Guaranteed Income for All? Switzerland’s Voters Say No Thanks

6 years, 7 months ago - June 06, 2016
The basic income campaigners say it would boost enterpreneurship.

The basic income campaigners say it would boost enterpreneurship.

Swiss voters on Sunday overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to guarantee an income to Switzerland’s residents, whether or not they are employed, an idea that has also been raised in other countries amid an intensifying debate over wealth disparities and dwindling employment opportunities.

About 77 percent of voters rejected a plan to give a basic monthly income of 2,500 Swiss francs, or about $2,560, to each adult, and 625 francs for each child under 18, regardless of employment status, to fight poverty and social inequality and guarantee a “dignified” life to everyone.

Switzerland was the first country to vote on such a universal basic income plan, but other countries and cities either have been considering the idea or have started trial programs.

Finland is set to introduce a pilot program for a random sample of about 10,000 adults who will each receive a monthly handout of 550 euros, about $625. The intent is to turn the two-year trial into a national plan if it proves successful.

In the Netherlands, Utrecht is leading a group of municipalities that are experimenting with similar pilot projects.

In the United States, the idea of a guaranteed income has gained some traction in the run-up to the presidential election in November. It has been promoted by some Democrats who are demanding more social justice, but it also has some right-wing advocates who see it as a better alternative to government welfare programs.

In Switzerland, opponents warned that the proposal would derail an economic model that, far from showing signs of near-collapse, has allowed the country to remain among those with the highest living standards in the world, even with a growing and aging population. Switzerland has an unemployment rate of around 3.5 percent, less than half the average in the European Union.

The backers of the plan did not detail how it would be financed. But the Swiss government and almost all the main political parties had urged voters to turn down the guaranteed income plan, warning that it would require raising an additional 25 billion Swiss francs a year through deep spending cuts or tax increases.

Some opponents of a Swiss guaranteed income also attacked it as a return to Marxist economics, even if the idea has far older roots, dating to the 16th-century writings of Thomas More and the 18th-century works of Thomas Paine.

After World War II, the concept of a guaranteed income was promoted as a way of redistributing income by some free-market economists led by Milton Friedman, who in part argued that it would be more efficient than the bureaucracy of running dozens of separate programs to help the poor.

Still, the current discussion, in Switzerland and elsewhere, has been not only about wealth redistribution but also about how modern societies can continue to create jobs while pushing technological advances such as factory robots and driverless trucks.

Campaigners in favor of a guaranteed income used robots as street stunts to warn what the jobless society of the future would entail. Some people gave out 10-franc notes at the Zurich’s main train station while supporters in Geneva set up, on a public esplanade, a giant banner that asked, “What would you do if your income were taken care of?”

“I understand that a new generation is worried about how and where young people will next find work, but this proposal was pure nonsense,” said Curdin Pirovino, a Swiss industrial designer. “You cannot give a society the idea that money is available for doing nothing.”

But at a Sunday market in Geneva, several people defended the proposal in the context of returning to a more equitable society.

Some also presented their vote as another challenge to industrialization, similar to their motivation for buying organic food from the stalls of local farmers rather than cheaper supermarkets. A third of voters in Geneva backed the idea of a guaranteed income.

“We’re losing all our values, creating countries that no longer need workers but still need consumers, but how can we expect people to buy anything if they can’t earn a salary tomorrow?” asked Olivier Duchene, a musician and street entertainer.

Despite the clear defeat, campaigners said the vote was a first step toward a fairer economic model.

“One out of five people voted for the unconditional basic income, so that is a success in itself,” Sergio Rossi, an economics professor who backed the initiative, told STA, the Swiss news agency.

Switzerland’s model of direct democracy, in which citizens can collect signatures to force a national referendum on a proposal, has helped turn the country into a laboratory for pioneering social and economic changes.

In early 2013, the Swiss voted to impose some of the world’s most severe restrictions on executive compensation, following a proposal by a small entrepreneur in defiance of the country’s big business lobby.

Later that year, however, the Swiss rejected another economic proposal, the “1:12” initiative, which would have limited the salary of top executives to 12 times the wages of their lowest-paid employees. And in 2014, the Swiss rejected a proposal to introduce what would have been the world’s highest minimum wage, equivalent to nearly $25 an hour.

Referendums are gaining ground in other European countries that normally rely on a system of parliamentary democracy.

Last year, Greece held a referendum on a bailout plan, and the Netherlands introduced a referendum law under which voters rejected a European Union agreement with Ukraine in April. Britain is set to vote in a referendum this month on whether to leave the European Union a year after Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom.

But in Switzerland, the proliferation of such votes has provoked a debate over the ease with which complicated or radical issues can be brought to a referendum. Low voter turnout has also become an issue. About 46 percent of eligible Swiss voters went to the polls on Sunday, when four other national issues and several regional issues were voted on.

Philippe Leuba, a regional politician, said on Swiss national radio on Sunday that it was positive that voters had followed the advice of their federal government. But he still deplored the fact that the proposal for guaranteed income had gotten so far, calling it a “hyper-populist and demagogic” plan to give away money for nothing.

Text by The New York Times

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