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A bonanza for everyone?

17.03.2016 – Jürg Müller

Money from the state for everyone unconditionally – that is the aim of the popular initiative for an unconditional basic income which will be put to the vote on 5 June.

Everyone, regardless of whether they are in gainful employment or not and irrespective of their financial position, would receive a basic income. Those behind the initiative indicate an amount of CHF 2,500 a month for each adult. Children and young people up to the age of 18 would receive CHF 625.

The initiative does not explain exactly how this is to be financed. However, reflections on this matter are set out in supplementary documentation: Someone earning CHF 6,000 a month would only receive CHF 3,500 directly from their employer. CHF 2,500 from every salary would go into the basic income pot from which the employee would receive the remaining CHF 2,500. The basic income would also replace certain welfare benefits. However, the financing of the remainder is even contested by the advocates of the unconditional basic income.

The debate is heavily influenced by people’s different concepts of what it is to be human – do people essentially enjoy working? The authors of the initiative – primarily artists, journalists and intellectuals – are inclined to believe they do. In their view, few people would be content with an income of just CHF 2,500, which means the financial incentive of gainful employment would be maintained. The Federal Council rejects the proposal because it would have a “far-reaching, undesirable impact, in particular on the economic system and social cohesion”. A clear majority of MPs share this view. In the National Council, CVP spokesperson Ruth Humbel dubbed the initiative a “romantic social experiment”. The SP and Greens do not support the initiative either, apart from a few exceptions.

A global issue

Such opposition comes as little surprise. Unconditional basic income removes the model of paid work as the cornerstone of the economy and society. Many on the left also regard the initiative as a fundamental attack on the welfare state. This is because a uniform monthly pension of CHF 2,500 could never replace the tailored social insurance benefits that take account of the vicissitudes of life. There is also a fear that Parliament could initiate swingeing welfare cuts when it came to structuring the basic income in specific terms – the lowest possible basic income and the abolition of other welfare benefits. But that is precisely what makes unconditional basic income appealing to some neo-liberals. They see it as a means of cutting back the social insurance system.

This issue is not just being discussed in Switzerland. A restricted experiment with an unconditional basic income is to be conducted in Finland in 2017. Similar ideas are also being toyed with in France and the Netherlands.

Jürg Müller is an editor with THE “Swiss Review”

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