Research - 09.12.2013 - 00:00 

“Switzerland: a laboratory”

The Swiss fiscal system is extremely federalist. The results of an SNSF project enable us to scrutinise and compare the cantons’ fiscal developments.
Source: HSG Newsroom


6 December 2013. No other country is as many-faceted in terms of institutions and politics as Switzerland. This diversity is particularly pronounced in the field of public finance. Our 26 cantons just under 2,500 municipalities enjoy freedoms in the determination of their taxes and the utilisation of their fiscal revenue that are unique worldwide. This decentralised government structure – albeit not a panacea – is a fixed component of Swiss self-conception and undoubtedly contributes towards this country’s stability and economic success.

An ideal statistical laboratory

For one subspecies of homo sapiens, the Helvetic fiscal federalism is also a highly welcome present: for empirical economists (both male and female and, as is proper for Switzerland, represented in all parts of the country). After all, nothing is as valuable for applied researchers as combinations of many and long statistical series. Since Switzerland has existed in a rather unchanged form for quite some time, it offers long observation horizons. And thanks to its decentralised organisation, it potentially provides a great number of observation units – an ideal statistical laboratory, then.

Data collection in cantons and municipalities
The snag with decentralised organisation is the fact that data concerning economic policies are often only collected and stored at a local level. To make proper scientific use of “Laboratory Switzerland”, much in the way of statistical raw materials has first to be collected from the cantons and municipalities. It is precisely this data collection that is a central component of the Sinergia project entitled “The Swiss Confederation: A Natural Laboratory for Research on Fiscal and Political Decentralization”, which will be supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation for another three years. It is run by Monika Bütler (St.Gallen), Marius Brülhart (Lausanne), Mario Jametti (Lugano) and Kurt Schmidheiny (Basel).

Data animation for a comparison of developments
To make the fruits of their work accessible to a wider public, they have set up a new website:, where research results are published and new data material is posted on a continual basis. With the website’s data animation, the development of the cantonal taxation landscape since 1996 can be represented. It can be seen, for instance, how the Canton of Schwyz developed into a tax haven for high earners. For the Canton of St.Gallen, the development of tax burden and income looks less rosy: in contrast to the Canton of Schwyz, the reduction in income tax was not accompanied by an increase in taxable income.