Swiss research shows that giving citizens a direct say over how their taxes are spent leads to lower public debts, more cost-efficient services and even less tax evasion. “Because Swiss citizens feel they can control politicians’ spending through referendums, they are more prepared to give the government money and have a more positive attitude towards the state,” said Daniel Kuebler, co-director of the Centre for Democracy Studies in the northern Swiss town of Aarau.
To be sure, direct democracy is not the only driver of the Swiss success story. The country’s neutrality, bank secrecy, liberal labor market, low taxes and stable government have all played their part in drawing investment and driving growth. But the system has forced politicians to be more frugal than elsewhere.
In the United States, direct democracy is frequently blamed for the fiscal mess in California, where a 1978 referendum known as Proposition 13 changed the state constitution to ban increases in property taxes in line with inflation. Supporters say the measure put a sensible limit on state spending, but opponents say it warped the property market to benefit the rich, forced other taxes up and made it impossible for towns to keep pace with the cost of public services. This year, three Californian cities filed for bankruptcy in the space of weeks.
Kuebler said Switzerland’s referendums, which allow voters to overrule spending decisions by the legislature, do a better job of encouraging fiscal responsibility. “You might think that direct democracy would lead to greater public spending because anyone can put forward an initiative, for example, proposing free beer for all,” said Kuebler. “But it would never have a chance, because the preference of Swiss citizens is fiscally conservative and not redistributive.”