Important differences in direct democracy between Switzerland and California.

The average Swiss has higher income per capita. Switzerland is cleaner, has less corruption, is more stable socially and politically, has universal and better health care and better social services, better education, far more affordable university education, better professional education, better infrastructure, far lower rates of social problems and crime, etc.

The Swiss are more competitive also. For example, let us look at exports in high tech: California exports 35 billion USD, Switzerland: 30 billion USD. Because California has 4.5 times more population than Switzerland, those numbers mean that Switzerland exports almost four times more high-technology products per person. It easy to be distracted by the few very large high-tech companies located in California.

Switzerland provides a better environment for workers and for business.

Another difference: in Switzerland each canton (state), each no bigger than California counties, has more autonomy than even the state of California has in the US.

Such autonomy may help Switzerland become more competitive. The cantons compete among themselves using taxes, quality of education, quality of health care, etc. This internal competition does not seem to exist within California.

Switzerland has something that could hurt her but it does not; it has four official cultures-languages, California does not. In most democracies, such difference creates trouble. We have the cases of the UK, Canada, Belgium, Spain, etc. I ignore non-democracies in this comparison because their lack of freedom makes it impossible to know how the people feel about any political or social issue.

Perhaps it is the way the Swiss manage diversity that has turned it into strength. In my opinion, diversity in itself is not good or bad.

If Switzerland and California practice direct democracy, why such large differences in favour of Switzerland?

Both societies have a long experience with direct democracy. California has direct democracy since 1911, Switzerland since 1848.

Direct democracy in California exists only at the state level and at the local level. Californians can not take part in direct democracy at the federal level because the US Federal Government is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. This is one major difference. For the Swiss, direct democracy is present at all levels.

However, in one respect California is ahead; California voters can recall politicians at the state level and local level, in Switzerland, voters can do so only in some cantons.

Perhaps it has helped the Swiss develop a deeper culture of direct democracy having initiatives and referendums at all levels of government.

I believe the US system of representative democracy at the national level weakens direct democracy at other levels. This could be because the federal government is the most important level of government. It is reasonable to think that if direct democracy is not used to decide the most important issues, it is because decisions by the citizens are not considered the best way to decide. Obviously, the Swiss disagree.

The way I see it, if a country does not have direct democracy at all levels, then it does not have direct democracy. This is like freedom; if you do not have freedom at the national level you do not have freedom at the local level.

Another difference is that in California voters go to the polls for initiatives and referendums at the same date they elect the state governor. In Switzerland votes on referendums and initiatives do not coincide with elections. Such separation probably prevents eclipsing initiatives and referendums.

Such bunching of votes also forces California voters to digest in a short period a lot of information. Because of this it is possible that California voters can not make as informed a decision on each issue.

In Switzerland, some referendums are mandatory also. There is no need to collect signatures. This means Swiss voters and Swiss politician are “trained” by the law to practice direct democracy.

Other factors are probably cultural and educational. For example, California has had explosive growth of the immigrant population for years.

Most of the immigrants come from countries with weak, corrupt democracies or, even worse, authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Because of this background it will take years for new citizens to develop the sense of political self responsibility direct democracy requires. It is difficult to believe elections are not rigged in California if in your home country they are. It takes a while to assimilate the new practices, in the meantime you may, unconsciously and unwillingly, contribute to their deterioration.

For example, in many cultures, helping family is more important than respecting the law. When this happens, widespread corruption is the natural result. It is not matter of being good or bad as a person but of social values.

But it is important to know that Switzerland was decades ago a poor, underdeveloped country, far less developed at the time than the UK. Things have changed; today’s Switzerland surpasses the UK in practically all areas. In many ways Switzerland is the number one country in the World.

But they have problems too. In Switzerland, like in California, they often have paid signatures collectors. Some people, in Switzerland and in California, say that paid signature collectors have a vested interest in collecting signatures and corrupt the process.

There have been cases in both societies where signature collectors lie, or manipulate, what they say to citizens get them to sign for a non-mandatory referendum or initiative

Another difference is that to vote in Switzerland you have to be at least 18 years old. In California, voting starts at 16. It is possible younger voters find it more difficult to understand the responsibilities of voting in areas such as taxes, pensions, etc.

It is also possible that the educational system and the current values and traditions of the Swiss help prepare citizens better as voters to cast votes to decide on specific issues, not just to elect someone.

In California some people complain that most campaigns for initiatives and referendums are financed by groups with vested interests. Such interests may not coincide with the interests of the general public. They mention cases of big business and big unions. I have not heard of that in Switzerland. Perhaps the more intensive practice of direct democracy in Switzerland helps keep lobbies in check.

I will be grateful to know you point of view on these issues.


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