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Why Switzerland’s basic income idea is not crazy

Scott Santens
Scott Santens
4 min read
Why Switzerland’s basic income idea is not crazy
Photo by Uwe Conrad / Unsplash

Seven out of 10 voters fully expect another referendum in Switzerland, and the beginning of a necessary national conversation

This article was originally published on POLITICO

Switzerland has voted against providing everyone a monthly pay check for life, but Sunday’s unsuccessful Yes vote of 23.1 percent won’t be the country’s last word on the issue. Opinion polls and long experience indicate this is just the beginning.

For those like me who have advocated the idea of a universal basic income, or UBI, a Yes vote was not at all expected. Anything over 20 percent would have been a win in the eyes of the campaigners.

In the end, 568,905 people in Switzerland voted Yes. But that’s only part of the story. Seven out of 10 voters expect another referendum, meaning that this result is best seen as the start of a national conversation.

The numbers are even more encouraging among those younger than 39, eight out of 10 of whom see Sunday’s first referendum as just the beginning. Meanwhile, 72 percent of those surveyed in Switzerland believe traditional types of work will become redundant in the years ahead and see basic income as a way of adapting to this new environment.

So why did the Swiss reject the idea? Forty percent felt very strongly the idea was not financially feasible. Given that the exact amount of the basic income was not being voted on, and neither was any explicit funding plan or potential replacement of existing programs, this makes sense. These details were not really part of the discussion.

Essentially, people were asked to vote on something like the right to free speech, not how to pay for, or implement, free speech. The point was to establish the right to a basic income, and leave the details up to the government. But people got stuck on the “how,” instead of focusing on the “why.”

Discussion in the years ahead will now focus on the specifics of different parties’ “ideal” basic income plans.

There was also a concern that the floodgates to immigration would be opened, with 65 percent fearing the measure would attract foreigners. These fears require greater discussion and will take time.

Despite the referendum being rejected, the vote has put basic income on the agenda of every major political party in Switzerland. Discussion in the years ahead will now focus on the specifics of different parties’ “ideal” basic income plans, such as which existing programs and subsidies to replace, how to adjust the tax code, and whether minimum wage should be dropped or expanded.

Existential relief

The idea of basic income forces people to think about what they would spend their time on if they had more choice in the matter. So it’s encouraging to see that 49 percent of all Swiss see basic income as valuing and encouraging unpaid household and volunteer work. In other words, half of Switzerland sees UBI as a way to finally recognize all the unpaid and unrecognized work that is going on outside of employment. This could also be why women feel more strongly than men that this referendum heralds a larger change.

A national survey showed a mere 2 percent of Swiss citizens would discontinue any employment if given a basic income, whereas two-thirds felt it would “relieve people from existential fears.” And 40 percent said they would volunteer more as a result.

My own involvement in this cause began in 2013 when I watched the documentary,“Basic Income: A Cultural Impulse,” made by the referendum’s co-initiators Daniel Häni and Enno Schmidt in 2008.

On the day their team triggered the referendum vote in October, 2013 — by delivering 125,000 signatures (25,000 more than they needed) — campaigners dumped 8 million five-cent coins outside parliament, enough for every single Swiss citizen. And it was then the entire world took notice.

Those hearing about the idea for the first time learned the idea was not actually new. There had been experiments in the 1970s in both the United States and Canada. Some people living in cities like Seattle, Denver, and even Gary, Indiana had once been given basic income guarantees. All people in the city of Dauphin, Manitoba in Canada had been given a basic income guarantee as well, for five years. The results of these once forgotten experiments, where people found themselves healthier and more in control of how they chose to work, were now being discussed anew.

There’s a historical precedent for returning referendums too. In 1959 Switzerland held a referendum that was soundly rejected by 67 percent of voters. Then too, many considered the idea “crazy.” Twelve years later, in 1971, that same issue was brought to a vote again, and passed. Women in Switzerland finally got the right to vote. Sometimes when an idea is considered crazy, that’s what’s considered crazy decades later.

As for UBI, over half a million people just voted for an idea that could change everything, because a core group of about 20 people passionately pursued that idea. That’s the real result to take away: that such a relatively small but determined group of people can have such a large influence on public opinion and policy.

Millions more people all over the world are now thinking about this idea for the first time, and that reminds us all of the power of an idea whose time has finally come … even if, in Switzerland, that time is not quite yet.

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Unconditional/Universal Basic Income (UBI) advocate with a crowdfunded basic income; Founder and President of ITSA Foundation, Author of Let There Be Money; Editor of