A Recipe For Legislative Paralysis

By Global Tax Weekly

In an age of increasing voter apathy, of general disenchantment with mealy-mouthed style-over-substance politicians desperately trying to stay on-message, it was refreshing to see another example of Switzerland’s “direct democracy” in action when a proposal to replace VAT with an environmental levy was rejected by the people. But can the people be given too much say on issues ranging from the mundane to the fundamental? I suppose it could be argued that democracy Swiss-style is potentially a hindrance to the political process. With Swiss voters able to demand a say at every level, from the federal right down to the communes, of which there are almost 3,000, it sounds like a recipe for legislative paralysis, a system in which proposed laws are endlessly debated and amended and never approved – isn’t this what we elect politicians for in the first place? Well, it’s true that it does take a long time to pass laws in Switzerland, referendum or no referendum. This is probably because lawmakers know that their actions could be scrutinized by the public, and they are therefore less inclined to take the easy way out and pass bad laws for the sake of political expedience, which often seems the case in some other countries. And this is no bad thing. In actual fact, the people’s right to hold a referendum on a particular law is exercised quite sparingly (about 5 percent of the time) and a vote can only take place if 50,000 signatures in support of it are collected within 100 days of the publication of a bill. So it appears that these powers are being used quite sensibly. Direct democracy might subject the legislative framework to some degree of uncertainty, dictated as it is to a large extent by swings in public opinion. Yet, even if this is the case, it certainly hasn’t harmed the Swiss economy. Switzerland is successful, prosperous and modern, and sits among the top ten wealthiest economies in terms of per capita income. In fact, you could say Switzerland works because of direct democracy; unlike those in other countries, Swiss politicians aren’t given so much license to screw things up.

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