Should Switzerland pay every citizen – including those who don't work?

When it comes to a universal base income in Switzerland, academics are for it and politicians are against it. But in June, it will be up to the Swiss public. 

Ruben Sprich/Reuters
A participant of the initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income, dressed as a robot, dances on the Federal Square in Bern, Switzerland January 27, 2016.

Switzerland will be the first country in the world to vote on a proposal to provide all citizens a basic unconditional monthly income of 2,500 Swiss francs, or $2,800. And if the proposals passes, Switzerland will be the first country to enact such a measure. 

The Swiss Parliament voted on a motion in September that calls on the Swiss people to reject the Popular Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income. After hours of debate, there were 146 votes against the initative and 14 MPs supporting it. But this vote remains simply a recommendation by politicians – the real decision will be decided in a nationwide referendum in June. 

And political oppostion remains strong. Liberal Party spokesman Daniel Stolz describes the initiative as a “cocked hand grenade that threatens to tear the whole system to pieces,” and Centrist Sebastian Frehner describes the measure as “the most dangerous and harmful initiative that has ever been submitted.” 

But basic income supporters in Switzerland and around the world, mainly a group of economists and intellectuals, insist people will still want to work and have jobs. 

Guy Standing, a professor of Development Studies at the University of London, is a prominent economist who has long touted the benefits of a guaranteed base income. 

“A basic income would help people be more rational, more long-term in their outlook, and more prepared to take entrepreneurial risk,” Dr. Standing writes in a blog posted by Singularity University. He says millions of Americans are overqualified for their jobs, but they stay at unfulfilling jobs because they are constantly conscious of making ends meet. “The simple fact is that people with basic security work harder and more productively, not less.” 

Standing also argues that a guaranteed basic income could be affordable if society were to build a "bonfire" of the subsidies he says that taxpayers pay to the affluent and redirect that wealth to the benefit of all citizens.

Pointing to case studies in India, the US, Canada and several European countries, Standing argues that a basic income would modestly reduce income inequality and give qualified employees a fighting chance. 

Finland recognizes a similar rational, proposing a similar initiative last month. 

The nordic country plans to launch a “universal basic income experiment” in 2017 to replace the country’s current welfare system, The Christian Science Monitor’s Lonnie Shekhtman reported in December. Under the innovative system, all of Finland’s unemployed would receive a payout of €800 (or $870) each month.

“The Finnish economy is in an extremely difficult situation,” wrote the ministry. 

With a ten percent unemployment rate and aging population, government officials and economic experts are looking to the basic income experiment as a way to grapple with the country’s worrisome financial future. 

As The Monitor’s Shekhtman explained last month, “A basic income would encourage more people to work, the thinking goes, as opposed to disincentivizing them under the current system by taking away their benefits when they start to earn an income.” 

But Swiss voters don’t see much hope for the initiative. In a recent survey, one-third of respondents said such an initiative would encourage people to stop working, and 56 percent predicted that the initiative will “never see the light of day.”

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