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

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

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

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

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

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


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

tenure -
no (3-5 year contract)

choice/voucher system -

union pluralism -

noncompulsory religious classes in public schools -

local control (1 to 10 scale) -

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

"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

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

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

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

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."


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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
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
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

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,

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

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

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

United States







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

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

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

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.


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

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

"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-

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

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

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

"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.


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.

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

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.


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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