Sunday, June 07, 2015

Swarms do “what is right”

In a public vote at the town hall meeting on May 4, 2015, the Swiss town of Duernten (population 7000) decided to return $250,000 to a worker, who had not filled out his tax declaration since 1995 due to dyslexia. In successively higher tax bills the tax authorities had overcharged Ernst Suter by $280,000, forcing him to sell land to pay taxes on money he had never made. As a worker in a butcher’s shop Suter made about 60,000 a year, which, by Swiss standards, is a fairly low salary. Based on information from the town administration, the tax office of the canton of Zurich had second guessed Suter’s income at about 300,000 per year, and sent him tax bills accordingly, which Suter always paid, nearly forcing him into bankruptcy more than once. Only when Suter ran totally dry, did the branch of the town government that has the task to collect late payments (called “Betreibungsamt”, office of payment enforcement in Switzerland) pass on the case to a custodian, who brought the whole tragedy to light.

This is where things took a positive turn for Ernst Suter. After the custodian sent a detailed list of the overpayments to all citizens in Duernten, the town hall meeting decided last December to return the money. When the mayor of the town and his tax administration dragged their feet and decided to cut the return into half – because in the Swiss system, half of the collected town tax of individuals is passed on to the canton – citizens of Duernten took the matter into their own hands. They again put the issue on the agenda of their town hall meeting in June, voting overwhelmingly for Suter.

Fairness and ethical behavior is more important than strict adherence to the letter of the law. In this case, the swarm – the town hall meeting - also censored its leaders, asking the elected town officials to not only return the 250,000 they had taken from Suter, but even to make sure that in case the canton would want to tax the return payment as income, to allocate an additional 75,000 to pay for the income tax. They also asked the mayor to formally apologize to Suter.

This shows that the swarm (citizens of Duernten) knows better than the experts (the tax authorities) what is fair, independent of what the tax code says.

This case lead to intensive echo in the Swiss press (in German)
original exposure 
Series of articles in "Blick"