Free Societies

Learning from Switzerland's decentralized model

Schwyz Hauptplatz mit Rathaus

For countries with a dominant central government, public officials may have trouble imagining competition between local and regional jurisdictions. In a new article from a series by Atlas Network partner Avenir Suisse, Oliver Hartwich — a former London resident and current executive director of New Zealand–based Atlas Network partner The New Zealand Initiative — writes about his experience with the decentralized and small-scale Swiss political system, drawing lessons for the deeply centralized New Zealand.

Switzerland is divided into 26 sovereign states, known as cantons, with 2,600 municipalities. The cantons have their own unicameral parliaments, administrative agencies, and court systems. From Hartwich’s foreign perspective, it is a fascinating system — but nonetheless controversial within Switzerland.

A decade ago, Avenir Suisse published “Baustelle Föderalismus,” (“Local Federalism”) which sparked a debate within Swiss society about fiscal federalism and the uneven and unfair development between metropolitan regions and other taxpaying cantons. Since the publication, the Swiss system has slowly been losing its uniquely small-scale nature and has become more centralized. Despite this trend, Hartwich still points to modern Switzerland as a “shining example” of decentralization — an example that some centralized countries, like New Zealand, are looking to as a guide for the future. The Swiss model, Hartwich says, offers an alternative to the “monoculture of centralist bureaucracies.”

Read Oliver Hartwich’s full commentary, “Learning from Switzerland and Schwyz.”

Read additional entries in the Avenir Suisse series “Why Switzerland?