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Fiscal Decentralisation: The Swiss Case


Abstract : Switzerland provides a potential laboratory for testing various hypotheses connected with tax competition because of its extremely decentralized fiscal system. Twenty-six cantons (some of them extremely small) have retained the ultimate power of deciding tax questions, and hence not only to limit the Federal level of the State to about 1/3 of total public expenditure, but also to retain absolute power to set their own levels of taxation. Furthermore, citizens can launch referenda on tax issues at any level of government.

Fiscal competition between cantons should therefore be easy to spot, resulting in lower tax cantons enjoying higher economic growth (the “classical” hypothesis), or in a “race to the bottom” with lower tax cantons offering a lower level of public services (the “harmful competition” hypothesis). In fact, neither of these hypotheses is confirmed. This leads the author to suggest a third hypothesis based on public choice theory (politicians in high-income cantons are led to raise high taxes). The author suggests that the classical and the public choice hypotheses cancel each other out, leaving a mixed picture. The article ends with some reflexions on the implications of the Swiss experience for fiscal harmonization at a European level.

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