantonal and 
community judges, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution found that 
less than 10 percent served in their position for ten years or more. 
This is very different from the ratio of the United States, where the 
U.N. reporting methodology for such matters calculates there are 889 
professional judges and 467 lay judges.

The Swiss make extensive use of professional arbitrators, and in fact 
the civil regular courts operate in a manner similar to a U.S. or 
British arbitrator. Courts that allowed me to visit both in Ticino and 
Aargau, including a branch of the Aargau cantonal supreme court, had 
small panels of judges seated around a table. There is a rough 
resemblance to Japanese practices as described by the U.N.'s 
international crime reports:

  In Japan, active public cooperation is indispensable to effective 
functioning of the criminal justice system. In addition to the above 
mentioned field of police work, there is, in the field of prosecution, 
a unique system called Inquest of Prosecution which was designed to 
reflect the opinion of lay citizens in handling public prosecutions. 
Laymen can also take part in court proceedings. One of the examples is 
the laymen counsel in criminal cases before the Summary Court, Family 
Court and the District Court. A defendant can select a person or 
persons, who are not qualified attorneys, to be their own counsel by 
permission of the court.

In the Swiss courts we visited, the judges (two men and one woman in 
Aargau, one man and two women in the Ticino) wore business suits, not 
robes, and sat on the same level as the attorneys and the defendant. 
This may seem to have only symbolic importance, but represents an 
important psychological difference of the British and U.S. practice in 
which the judge sits up on a kind of throne behind a great podium-like 
desk. Likewise, the Swiss court buildings are restrained, with no 
great statues and none of the quotations from great supreme court 
judges of the kind one sees etched on court buildings in the U.S. or 
even Germany. The Ticino and Aargau courts had no pillars or such 
material at all, and even the federal supreme court houses in Lausanne 
and Luzern (insurance) are understated by Western standards. The 
building that housed the Aargau court looked more or less like an 
administration building on a modest U.S. campus or a federal or state 
regional office building in the U.S. In short, the architecture, 
dress, protocol, and the other arrangements of the Swiss courts seem 
to give a quiet message that the courts exist not to house great legal 
minds or construct brilliant arguments and theories, but to render 
decisions.

Police, judicial, and related functions are conducted on a more 
decentralized and local basis in Switzerland than in most other 
developed countries. Comparisons must be made carefully because of 
Switzerland's size and population - about one-tenth the population of 
Germany, one thirty-fifth that of the United States, and an area the 
size of the state of Connecticut. This means, on the one hand, that 
all scales are reduced: The Swiss "federal" government is no larger, 
and no more remote probably, from its people, than that of Cook 
County, Illinois, or the cities of Berlin, Paris, or New York. It may 
even be more "local" in character than these. Likewise, such U.S. 
states as Indiana, Minnesota, and Missouri have larger populations 
than the entire country of Switzerland, and are many times its 
physical size. Yet administratively, these

Table 13.1
Criminal Justice Spending by Level of Government

Switzerland
United States

federal
6%
14%

state
None
32%

canton
67%
None

county
None
25%

municipal
None
29%

commune
27%
None
---

states are the equivalent of the Swiss cantons - standing under the 
federal government, but above the cities and counties. When comparing 
the activities of different levels of government, is a U.S. state the 
equivalent of a Swiss canton, or of the Swiss federal government? Is 
the Swiss canton of Zürich, with a population of several hundred 
thousand, closer to the state of Virginia, or to that state's Fairfax 
County, with similar size and geographic size?

Table 13.1 compares spending on police and the courts by various 
levels of government in the United States and Switzerland. The layout 
of the table goes from highest unit of government to lowest, placing 
the cantons of Switzerland as closer to the federal center than a U.S. 
county, but somewhat farther and less similar to it than a U.S. state. 
The result is a kind of graphic top-down effect that gives us a feel 
for the extent to which criminal justice functions, as measured by 
spending, are carried out at the top, middle, and bottom of the 
system.

As a general matter, the U.S. column has more numbers and larger 
numbers bunched toward the top and middle; the Swiss places most of 
its chips in the middle and lower portions. If we compare what the 
federal government of Switzerland spends on police and court functions 
to what its smallest and most intimate level of government spends, the 
result is a ratio of somewhat more than six to one. For the United 
States, the ratio is only two to one - a much stronger federal 
presence, and weaker local one.

Of course, this leaves the cantons out of the picture, which is a 
serious problem for comparing Swiss government to other states. If we 
consider the cantons and communes to be roughly comparable to U.S. 
counties and municipalities, we see that in Switzerland, the local 
character of justice administration is 94 percent of the spending, in 
the U.S., 54 percent. This probably overstates the disparity somewhat 
- but not much. The state of California is roughly ten times the 
population and extent of Switzerland; the government in Sacramento is 
at least as remote and imperial as the government in Bern. One can 
parse the data, but the general picture remains one of greater 
federalism in the Swiss system, and this reflects the reality. In 
their function and level of accessibility, the cantons are much closer 
to a U.S. county, and the states of the U.S. are not terribly 
different from the Swiss federal government. Each government has an 
added layer of administration when making comparisons then - the U.S. 
federal government is a unit of size and complexity that has no 
analogy in the Swiss system, and the Swiss communes have an intimacy 
and level of responsiveness seen only in the smallest U.S. towns.

All this, of course, expresses only the economic relationship. As the 
Swiss towns and cantons have much greater authority and autonomy vis-
a-vis their federal government, the resulting statistical picture if 
anything understates the decentralized nature of Swiss criminal 
justice. The states of Europe are generally in between, with France 
close to the U.S. and perhaps even exceeding it in degree of 
centralization; Germany and Britain in the middle.

This system would appear to be open to abuse by local judges and 
sheriffs, who have great discretion compared to a modern-day judge in 
the U.S. or most of Europe. What is to prevent a judge or sheriff in 
Eastern Glarus, or along the road leading to the Gotthard pass, from 
becoming a kind of Macon County kingpin or Mexican patrol officer - 
abusing his authority to squeeze fines and bribes and worse out of 
suspects? There are in fact some complaints among the Swiss, and more 
from foreign visitors, about traffic policing both along the Northern 
highway system and in the Southeast passages. For the most part, 
however, the Swiss seem to have avoided any severe conflicts between 
citizens of the different cantons or the cantons themselves.

There are several reasons for this. First, the Swiss courts do not 
attract men and women whose ambition is to rise to great power, or 
acquire riches, through the legal system. The pay for judges remains 
as low as it did, in relative terms, in the 1920s, when Lord Bryce 
noted that there were periodic difficulties filling some vacancies on 
the bench. As well, the presence of so many lay judges and volunteer 
administrators throughout the commune governments, and of part-time 
lay persons even at the cantonal level, gives the whole system a broad 
base of people and economic interests. The insurance judge who in fact 
is an executive at the local textile company sees his position as a 
voluntary gift to the community, not a sinecure. He was probably 
appointed by a cantonal legislature of housewives, part-time 
professionals, and other citizens, or asked to fill the job by a town 
council. He works with a group of similar volunteers and underpaid de 
facto volunteers. Few or none of the actors in this drama want 
anything so much as to render a fair decision and get home. It would 
not be impossible for them to favor their own neighbors in a dispute, 
and, in fact, they would have a natural inclination to do so. But it 
would be nearly impossible to systematically do so, and very difficult 
to do so for gain.

Thus, while the Swiss system is open to such abuses of locality, they 
do not appear to have become a serious problem yet. The courts, though 
not formally composed of temporary juries as such, tend to function 
somewhat in the manner of juries. The Swiss courts are a half-way 
house between juries and legal experts, with a bias toward the popular 
jury side.

This metaphor may explain how the Swiss are able to mitigate another 
obvious defect of their legal system - its lack of professional 
expertise and considered legal opinion. "There is no doubt that 
Switzerland does not have the practicing lawyers and judges with the 
knowledge and experience of the U.S., Germany, or other countries," a 
Swiss attorney concedes. "But the system does draw on expertise from 
outsiders." For example, lay judges frequently are experts in their 
own field of cases, which in the cantonal and federal supreme courts 
are divided by area of knowledge - insurance cases, intergovernment 
disputes, contract issues, and so on. Of course, there is nothing to 
stop a judge in Germany or France from soliciting a formal or informal 
opinion from an expert, in court or as a consultant - and many do. In 
the Swiss system, this process is more regular. Leaders from very 
different walks of life are integrated into the legal profession, both 
directly, when they serve as judges, and indirectly, as their presence 
leavens the legal community as a whole.

The result still leaves the Swiss short of the kind of broad, deep 
pool of legal brilliance that one sees in the United States. The 
system is particularly weak at the top and in the intellectual realm. 
There are few legal journals, and the writing and research in them 
does not rise to the level seen in American, French, and German 
journals. In international legal disputes, where one would think the 
Swiss would excel by virtue of their multilingualism and cultural 
adaptiveness, Swiss attorneys have a relatively poor record in 
representing both their government and their large banking and other 
commercial firms. If one needed to litigate a case or defend one's 
self of a murder charge, one would almost certainly want an American 
attorney, and might hope for a British or German judge. For brilliant 
reasoning about the theories underpinning the dispute, one might turn 
to the French or the Americans. If one were able to choose any venue 
in the world for the case to be tried, however, one could do worse 
than to select any of the Swiss cantons at random.

A Swiss attorney who practices now in the United States put it this 
way: "Swiss law does not lend itself to the cutting-edge hairsplitting 
argumentation and drafting seen in the United States. Swiss law and 
jurisprudence often take the approach of stating a broad principle and 
leaving it to the good common sense of legal practitioners to fill in 
the details. In other words, the law says, "A," ergo the more direct 
applications of "AA," and "a," and "aa" are covered. A Swiss lawyer 
trying to argue that "aa" is not covered simply be

cause it was not stated in the explicit language of the "A" statute 
would be laughed out of court. In the United States, an attorney not 
arguing that "aa" was left uncovered by the broad principle "A," 
despite the common-sense application, would probably be vulnerable to 
a malpractice suit." These observations have special application to 
contract law, but their spirit applies to criminal law differences 
between the U.S. and Switzerland as well.

The Swiss, in other words, may have an inferior system, at least at 
the higher reaches of law. But the Swiss system is able to function as 
a whole because of the work and the generosity of its citizens; it is 
a justice system not only for, but of and by, the people. If we 
consider one of the system's great failings in recent years - the 
growth of Zürich into a great center of drug trafficking in the 1970s 
and 1980s - then we see an interesting illustration of the system in 
action.

Rita Fuhrer does not look like the person who busted up the Zürich 
drug runners. Her face is soft and round, her eyes sympathetic. Bangs 
and medium-length hair gently wrap around the side, completing the 
effect. Frau (Mrs.) Fuhrer, as she prefers to be called, wears a tweed 
business suit that is neat, but not padded or sharply angular. She 
smiles and apologizes her English "not very good," which given Swiss 
standards means she has roughly the fluency (in this, her third 
tongue) of the median graduate of a U.S. high school.

Fuhrer was elected to her post in 1995. One assumed she had some 
background as a prosecutor or an attorney, but when asked her 
profession, she answers, "housewife." Her answer had the feeling, 
through the slight language barrier, of someone who still considers 
herself primarily a wife and mother - and wants to be seen as such, in 
ever-so-slightly a counter-cultural fashion. ("Being a housewife is a 
profession" - she did not say this, but seemed to convey it by her 
understated manner.)

On further probing, however, it appears the answer was not merely 
attitudinal, but accurate, and even illustrative. Prior to her 
election to this post, Mrs. Fuhrer served on the cantonal council, one 
of the many important but low-paying positions occupied by many women 
in Switzerland. (Women constituted 23 percent of the cantonal 
legislatures in 1998.) As well, she worked briefly as a newspaper 
reporter. But there are no advanced degrees, no years as a litigator 
or high-profile political activist. Mrs. Fuhrer was an attentive mom 
who did public service for modest pay and decided she might be able to 
do something to help the police make Zürich a safer and better place 
to live.

In her present office, Fuhrer has implemented what amounts to a two-
point program. "I was not trained for it," she admits. "But I like to 
talk to people, different people. I talked and listened." The program 
she implemented was not original, and not even controversial - it 
represented the trend in thinking in the city when she took office. 
But Fuhrer saw the wisdom of it, and put it into practice.

First, she had the cantonal police clamp down on drug dealings at the 
Zürich airport, the train station, and the nearby park, Platzspitz, 
that became almost synonymous with drug dealing during the 1980s and 
early 1990s. ("Platzspitz" translates into English as "Poined Square," 
though it soon became known as "Needle Park.") Dealers of even small 
amounts were arrested, as were their customers. The federal government 
shared information and manpower - a rarity in Switzerland, but 
possible in this case because of the canton's request for such help. 
With the assistance of the canton, the city police of Zürich 
implemented essentially the same measures, and the two units 
cooperated in a way they previously had not. Arrests for drug 
possession and trafficking shot up for two years as the Polizei 
cleaned up the streets, then tapered off as the population of 
criminals shrank. The amounts of heroin and cocaine seized by the 
police moved in a similar pattern, rising sharply and then falling 
with the declining incidence of drug use. Figures 13.4 and 13.5 nearby 
show these statistical trends.

Second, Mrs. Fuhrer worked with the city and canton to increase and 
upgrade facilities for treating addicts - helping them get off drugs. 
The canton and city expanded existing facilities and set up new ones. 
Spending on these programs and their associated capital budgets 
increased. Addicts were encouraged to sign up for programs voluntarily 
even when suspected of posses-

Figure 13.4
Total Drug Arrests in Zürich City

Includes arrests by cantonal and city police. Does not include arrests 
for importing drugs (generally, 150-200 per year).

Possession (approx.), Trafficing (approx.)

1990 - 4000, 2000
1992 - 5000, 2000
1994 - 7000, 3000
1996 - 10000, 3500
1998 - 12500, 2500
2000(e) - 10500, 2500

Source: Jahresbericht, Spezialabteiling 3, Kantonspolezei Zürich, 
1990-1998 inclusive.

Figure 13.5
Drug Seizures by Zürich Police (cantonal and city, combined)

Heroin (1000g), Cocaine (1000g)

1990 - 100, 185
1992 - 90, 195
1994 - 105, 175
1996 - 280, 145
1998 - 250, 145
2000 (e) - 180, 145

Source: Zürich canton, as cited in Fig. 13.4.
---

sion and therefore vulnerable to arrest. City and canton district 
attorneys arrested addicts to avoid prosecution if they entered a 
detoxification program. Judges in the canton were encouraged to 
sentence only the most stubborn addicts to jail terms. Swiss judges 
were already lenient when measured by the length of sentence typically 
imposed for major crimes, although given the high rate of apprehension 
and conviction achieved by the Swiss courts, and the low rate of 
successful appeals, the overall deterrent impact was as high or higher 
than many other Western countries.(1 )The program appears to have 
worked. From 1985 as a base year, the number of drug addicts estimated 
in Zürich tripled. Since 1995, it has fallen by half. Entrants into 
treatment programs surged, thanks almost entirely to the arrest 
referrals and sentencing. Of the entrants, "about one third" kick 
their habit immediately, Fuhrer says. "Another third have some 
repeating, but are able to give up the drugs after several tries. 
Another third" - she pauses, looks to the side - "cannot be reached." 
Overall, the program's office says, 65 percent eventually kick their 
habit.

These program statistics, of course, suffer from lack of time. The 
policy has been in place only a few years, making judgments about its 
long-term effectiveness tenuous. But the tentative figures above are 
borne out by related measures of drug use and crime. Zürich's rate of 
such crimes as robbery and burglary fell by more than 10 percent, 
largely due to the decline in the number of addicts needing to supply 
an expensive habit. Albeit a grim statistic, a good index of drug 
usage is simply the number of deaths by overdose or improper use. 
These fell from a high of 92 such deaths in 1992 to 89 in 1994, 65 in 
1996, and 58 in 1998.

Which part of the program was most important - the police crackdown, 
or the focus on treatment?

Mrs. Fuhrer gives a sincere answer, but also the politically astute 
one: "You need both. I think we might have made some progress with 
just the arrests, cleaning out the park, or with just the treatment."

Yes, Mrs. Fuhrer, but many members of your party - she belongs to the 
SVP, the Socially Conservative Party of Switzerland, roughly 
equivalent on many issues to a Pat Buchanan or Jesse Helms in the 
United States, or perhaps an Ariel Sharon in Israel - would like to 
see the expenditures on treatment cut back, and the police approach 
toughened even more. Would that be a mistake?

"Let me say - I think both are useful and important. But if I had to 
keep one, if I had to say one was more important, I think the 
treatment approach has done more good. There's a very simple reason: 
The treatment program has reduced the population of people addicted 
substantially. This helps rob the traffickers of their sales.

"But I would want to keep both parts of the program. They work 
together. If someone wanted to do away with either one, I would try to 
persuade them not to, whether it was the treatments or the arrests, 
and whether they were from my party, or some other."

With this answer, of course, Mrs. Fuhrer establishes a slight 
distance, perhaps, from her party on a matter of rhetorical emphasis. 
Yet she defends its core idea that a reduction in drug trafficking, 
including arrests of users and suppliers, is a public good that should 
be pursued. And she stubbornly (and intelligently) keeps it bundled 
into part of a program that has blended the approach of different 
partisans in the drug issue into a coherent whole - a whole that has 
worked for Zürich.

Many, perhaps most, professional politicians in the United States or 
Europe would probably answer the question in roughly the same way. But 
Mrs. Fuhrer is not a professional politician - she's a professional 
housewife. The Swiss system makes it possible for the head of one of 
the country's largest police departments to credibly call herself 
that. And herein lies one of the sources of its vitality.

Note

1. For example, of all Swiss men convicted of rape, only 35 percent 
are sentenced to jail. This is low compared to the United States (more 
than 80 percent), Sweden (71 percent), and Japan (65 percent.) On the 
other hand, the Swiss system catches, tries, and convicts a larger 
percentage of offenders than many countries. Of all reported rapes, a 
culprit is convicted in Switzerland more than 20 percent of the time. 
This is significantly more than in the United States (5 percent) and 
Sweden (8 percent), though less than Japan's 39 percent rate. About 
10,000 persons in Switzerland are sent to a prison each year for all 
offenses but sentences of several months are the norm, and of more 
than five years, extremely rare. There is no death penalty. The number 
of Swiss assigned a life sentence has averaged 1.8 persons per year 
over the last two decades; now and then a year goes by in which there 
is no assignment of a life sentence at all. Punishment for crimes in 
Switzerland is thus less severe per conviction than in many countries, 
although what punishment there is is swift and certain.


 14. Welfare

At a superficial glance, Switzerland has very little experience with 
welfare as Americans or other Europeans know it. This is true in a 
double sense. First, Switzerland simply never established (until 1990) 
an income support system for the poor that compared in scale with 
those of Europe or the United States.(1 )Second, the country enjoyed 
relatively low unemployment rates and reasonable wages for many years, 
so that there was less need for transfer payments to help the poor. 
Some would argue that the relatively low level of transfer payments is 
a substantial reason for the low level of poverty.

Whatever the cause, the combination of policy and economic condition 
is such that among the Swiss, welfare was not a matter of great 
controversy until the last decades of the twentieth century. Then, a 
combination of somewhat higher unemployment rates, tight national and 
communal budgets, and the issue of immigrants receiving public 
assistance combined to make welfare at once a larger factor in the 
Swiss economy, and more controversial.

The country's prosperity - and the evenness of it - is such legend 
that it led me to an interesting, if in the end embarrassing, 
discovery. Riding the train into Zürich from Bern, around the region 
of the airport and perhaps ten miles West of the center of the city we 
passed through an industrial belt of what seemed to be warehouses, 
large factories, and light chemical or pharmaceutical plants. 
Suddenly, near the tracks and in some cases squeezed in between the 
tracks and the factories, little clusters of shanty houses began to 
appear, in clumps of fifty to 200 units by my estimate. As shanty 
towns go, these were nice. The rows were neat. The houses were made 
out of what appeared to be cheap wood (better than cardboard) and 
ribbed fiberglass roofs that looked as if they would, at least, keep 
out rain and snow. Some of the houses even had Swiss flags or the 
flags of other nationalities or cantons or organizations flying out in 
front, and all were laid out in rather neat rows. The places seemed 
strangely deserted, even for a working-class neighborhood. There were 
very few moms and small kids, if any. Decently dressed people, usually 
men or couples and often of obvious non-European ethnicity, 
occasionally wandered up and down the tidy rows of shacks, sometimes 
beating thick work gloves together. "Swiss ghettos," it struck me - 
the nicest ghettos in the world. But still ghettos: a mild surprise.

My traveling companion aroused my suspicion further when he responded 
evasively - it seemed to me - when asked about these obvious little 
pockets of poverty among the Swiss prosperity.

"What are those, Hans?"

"What are what?," he answered blandly.

"Those - over there." My hand pointed to Northwest.

"The one on the right looks like it is storage for ABB," he answered. 
"I don't know about the one on the left." But he was looking too far 
out.

"No, not the factory. The little houses in between us and the factory. 
There."

"Houses?," he asked.

"Yes, Hans, the little shanty houses right there." It felt bad to 
corner him and make him explain something negative about Switzerland. 
But these little unpleasant truths, it seems to me, are what give a 
country's strong points their real merit.

"You mean the Schrebergärten?" he asked, keeping it up.

"Well, yes, if that's what they're called. What are those - company 
houses for temporary Gastarbeiters or something?"

"Gregory, those are gardens. People come out and work on them in the 
evenings and the weekends. Some of them grow a few vegetables or 
flowers for their home, and some just like the gardening.

"What did you say you thought they were?"

Thus my discovery of shanty towns, so promising for a few minutes, 
turned out to be another Swiss efficiency, almost an annoying self-
parody.

You have to look closely at Switzerland - and do more than look, it 
turns out - to avoid falling into one of two opposite errors. One 
error is that Switzerland has no poverty (and little or no welfarism) 
at all. The other is that the Swiss have huge, complex "hidden" class 
problems lurking just below the surface, or a developed welfare system 
along the lines of Sweden, Britain, or France. Neither is really the 
case, or to be more precise, each is partially true.

Swiss poverty rates place Switzerland near the bottom of the world in 
terms of social want. Measurement is rendered difficult by the 
typically federalist Swiss system of social assistance, and its 
informality and adaptation to individual cases. Surveys, however, 
suggest that about 5.6 percent of the population had an inadequate 
income to meet basic physical and health standards. Even this figure 
does not include some types of payments and assistance, though. And 
this figure is for the year 1992, which was just after a fairly sharp 
recession in Europe (coincident with the relatively mild U.S. 
recession of 1990-91). In fact, then, compared to many affluent 
countries where such statistical poverty rates often hover close to 10 
percent, Switzerland has enjoyed a poverty rate of about half the 
developed-country rate, and for most of the time, one-third or less.

Little of this poverty, while real in a sense, is hard core. That is 
to say, few of the people who may be poor one year in Switzerland are 
poor two or three years later. For example, about one-quarter of all 
the statistically poor are twenty to twenty-nine years old These are 
typically years in which young men and women emerge from school, 
dabble in different part-time jobs, and so on. Many U.S. youngsters 
are "poor" in the year they graduate from high school or college, 
since they may then enter the work force, but for only half a year or 
less. In Switzerland, persons aged forty and above make up about 54 
percent of the population, but account for only about 37 percent of 
all the poor. Divorced men (10 percent) and women (20 percent) make up 
another significant chunk of the poor. Again, while these people often 
suffer real hardship, they are also often likely to land on their 
economic feet within a year or two. They are temporarily, not semi-
permanently, in need.

The shape of poverty in regional, ethnic, and other terms is happily 
even. That is, in Switzerland what little want there is does not tend 
to associate itself strongly with different races or other groups. For 
instance, of all the statistically poor, about 74 percent are of Swiss 
birth, and 25 percent are foreign born - roughly their proportion in 
the work force as a whole. Similarly, 65 percent of the poor live in 
cities, and 35 percent in the country. About 64 percent live in a 
German-speaking region, 27 percent French, and 9 percent Italian - 
again fairly close to the nation as a whole.

This spreading of poverty, where a little poverty there must be, is a 
great blessing, because it means that economic need does not readily 
spill over into racial or other frustration. One sees it even in the 
layout of major cities such as Zürich and Geneva. While any city has 
high and low rent districts, the ghetto is largely unknown among the 
Swiss. It is partly the result of Swiss decentralization, and partly 
makes it especially effective. Another contributing factor is the 
strength of Swiss education, especially vocational education. And then 
there is, according to former Zürich Mayor Sigmund Widmer, "the old-
fashioned work ethic of Zwingli and Calvin." Widmer recalls a number 
of instances in which his constituents would keep a job rather than 
accepting unemployment insurance or public assistance - even though 
they could have made nearly as much money for a time without having to 
work. "The Swiss would rather work," Widmer argues.

Welfare programs to respond to these needs, like many other Swiss 
policies, vary widely by canton and community. For basic family 
assistance, the federal government contributes only about one-eighth 
of payments, at 12 percent; the cantons, 34 percent, or about one 
third; and the communities, close to half with 45 percent.(2)

The result is not merely a uniform, national system administered 
locally, because the cantons and the communes have adopted distinctive 
approaches to social payments. The amount of spending per inhabitant 
on welfare varies widely by canton. As Figure 14.1 shows for selected 
cantons, the average combination of Soziale Wohlfart (social welfare) 
and Fürsorge (assistance) is 2,200 Swiss francs per month. This 
ranges, however, from a high of 4,500 francs a month in Geneva, and 3,
400 in Basel to as little as 1,200 francs in Uri and 1,100 in Schwyz 
and Appenzell Innerhoden. Part of these differences reflect higher 
living expenses and poverty rates in the larger cities, but they also 
reflect a higher affinity for such transfer payments in general in the 
different regions.

Rates of statistical poverty, especially those that measure poverty 
before transfer payments are accounted, are also in turn influenced by 
the subsidies available through social welfare programs.

There is equal or even greater variation between how different 
individual cases are handled within a given community. Even in Geneva, 
where the social welfare system is relatively more rationalized and 
bureaucratized and less personal and flexible, social payments can be 
significantly adapted. "We try to work with people, find employment, 
adapt the program to their needs," Monica Tross, a social welfare 
worker for Geneva canton, explained. This can include increasing 
payments for families where, say, someone is engaged in a training 
course, or where medical or other family circumstances have 
intensified the problem of a job loss. It can also mean decreasing 
them for people who aren't getting out and aggressively trying to get 
off the dole. There aren't a large number of such cases - "five or ten 
percent, somewhere in there" - but the ability to make them has an 
impact on the way the entire system functions.

In other cantons and communities the flexibility to adjust to 
different circumstances is even greater. "We have a great deal of 
ability to decide how to handle the situation of people who need 
social assistance," a member of the Aarau town council said. "We have 
certain normal practices, but we can decide what to do by the person 
or family."

Indeed, family assistance among the Swiss is more family-based than in 
much of the West. On the one hand, couples struggling to make ends 
meet, but who have not divorced, do not necessarily lose benefits they 
might need. On the other hand, the Swiss look to the extended family - 
parents, brothers and sisters, in some cases even aunts or uncles - to 
provide help too. In bureaucratic systems, the need to reduce such 
factors to formal codes often leads to a labyrinth of rules with 
little flexibility. Under the local, pliable system of the Swiss, such 
subtleties are incorporated into the program, but not necessarily the 
written law.

"We had a situation with a young man in my community," Giancarlo 
Dillena, a newspaper editor in the Ticino, recalls. "A young man with 
a problem," perhaps drugs or alcohol. "The village made a job for him, 
gardening and doing other chores. These were things that needed to get 
done, and it was better for him and the town than his having to 
continue on assistance."

 Figure 14.1 Average Combination of Social Welfare and Assistance by 
Cantons

Of course, this is the kind of flexibility many social welfare 
advocates in other countries plead for. In most cases, their publics 
would like such common-sense adaptability as well. Such flexibility, 
though, does not come without a price. Sometimes programs don't work, 
and in Switzerland, when they don't there are fewer regulations to 
hide behind. Where there is human discretion, human mistakes are more 
clearly visible as such. During my stay in Southern Switzerland, a 
case in the canton of Valais appeared in the local newspapers about a 
man who was drawing assistance from three different cantons, amounting 
to a tidy sum in total.

Likewise, allowing officials to reduce or increase payments within 
reason would be less feasible in countries without the tradition of 
honesty and self-government of the Swiss. Larger amounts could be used 
as small payoffs or other corruption. Smaller amounts would bring 
lawsuits from persons arguing they were entitled to full payments. The 
position tailored for the young man in the Ticino, in some countries, 
couldn't be offered legally - it would violate a union contract or 
other agreements. A young woman for whom a similar setup was 
established in Bern, running a part-time day care center while 
receiving some assistance, would probably have run afoul of child care 
laws and much other red tape in the United States, France, or Canada. 
These kinds of human arrangements, if they were allowed, would 
inevitably lead to occasional abuses, followed by a scandal in the 
press, and corrective legislation and regulations.

Thus at least a part of Swiss welfare system's functionality rests on 
factors outside the system. If it encourages citizenship, as it surely 
does, it is also enabled by citizenship. Swiss welfare policy, like 
the Swiss topography, is thus characterized by sharp changes and 
extremes - not a smooth, flat, equal plane. It can be very generous, 
almost extravagant, in one case, and frugal, almost harsh, in another.

Viewing the evolution of social welfare in Switzerland over time, we 
can learn much about the economic philosophy of Swiss voters - and 
about the tendencies of the Swiss political system and its interaction 
with trends in Europe and the United States.

Welfarism began in Europe in the nineteenth century, with Germany, 
France, and Britain all expanding their programs into the early 
twentieth century. The Swiss were relative laggards. Some attributed 
this to the country's lack of affluence. At the time, Switzerland was 
still emerging from centuries as a medium to low-income country in the 
European context. As well, the country's politics resisted change at 
the same time as Swiss traditional beliefs resisted anything outside 
the Calvinistic framework of work, thrift, and personal 
responsibility. "People not only dislike Bismarck's military system," 
observed an 1874 Neue Zürcher Zeitung editorial, "but his economic 
methods," referring to the German's use of social welfare programs to 
buy off potential opposition to his empire-building militarism on 
behalf of the Kaiser. A similar round of social-service growth hit the 
United States after World War I and in the Great Depression, but was 
relatively unknown in Switzerland.

For nearly a century, the Swiss didn't seem to need social welfare 
either. Unemployment topped 1 percent only twice in the twentieth 
century - first during the Great Depression, when it never rose above 
5 percent, and the second time during the 1990s, by which time the 
Swiss had constructed a relatively extensive social welfare program. 
Of course, many social scientists would argue that there was a 
connection - that the lack of significant transfer payment programs 
helped keep employment high, and the Swiss emphasis on productivity 
generated sufficient goods and services to keep the economy 
functioning through the engine of private-sector growth. As reviewed 
earlier, economic initiatives that aimed at social spending fared 
poorly throughout the century and into the postwar 1950s and 1960s. 
There were two major exceptions from 1900 to 1975. The first was a 
gradual acceptance of government-assisted pension schemes from the 
1920s onward. The second was the establishment of a labor concordat 
after World War II that raised wages and established further 
unemployment benefits - but at the same time, established an almost 
strike-free continuation of many years of labor peace through the end 
of the century.

For whatever reason, the Swiss resisted the formation of the modern 
welfare state for many years. Social democrats in Switzerland and 
outside saw this as evidence of backwardness by the voters, or the 
system, and there is certainly a stubbornness in the Swiss character. 
On the other hand, when one looks at a chart of Swiss unemployment for 
the century and sees the long strings of "0.4%, 0.3%, 0.3%, 0.2%" year 
after year, one sees a case for the Swiss resistance.

>From 1974 to 1981, Swiss voters approved some national initiatives 
establishing funding for greater unemployment insurance and family 
assistance programs - and many more cantonal referenda along the same 
lines. By the time these systems were becoming established there was a 
general economic boom in the West and in Swiss export industries in 
particular. Swiss expenditures on social welfare remained tiny, fueled 
by high rates of employment through the 1980s.

In 1990, Switzerland finally suffered an economic slump while having 
significant welfare programs as backdrop. Clearly the cause was not 
simply the fact of such benefits, because they had now been in place 
for some years without producing falling employment or a recession. 
They may, however, have exacerbated the troubles once they were set 
off by other events.

The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989 brought a flood of 
immigrants and asylum seekers not only to Germany but to the rest of 
Europe. Other countries, other than West Germany with its fellow 
Germans, were less welcoming than the Swiss with their tradition of 
hospitality to the foreigner. Not long afterward, the beginning of 
ethnic and religious unrest in former Yugoslavia created a new wave of 
humanity. While all this was going on, a mild recession hit the U.S. 
in 1990 through 1991 - a recession that was felt more severely in 
Europe with its greater dependency on foreign oil. Perhaps most 
unfortunately, the Swiss chose this time to permit a crackdown on 
immigration in the most perverse way. Fearful that immigrants were 
"taking jobs" from skilled Swiss or dragging wages down for the less 
skilled, the confederation passed tighter restrictions on work permits 
for foreigners, and many cantons increased enforcement of the same 
regulations. The result was that many asylum seekers could not work - 
but did receive social welfare assistance. Paradoxically the Swiss 
were making it difficult to work, and easier to be on the dole.

Finally, the taxes needed to pay for all these programs had climbed 
gradually in the 1980s - and were raised significantly in 1990 through 
1991. The higher tax rates were a drag on private sector activity and 
employment, driving more Swiss into the arms of public assistance.

The combination of these forces and policies was a deep recession 
indeed in Swiss terms. Unemployment topped 4 percent nationally for 
the second time in a century, and in some cantons exceeded 6 percent. 
Geneva, Vaud, Basel, and even Zürich went into an associated fiscal 
crisis from which they had still not fully recovered at the end of the 
decade. From 1989 to 1994, in each of those cantons, social welfare 
expenditures more than tripled. Swiss expenditures on unemployment 
benefits surged to more than 5.8 billion francs in both 1993 and 1994 
from 500 million in 1990.

The nature of the Swiss system, however, put the Swiss in a good 
position to adapt to this new experience. For one thing, social 
welfare as a significant economic factor was a new thing to the Swiss. 
Switzerland hadn't had these programs long enough, in 1990, for social 
welfare to have settled into a hardened series of coalitions and 
expectations, resentments, and set battles. The politics of welfare, 
in short, were fluid. Furthermore, given Switzerland's still 
relatively strong economic position, it was possible to make 
adjustments to programs without touching off an economic crisis. Four 
percent unemployment isn't as good as 1 percent, but it's still 
relatively low compared to most of the developed world - indeed, a 4 
percent jobless rate would be a thirty-year record for the United 
States or most of Europe.

Perhaps most important, the federalist nature of the Swiss system 
allowed and even encouraged experimentation with different changes. 
Some cantons and communities simply cut payments under fiscal 
pressure, as Peter Frey reported in the Aargauer Zeitung. An 
intercantonal commission that some hoped would standardize social 
welfare payments instead helped spur a competitive series of 
downsizing and program reform in 1994 and 1995. Some cantons cut 
benefits; others asked for (and received) a greater contribution from 
the confederation; still others established limits that make it more 
difficult to continue receiving social welfare payments beyond a 
period of several months.

 The net impact was to make welfare easy to get on, but hard to stay 
on - resembling the reforms enacted in the United States, Germany, and 
elsewhere in the 1990s after a much longer experience with welfarism. 
Looked at from one point of view, it took the Swiss eighty or ninety 
years to catch up with the U.S. and Europe. On the other hand, it took 
the Swiss only five years to reform their system in much the same way 
that Europe and America were only able to enact after tortuous decades 
of rancorous debate.

This pace - now maddeningly slow, now breathtaking in its methodical 
quickness - is vintage Swiss. For instance, it took some Swiss banks 
decades to fully grapple with the problem of dormant accounts left 
over from World War II. Yet it took the Swiss only a few months after 
the rise to power of Adolf Hitler to gear up a major rearmament 
effort. By 1935, a major anti-German cultural and ideological 
resistance was underway at a time when most of the West was still 
appeasing the German dictator. In any case, it is wrong to think of 
the Swiss system as always being slothful, any more than it fits the 
image of democratic impulsiveness feared by political philosophers. 
Rather, democracy in Switzerland is capable of moving fast - but 
often, it seems, chooses to deliberate, and move slowly.

During a visit to the Schrebergärten a few days after my investigation 
from the train window, a man of about fifty-five accosted me. He said 
he heard there was an American making a study of Swiss democracy and 
as a newcomer or outsider himself he had something to say. Dark-
skinned, fluent in neither German nor French, he appeared to be of 
Middle Eastern descent, Yugoslavian or Iraqi, perhaps.

"Switzerland is the most - democracy," he paused. "More in the 
democracy - ," he continued, looking, it seemed to me, for the 
adjective. His English wasn't bad.

"The most demo-cratic, you may want to say," a young man, apparently 
his son, added.

"Yes, the most demo-cratic. I do not say anything bad about America, 
which is a great country. But Switzerland has the best democracy, even 
better than yours. It is good that someone studies it." He was under 
the impression, it seemed to me, that this was some kind of official 
mission.

The young man knew about my interest in immigrants and the working 
class generally, and offered that the older one, named Karl or Karlo, 
was working occasionally, but also receiving some assistance.

"No, no," Karl corrected, perhaps not getting the full gist of what 
the younger man had said. "I am working this week," he said, dusting 
some dirt off his hands. He was evidently maintaining some of the 
gardens for people too busy to tend them on their own. "There are not 
payments."

"But next week, if you do not - then you will get some help."

"Well, yes, if I need that I will go see the woman who handles that in 
our town, and I will be back on again - for a week or two. I hope it 
would just be for a couple of weeks."
There was a lot going on in that situation, it seemed to me. On the 
one hand was a social welfare program sufficiently free from red tape 
- sufficiently human - to fit itself into a family's situation in that 
way, like a glove rather than a one-size-fits-all mitten. At the same 
time, there was the man, more of a citizen (though he almost certainly 
was not one yet) than many people in many countries of their birth. 
And there was his sweet, simple disposition, his propensity to accept 
what was his from the system, but not advance claims of entitlement 
when assistance is not needed.

Those Schrebergärten became an apt metaphor - in Switzerland even the 
shanties are symbols if not of affluence, certainly of a mentality 
that views dirt as a place to grow something, and a layoff as an 
opportunity to do some other kind of work.

Notes

This is a reference to "welfare" programs for the poor and unemployed. 
This does not include state and private pension plans, private 
insurance, and other forms of income support and charity.

Again we must keep in mind that while these levels of government 
correspond administratively with those of the United States or Europe, 
each level is significantly more intimate than its U.S. or European 
counterpart. A welfare recipient dealing with a U.S. state government 
is dealing with a unit, on average, of some 5 million persons; the 
average population of a Swiss canton is about 300,000. The source for 
these and other general statistics that follow include interviews with 
cantonal and community officials, popular press, and the Swiss Federal 
Statistics Office, Statistisches Jahrbuch der Schweiz/Annuaire 
statistique de la Suisse, published by Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zürich, 
1998, pp. 340-80


 15. Press

Thomas Jefferson is often quoted as saying he would rather live in a 
country without elections than in a country without newspapers. 
Jefferson said this to emphasize his belief in the importance of the 
free exchange of information and ideas. In fact, the two, far from 
constituting a kind of either-or choice, tend to go together.

Newspapers in and of themselves provide a kind of freedom by enabling 
the people to keep track of what their leaders are doing and, knowing 
this, to keep those leaders in check. A free press helps make 
elections meaningful by enabling people to cast an informed vote, 
intelligently directed toward the ends they want. In this sense, they 
have a similar effect to that of direct democracy. And newspapers help 
ensure the fact of elections in any case, as those who read them 
insist on having that voice in the way their country is governed. 
Newspapers and elections thus are each vital by themselves and they 
support one another.

Switzerland has plenty of both. The typical Swiss surely casts more 
votes every year than the citizen of any other country. And the people 
read more newspapers per capita than in any other country in the 
world. (With a respectful nod to Norway, first by some measures.) In 
fact, if we may suppose that the Jefferson relationship applies 
incrementally - if an improvement in degree in the free press equals 
and causes an improvement in democracy, while a decline in the state 
of the free press weakens that democracy - then Switzerland must have 
an excellent press corps. After all, its democracy is in a refined, 
balanced, and advanced state. It is hard to believe this would be the 
case if the press in Switzerland were not highly effective at 
informing people. This is, in fact, the case, whether one judges by 
the quantity or the quality of the Swiss journals.

One reason for this strength and diversity is structural. The 
political division of the country into small but important units 
creates a demand for local news. Thus there are at least two strong 
newspapers in the capital of Bern, two in Zürich, and two (again) in 
Geneva, as well as important papers serving Basel, canton Aargau, 
Vaud, Luzern, and three major Italian-language papers in the Ticino.

Yet because of Switzerland's size, such papers can be available almost 
anywhere in the densely populated Northern tier of Switzerland within 
roughly two hours. Switzerland's language groups, which are 
concentrated regionally but also cut across the cantons, also help 
provide a national market for these largest urban papers. The French-
speaking Swiss of Zürich may well take the Tribune de Geneve - not out 
of necessity but from a natural affinity for his first tongue. 
Likewise the German-speaking resident in Geneva may subscribe to Tages 
Anzeiger or the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It appeared to me that many 
Swiss elites take newspapers in more than one language, both to 
achieve a balance of subjects and coverage and to keep their first two 
or three languages polished.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the newspaper of record as The New York 
Times is in the United States, appeared to be more widely available 
and read in French-speaking Switzerland than the leading French papers 
in German-speaking Switzerland. If this is so, it probably reflects 
somewhat the size of Zürich, as well as the tendency for a national 
newspaper of record to form, much as the world seems to gravitate 
toward a main currency and one main language of international 
business. Although the NZZ isn't the first or second leading newspaper 
in terms of raw circulation, it is read widely by political and 
business elites. Even so, if accurate, this appears to be a rare 
exception to the tendency to emphasize the French portion of Swiss 
culture. Figure 15.1 shows this graphically by comparing the number of 
newspapers, radio stations, and television stations by language. There 
is a preponderance of French and Italian radio stations over German, 
and an even stronger one among television stations - of which there 
are more in Italian than either French or German. This progression may 
reflect the fact that television has a strong entertainment component, 
while newspapers are more information based, and radio lies somewhere 
in between.

As well, the Swiss culture of openness to foreign ideas and persons 
opens Swiss newspapers up to significant foreign exposure and 
competition. Since the Swiss newspapers are of a high and serious 
quality, there is remarkably little penetration by the major French 
and German dailies, but there is some. English newspapers, on the 
other hand, are highly popular, considering the language is not an 
official one. London's Financial Times, the "pink sheet," is widely 
available, and one sees it being read on the train between Zürich and 
Geneva; less so as one ventures South of the main, and highly 
cosmopolitan Northern line. Naturally The Wall Street Journal, being 
both a serious English language paper and the newspaper of financial 
record for the world-dominant U.S. markets and dollar, is widespread. 
The New York Times is not nearly as visible as one might expect, but 
this is partly because of the availability of the Herald-Tribune, 
which offers copy not only from the Times but

Figure 15.1
Comparison of the Number of Newspapers, Radio Stations, and Television 
Stations by Language

German (approx.), French and Italian (approx.)

Newspaper - 72%, 19%
Radio - 30%, 60%
Television - 23%, 67%
---

from other newspapers and wire services. The Washington Post, a 
powerful but somewhat less global paper, is virtually invisible in 
Switzerland. By contrast, one does see the London, Manchester, and 
other major dailies from England, on occasion.

Compare two reporters of international news - or of merely "economic" 
news, which all recognize is increasingly global in nature. One 
reporter is fluent in French, German, and English, or at least two of 
the three, and can perhaps stumble by in Italian as well. The other is 
fluent in one of these, and may have studied another in college, or 
even reported from a foreign-language country for a time, but is not 
integrated from the day she or he is born right up through the present 
in that other language. Swiss newspapers, from the Blick tabloid up to 
and including Neue Zürcher Zeitung, generally contain significantly 
more international news than one would find in a U.S. paper. It is 
obvious that the multilingual reporter would have certain advantages 
in keeping up with daily events and trends. More than this, however, 
the Swiss reporter has a certain multicultural advantage, a facility 
for seeing certain events through the eyes of a different language and 
an alertness to developments or ideas that may, for a time, be present 
only in some culture different from his own. Both American and British 
reporters have enjoyed a portion of this advantage over the last fifty 
to one-hundred years, and this in part may account for why English-
language journalism is relatively distinguished, even considering the 
"size" of the English language in world culture.

A portion of this is natural and somewhat misleading, considering 
Switzerland's size and position. A news story in the Chicago Tribune 
about events in Cleveland, some six hours away, would be a domestic 
story. In Switzerland, events comparably distant are usually foreign. 
As well, the Swiss, being European, are affected by the rulings of the 
federal government of Brussels, and the central bank in Bonn, as the 
people of the U.S. are influenced strongly by events in Washington, D.
C.

Domestic news is most noticeable not for its difference in quantity 
from the American press, but for its different focus and tone nature. 
News about the culture outside of politics and business is roughly 
equal in volume, but different in character. The typical Swiss 
newspaper has somewhat more news about cultural events, such as operas 
or even movies, and somewhat fewer pieces about personalities or 
"megatrends." Within the Swiss press, the Romance language newspapers 
place more emphasis on the arts, and treat them more seriously than do 
the Swiss German papers. If one wanted to follow fashion trends, or 
read a serious essay about Fellini's technique or the latest American 
action films, one would be more likely to find it in Corriere del 
Ticino than in the German papers. The German papers, especially Neue 
Zürcher Zeitung, treat movies, ballet, and literature somewhat in the 
manner of the Financial Times - more space and broader coverage than 
in, say, The Wall Street Journal, but far less than one would find in 
The New York Times or Le Monde. Since Switzerland is fully integrated 
into three major language cultures (Italian, French, and German) and 
at the same time is as or more fluent in English, its analysis of 
cultural matters, as with politics, is often revealing and 
sophisticated. It is surprising, in a sense, that Swiss scholars and 
journalists have not established themselves as a more dominating 
presence in European literary culture.

Switzerland has fewer crime stories both in print and in the press, 
and the stories there have a less sensational tone and photographic 
coverage. Of course, Swiss crime rates, particularly murder, are lower 
than in the United States and even much of Europe, so part of this 
difference reflects a difference in social conditions. One gets the 
sense, however, that for similar incidents, there is a greater 
restraint in the Swiss press.

During one of my visits, a story broke in the Aargauer Zeitung about 
an ugly child custody battle between a husband and wife involving 
outright seizure and what could be called kidnapping of the children, 
international rescue and extradition attempts, and allegations of 
violence and abuse. One of the parents was a well-known and respected 
official in the Aargau government. Yet the paper had declined to 
report the story for more than two years because of possible 
repercussions for the children, allowing the legal battle over their 
status to be concluded without adding to it a media circus to add to 
the confusion and heighten the bitterness.

Konrad Stamm, editor of der Bund, the venerable Bern daily, notes that 
Swiss newspapers make more than 95 percent of their sales to 
subscribers. This is a much higher proportion than one sees in most of 
Europe or in comparable parts of the United States - namely, large 
cities. "There is less pressure to sell a paper every day by having 
the most glaring photograph or headline, under this system," he notes.

Swiss political news contains relatively fewer stories about 
maneuverings in parliament or the administration. This reflects partly 
the fact that these institutions have less concentrated power than in 
the United States or Europe. There is also, however, a visible 
tendency in the press to be somewhat less confrontational. In 1999, 
the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution surveyed more than 150 news 
stories on the issue of Swiss participation in the European union that 
appeared in major Swiss newspapers in February and March. A majority 
of these articles referred to one or another leading participant in 
the debate. Among these were Christoph Blocher, a leading opponent of 
Swiss entry, and Ruth Dreifuss or Flavio Cotti - both supporters of 
European union entry and the country's presidents in 1999 and 1998, 
respectively; Cotti was also foreign minister for several years in the 
1990s. But in only seven of the articles, or about 4 percent of the 
sample, was there a strong element of personal confrontation 
described. The Swiss stories portrayed the European debate as a 
substantive debate, more than a clash between special interests. Here 
again, it is difficult to isolate completely which differences in 
coverage occur because the Swiss press does its job differently, and 
which differences simply reflect the fact that their society is 
different. For instance, money appears to play a significantly lesser 
and different role in Swiss elections than in other democracies; the 
parliament and the administration are of a completely different 
character. The Swiss capital, being that of a country not as "great" 
as others in terms of sheer might and economic size and weight, does 
not attract as many ambitious and venal fortune seekers as one might 
expect to find in Washington, Moscow, or Berlin. But there are clues 
that the Swiss press, if it could somehow be transplanted into the 
major cities of the United States, would probably cover the same 
events much differently. When Switzerland did have a major scandal 
involving one of its federal council members in the 1980s, the result 
was a flurry of stories for several days and a resignation. The index 
of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the year of her resignation, contained 
more entries having to do with guest-workers and asylum-seekers than 
it did about the greatest scandal in the history of the Swiss 
presidency.

This is not to say that Swiss people are somehow never 
confrontational, competitive, greedy, or unethical in politics as in 
other spheres. As a matter of emphasis, however, the culture tends to 
muffle rather than amplify these traits - the political system in 
part, but the press as well. The Swiss journalist seems to be, if one 
may use a word that has almost become pejorative at times, rather 
patriotic compared to his counterpart in many other Western countries.

"It's our system," Giancarlo Dillena, the editor of Corriere del 
Ticino told me, smiling. "We have to like it." One used to hear this 
more often among citizens and journalists of the representative 
democracies, and still does at times. One hears it, however, less 
often than among the Swiss, and it has less personal feeling or 
immediacy to it. If a reporter from some advanced country made a 
comment like that, he would feel somewhat trite, and speak of the 
"system" being "ours" more in the manner of an absent landlord 
discussing a property he does not tend or even often visit. In 
Switzerland, even among a highly cynical group of professional 
scoffers, a sophisticated journalist such as Dillena says such things 
unself-consciously, in a matter-of-fact tone.

In contrast to the lesser emphasis on elite maneuverings, Swiss 
political journalism, as might be expected, places somewhat more 
emphasis on popular trends. The initiative and referendum tools makes 
the people themselves an integrated part of the legislative process, 
and thus, a natural and indeed inevitable part of the story. Thus, for 
example, the lead story about a law passing or a treaty agreement 
being reached will frequently refer prominently to the prospects for 
its being challenged by a facultative referendum - especially, of 
course, if the change was in any way controversial. In October of 
1999, for example, parliament wrestled with the issue of medical 
insurance premiums, which late in the decade began to rise at un-
Swiss-like rates exceeding 5 percent a year in many cantons. The 
president at that time, Ruth Dreifuss, proposed a measure to enact 
progressive rates - charging the rich more money for their insurance. 
In announcing the government's annual adjustment in rates, Madame 
Dreifuss made front-page news across the country. The stories covering 
this event in Aargauer Zeitung, Corriere del Ticino, Le Temps, Neue 
Zürcher Zeitung, and Tages Anzeiger all made mention of the likely 
referendum battle within the first four paragraphs.

It is tempting to attribute all of these differences to the difference 
in political structure - popular access, a restrained federal center, 
and others - and its important and pervasive cultural impacts. The 
emphasis on popular wisdom, however, and the tone of respect for it by 
editors and reporters goes beyond what these structural political 
factors can account for. There is a subtly different spirit in the 
Swiss news room and in the Swiss journals. It is a feeling of citizens 
communicating with other citizens - who, if not precisely equal in 
economic or educational terms, are nevertheless of a rough sort of 
equality or level of judgment.

In the summer and fall of 1999, for example, Le Temps ran a number of 
articles that either focused on Blocher or that discussed him at 
length in the course of some broader discussion of an issue such as 
taxes or European integration. Blocher is not reflective of the 
paper's editorial policy, which is centrist and internationalist. 
Still less is he a natural favorite of the Geneva voters, who tend to 
be liberal and, if not anti-German, certainly suspicious of a cultural 
conservative German Swiss such as Blocher. Yet Le Temps made it a 
frequent point to mention Blocher's intellectual seriousness and 
contrasted him favorably with other politicians who were less 
forthright in advancing their beliefs. One article solicited a brief 
summary of the Blocher phenomenon from Uli Windisch, a Geneva 
sociology professor. Windisch obviously didn't agree with most of 
Blocher's policy positions. Yet the professor warned of the tendency 
to demonize Blocher, and spoke of the need to "detoxify" him.

The result of this approach, and of the relatively objective approach 
taken to reporting on Blocher's party in news stories in Le Temps, was 
not only to arm Genevans against dismissing Blocher lightly but also 
to provide valuable insight to domestic and foreign observers. 
Blocher's efforts to strengthen his party in Western (French-speaking) 
Switzerland was one of the more important stories in Switzerland in 
1999. Without such support, he and his party's ideas were reaching 
natural limits of growth in Zürich and the East. With inroads into 
Vaud, Fribourg, Geneva, and the Ticino, by contrast, Blocher's party, 
the "SVP," seemed likely to continue its growth and eventually 
overtake one or more of the three established parties with two seats 
on the executive council. By treating Blocher seriously, even 
respectfully, Le Temps provided more fodder to both his opponents and 
supporters alike - because it was supplying important information 
about him.

Oddly enough, the political parties as such seem to receive 
substantially more political coverage in Switzerland than in other 
democracies. After all, in many political theaters, such as the 
operations of the parliament and the voting for seats, partisan 
considerations appear to be less important than in the rest of Europe 
and North America. The coverage, however, treats the parties primarily 
as vessels for ideas. A typical story in Le Temps in the fall of 1999 
tracked how the social conservative parties were trying to attract 
voters through tax cuts and other such measures, while Mrs. Dreifuss 
and others on the center left were offering social benefits. But since 
many of the organs of representation are proportional in nature, the 
result was not the series of bitter fights to the death in district 
after district, but a relatively civil debate about ideas. Every 
politician naturally wants to see his or her party and their ideas do 
well, but few politicians need to defeat some personal rival in order 
to survive. Here again the line between what reflects the press's 
choice in coverage and what reflects its mere reflection of a 
different style of politics, is blurry. But there is at least a strong 
element of press choice.

There was little of class-war coverage in these stories, treating news 
and policy changes as if the main job was to determine who was "hurt 
more" - the rich, the poor, owners of automobiles, renters of 
apartments, or any other group. Instead, policy debates were described 
and conducted in the press, relatively, as if most members of society 
were blindfolded from such considerations or could see them or wanted 
to see them only dimly. During interviews, journalists showed little 
interest or inclination to pursue issues like this very hard. As one 
example, when asked which groups of people entry into the European 
Union would tend to help or hurt, editors and reporters at CASH, the 
financial weekly, and at Tages Anzeiger, Le Temps, and Corriere del 
Ticino all reacted blandly.

"I don't think we've done anything on that," former CASH editor Markus 
Gisler said. "And I don't think it's been a major issue.... It's 
probably true that there is more support for integration among higher-
income and well-educated people, and less support lower down. But most 
people are for or against the EU because they think it will be good or 
bad for the country, not because it will be good or bad for them." 
Gisler now heads one of Switzerland's first, and largest, online news 
and trading sites, "Moneycab." In the United States, by contrast, an 
economic treaty with much narrower ramifications for America's vast 
economy - the 1993 trade pact with Mexico - was debated largely in 
class or special-interest terms. Moreover, the press in the U.S. - 
and, one might add, in Britain as well - appears to be keenly alert to 
such matters. In Switzerland, while there are some class conflicts, 
journalists tend to amplify them only slightly, or even muffle them.

One obvious difference is a kind of populist optimism among Swiss 
journalists. Hugo Bütler, editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, traces 
much of this to the evolution of the Swiss press itself in the early 
nineteenth century. Although many conservative forces opposed the 
establishment of referendum, first in the cantons in the 1830s and 
1840s and then nationally, Bütler's paper favored many such revisions 
and, in fact, added Neue (or, "new") to its name after the revision of 
1830. Like many Swiss, he refers to the culture of consensus as an 
important explanation for the press's nonhostile tone and lack of 
"gotcha"-style reporting.

"Most of the important forces in society have a role in government," 
he notes, thanks to such institutions as the executive, proportional 
voting in parliament, and the direct democracy. "Therefore the 
opposition equals the people, and all are a direct participant in the 
state." Again we see how the somewhat mystical "culture of consensus," 
far from being an inexplicable force of nature or a function of 
climate or genetics, results in large part from the institutions of 
the Swiss.

The Swiss system, unlike many democracies, empowers the people 
continuously and particularly, as opposed to sporadically and 
indirectly. The Swiss voters may veto laws and initiate new ones in an 
ongoing and item-by-item process. In most other democracies, the 
voters make policies only by means of an election every few years, 
with candidates running on the basis of hundreds of votes they've 
cast. This difference leaves the Swiss citizen somewhat more relaxed 
about his or her own voice in the process; there is less need to fight 
or make noise to be heard. As well, because particular officials and 
institutions have less power, "there is less need for institutions 
other than the people" to hold them in check, as Bütler put it.

Naturally, the press reflects many of these attitudes and response to 
them as well. This feeling of greater affinity with the people's 
institutions, Konrad Stamm of Der Bund argues, probably has something 
to do with the relative degree of respect that the press shows for the 
executive council's deliberations.(1)

"Our readers are very intelligent," echoes Esther Girsberger. "They 
need information, not a tutor." Girsberger, now at Weltwoche, but the 
editor of Tages Anzeiger at the time of our interview, explains her 
paper's handling of the European integration issue to me. Likewise, 
Girsberger treats her editors and reporters with a greater measure of 
decentralization than one is used to seeing in the American press. "We 
have people with many different views on the abortion issue, for 
example," she notes. "People at Tages Anzeiger differ." The paper, she 
says, is "flexible" in style and substance about the issue, allowing 
somewhat different approaches to flourish. This would be highly 
unusual at an American newspaper, many of which have issued 
instructions on whether various groups may be called "pro-life," other 
"pro-choice," and so on. (Girsberger's tenure at Tages Anzeiger ended, 
however, partly due to this flexibility. Upper management wanted more 
sensational stories to compete with Swiss and European tabloids. 
Girsberger declined.)

If we look at matters the press covers outside of politics, it becomes 
clear that this nonconfrontational culture does not merely extend to 
the government itself. Accordingly, it is not just a function of the 
Swiss political system, although the system helps to inculcate these 
attitudes of mutual respect. Swiss banking secrecy, or "banking 
privacy" as the Swiss prefer, is a good example. Despite the vast 
wealth of the country's institutions, which would seem to offer a 
temptation, the details of personal or corporate banking are seldom 
revealed in the press. This is true even in the case of foreigners, 
whom the Swiss would obviously have less reason to favor or protect.

"One factor is, people don't want to go to jail," as Markus Gisler of 
Moneycab points out. This is certainly an element: the Swiss banking 
laws are strict. Still, one senses a different attitude among Swiss 
journalists. Among American journalists, and to a large extent the 
French and British, the fact of any secret is almost a standing insult 
to the press. Among the Swiss, there is greater acceptance of such 
privacy. Swiss journalists view themselves as part of "the system" - 
not because they have been co-opted by special interests or other 
elites, but because the entire system is accessible.

This does not mean that Swiss newspapers do not perform investigative 
reporting, and with some impressive scoops. Jean Ziegler, the social 
critic and author of several books about the role of Swiss banks and 
politicians in World War II and in the present too, credits the press 
with a "significant change" over the last ten years. Ziegler notes 
that after years of what he considered a too-reticent approach to the 
controversy, the Swiss press began breaking stories about private 
accounts, government archival material, and more recent activities by 
the Swiss military. Ziegler believes a major factor is simply the 
competition with Swiss tabloid papers, such as Blick. Blick, although 
not highly respected by other Swiss press, has broken a number of 
stories, and put the heat on more traditional papers to follow suit. 
Not all Swiss, of course, consider these trends wholesome.

Even the investigative reporting, though, has a more substantive edge 
to it. When Tages-Anzeiger broke the story of Elisabeth Kopp's 
involvement in her husband's financial woes in the late 1980s, the 
story concerned her actions as a government official - not petty 
financial activities she was unaware of, or a politician's bedroom 
paramours. Kopp was federal councilor and the head of Switzerland's 
Justice Department, in charge of leading an investigation into a firm 
- and then telephoned her husband to give him a head's up on the 
gathering storm.

Likewise, Swiss media, led by Urs Paul Engeler of Weltwoche, played a 
key role in breaking the story of Switzerland's P26 and P27 brigades. 
These were secret Swiss armies that had been organized, trained, and 
operated without the public's knowledge.

Reports like the above have, in the words of Tages-Anzeiger' s Markus 
Somm, "established new strength in the Swiss press." They have also 
made some political and journalistic careers. The parliamentary 
investigation of surreptitious surveillance, for example, was headed 
by Moritz Leuenberger, later a federal councilor and president of 
Switzerland. The investigation lifted him to prominence.

Swiss radio and television, like the newspapers, have a serious tone. 
This reflects the general preferences of Swiss audiences for solid 
content. In the case of the broadcast media, however, structural and 
economic factors play a role as well. Even today, Swiss public 
television and radio enjoy an audience share of roughly 50 percent - a 
figure unheard of in developed countries.

Part of this has to do with the high quality of both the services. 
Part is due to Switzerland's small audience, divided further by four 
national languages, which makes private stations less tenable. A 
French radio service in Switzerland, for example, appeals to only 
about a third of the country's 7 million people - and must compete 
with nearby broadcasts from France which enjoy a large domestic base 
to begin with. There are also numerous natural barriers to effective 
broadcasting - Switzerland's mountains break up signals as well or 
better than a drive through West Virginia. The largest factor, 
however, is simply legal. Paradoxically, in this generally pro-market 
country that values competition and diversity, private TV and radio 
were essentially outlawed until a few pilot programs were launched in 
1981, followed by licensing of private stations in 1984.

The man who brought private radio and television to the country, more 
than any other, is Roger Schawinski. A maverick and rebel in the mode 
of Bill McGowan (or maybe William Tell), Schawinski began his career 
as a consumer journalist. In the late 1970s, he began broadcasting 
from the mountains of Italy, near the Swiss frontier in the Ticino, 
beyond the reach of Swiss authorities, aiming his message at the 
lucrative Zürich audience. In the battle to keep him off the airwaves, 
Swiss authorities seized more then 200 retransmitters in and around 
Switzerland, which were needed to provide a clean signal. Undeterred, 
the self-styled "Radio Pirate" kept broadcasting. Within a few years, 
Schawinski had won a political and economic following, as the Swiss 
began to wonder why they shouldn't benefit from some media diversity. 
"He broke the monopoly," as Marco Färber, chief editor of Swiss 
Radio's German news broadcasts, nods in credit. Today Schawinski's 
Radio 24 and Tele 24 in Zürich are still struggling to catch up with 
the public services, but are already making their presence felt in 
both markets.

Thus, to understand Swiss radio and television news and news-related 
talk and programming, you have to imagine an entire country where half 
the people listen to NPR or watch the News Hour with Jim Lehrer. 
"We're not in NPR's league as far as what we can produce; we're a 
level, maybe two, below," Färber concedes, although from my 
observation, the Swiss radio and television news are, in fact, quite 
close in quality to their larger American counterparts. There are, to 
be sure, differences of scale and funding that give other national 
media services an advantage. On the other hand, the Swiss public 
television and radio services are so respected that they do not face 
such a great competitive disadvantage in gathering news against 
private news sources.

Perhaps the most popular news broadcast in Switzerland, in fact, is a 
12:30 radio news broadcast. Radio listenership actually spikes up over 
the lunch hour to its highest levels of the day, in contrast to the 
"drive time" spike and low rates of listenership during mid-day in the 
United States. The Swiss used to go home for lunch, at which time the 
family listened to the noontime (12:30) broadcast. But even with 
changing family and work patterns, the broadcast remains huge. Many 
Swiss tune into the broadcast during their lunch break or at their 
desk. From noon to 1 p.m., an average of about 17.5 percent of all 
Swiss over age fifteen are listening to their radios, exceeding 20 
percent at 12:30. More than half are tuned into the news. The main 
evening radio news, anchored by Casper Selg, a former correspondent in 
the United States, in German at 6 p.m. and repeated at 7 p.m., draws 
fewer listeners as the audience for radio declines in the evening. But 
it may be as or even slightly more influential than the noon-time 
broadcast in content and impact, since there is more time for 
reporting and features. "Selg in the evening is something of an 
institution," comments Hans Bärenbold, of the German-language 
television news service. "He's one of the most respected broadcast 
journalists in Switzerland."

Television lacks the broad selection of U.S. or European offerings, 
even in the news and news-related programming areas. There are, 
however, interesting selections. The evening news show, "10 vor 10," 
which comes on at 9:50, is a kind of info-tainment hybrid combining 
the news reporting of "20-20" with electronic magazine-tabloid 
material. "Arena" is a cross between debate shows like "Crossfire" on 
CNN, and the kind of electronic town hall popularized by Ross Perot, 
ABC's "Nightline," and others. An "Arena" debate, aired just before a 
June 2001 referendum on the military, enjoyed a huge audience, pitting 
Blocher and a leader of the pacifist Gruppe für eine Schweiz ohne 
Armee against the federal councilor Samuel Schmid, minister of 
defense. The notable feature of Arena is the co-participants, several 
dozen of them, who are both well-informed and well-mannered enough to 
take meaningful part in the discussion without the show dissolving 
into a shouting match.

Like its broader political culture, then, the Swiss press and 
broadcast media are highly serious, but non-confrontational, and 
investigative in some sense, but not highly invasive of personal 
privacy. Critics of the regime question its actions, but not, in 
general, its fundamental legitimacy.

"People are basically satisfied, and we are part of the people," as 
Weltwoche's Girsberger notes. The journalism of Switzerland reflects 
the country's ongoing search to refine and perfect itself, but it is 
not bitter or on a search for powerful figures - Robert Bork, Bill 
Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Bill Gates - to cut down to size. It is 
creative, even aggressive, but not deconstructionist. One has the 
feeling that this is what Thomas Jefferson was talking about.

Note

1. Despite having a seven-member executive composed of representatives 
of different parties with disparate ideologies, the Swiss executive's 
deliberations, and even who votes how on major decisions, is only 
leaked on rare occasions. See Chap. 6, "Executives."
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