The Swiss economic policy regime combines various elements, including the following.
(1) It is a very liberal and depoliticized regime with regard to regulation of the labor market, in particular to hiring and firing. The rules in this area are very close to those of the United States.
(2) It used to be a very liberal and politicized regime with regard to the in- and outflow of foreign labor.
(3) The economic policy regime is based on the integration of employers and trade unions into the policy-making process, with employers having the largest amount of influence (“liberal corporatism”) and trade unions serving as junior partners. For trade unions, this corporatism has made sense, since it resulted in a regime of full employment (at least for Swiss citizens), high wages and generous private social policy on the firm level. In addition, the public social policy has been expanded in terms of programs and – in particular –expenditure levels.
(4) Switzerland used to maintain a very protectionist policy regime, allowing for cartels and the exclusion of competition. The main beneficiaries were farmers, who were protected from world market competition by high tariffs, as well as small and medium-sized businesses and service providers producing for the domestic market. In addition to high tariffs and strict non-tariff barriers to foreign competitors, business was protected by the acceptance of high tariffs from abroad. Furthermore, collusive pricing was tolerated, and competition between providers/producers limited by the variance in cantonal regulations. This latter aspect made it very difficult for businesses to make competitive offers and win bids outside their home cantons.
(5) It is an economy open to the world market, with domestic rules that facilitate the internationally competitive nature of large enterprises such as chemical producers and banks.
(6) It is an economy policy regime based on low taxes both for labor and capital, and relatively low tax wedges. In return, this liberal state does not intervene massively into the business cycle. Rather, it used to pursue a prudent and basically pro-cyclical fiscal policy. In times of major economic problems – such as in 2008 and 2009 – fiscal packages have been implemented. However, due to institutional and political reasons, these fiscal packages have typically been very limited in size.
(7) The economic policy regime always placed particular emphasis on a prudent fiscal policy (low deficits and debts) and on price stability. Prudent fiscal policy resulted from institutional factors, in particular the fiscal weakness of the federal state compared to the cantons, rules on limitations of excessive deficits and debts (for example, a so-called debt brake or “Schuldenbremse”), and the effects of direct democracy. Citizens were usually reluctant to accept any policy changes which led to increases in taxation. These institutional factors were further reinforced by the distribution of political power, in particular a weak left, and a strong party (the Free Democrats, which are in this respect liberal) supporting a constrained-tax state. Price stability was left to the independent National Bank, which is tasked with a primary goal of price stability, and has the tools of monetary and interest rate policy at its disposal.
This policy regime, which was both liberal and protectionist, has come under pressure due to various changes:
(1) Deindustrialization and a marked shift to a service economy has meant a change in qualifications for labor. The industrial sector offered a large number of jobs with low skill requirements. These jobs were staffed to a disproportional extent by foreign labor. Due to the rules of the work permit systems, many foreign workers gained access to unlimited work permits between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s. Given their low skills, there is not enough demand for these employees in the modern high-skills service sector. Hence, the unemployment curve has shifted upwards, and is characterized by high unemployment among the foreign workers.
At the same time, employers recruit increasingly highly skilled labor for the service sector. It is true that Switzerland has depended on the inflow of highly skilled employees for the last century, but this process has further intensified during the last 15 years. One implication has been a pronounced increase in social tension. Historically, the highly educated Swiss middle classes have been very much in favor of a pro-foreigner policy, as long as these foreigners did not offer major competition for this social sector’s jobs and housing opportunities. With the increasing inflow of highly skirled German labor, this tolerance has changed, as one can see in recent developments. For example, significant populist opposition to the hire of professors from Germany at the universities of Zurich and Berne was led both by right- and left-wing politicians. Hence, one of the pillars of Swiss economic success will arguably be politically less sustainable than in the past. This creates problems, since Switzerland has long acted as a free rider on the education expenditures of neighboring countries, by employing foreign workers that have been trained in their home countries.
(2) Globalization has led to the increasing importance of international organizations such as the WTO. Given its reliance on sectors such as chemical or machine production, banking and tourism, Switzerland has had no option but to accept the liberalization of trade and services. Otherwise the retaliation by other nations would be economically extremely expensive. However, this has implied that sectors once strongly shielded by protectionist policies have become liberalized. Agriculture offers a major case in point. Through this liberalization from outside, the previous fit between protected domestic industries and a world-market-oriented industry – the core of Switzerland’s post-war economic success story – became strained.
(3) Switzerland has not solved the question of whether it should belong to the European Union or not in a sustainable way. The provisional solutions have been bilateral agreements between the European Union and Switzerland, which have major implications for further liberalization of the service and agriculture sectors. In addition, immigration policy has changed substantially. Switzerland has abstained from any further recruitment of foreign labor from non-EU countries (for which there is little demand anyway), and has liberalized the immigration regime with EU countries. Essentially, this has meant free movement of labor between Switzerland and the European Union, intensifying the new problems and cleavages associated with the recruiting of highly skilled employees from abroad.
(4) Switzerland was a laggard in the development of the welfare state, though it caught up in the post-war period. Today it is a mature and generous liberal-conservative welfare state. In times of demographic change, this welfare state is only sustainable through high rates of economic growth. However, the protectionist elements of the policy regime inhibit strong growth. Therefore, the benefits offered by the welfare state are endangered, prompting opposition by trade unions and the political left.