Voters in Switzerland will decide Sunday whether to cut themselves and all their fellow citizens checks. The Swiss are holding the first national referendum on an unconditional basic income, a simple but radical idea to streamline the welfare state by guaranteeing everyone an income. Rich or poor, working or unemployed — it doesn’t matter, everyone gets the same amount. The organizers of the referendum have proposed 2,500 Swiss francs per month (equal to under $2,000 per month in the U.S. after factoring in cost of living).
The measure is most likely going to fail. Two recent polls by gfs.bern, a private research firm based in Bern, Switzerland, projected more than 70 percent of likely voters would vote “No” while about 25 percent would vote “Yes.” There was essentially zero movement between the two polls, one conducted in mid-April and the other in mid-May.
“We are very sure it is going to be a ‘No’ vote,” said Martina Mousson, a project leader for gfs.bern. She noted the basic income referendum was unique, compared to other initiatives, in how few voters were undecided. “Early on, a lot of people had a strong opinion, and from the beginning it was clear that this strong opinion was for ‘No.’ ”
The main reason “No” will surely win, according to Mousson, is that a majority of Swiss voters are doubtful that the country can afford a basic income for all. That’s the main argument put forth by the Swiss parliament, which overwhelmingly came out against the proposal.
But that doesn’t faze Switzerland’s basic income advocates, who collected 126,000 signatures to force a referendum. They say they have already won just by bringing the issue to a vote. In reporting an earlier story on basic income, I spoke with Daniel Straub, one of the main organizers with the People’s Initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income. He and other supporters knew it was unlikely that they’d get a majority. “The fact that there will be a vote on June 5 means we get media attention. We put it on the agenda,” he told me in February.
Interest in basic income (both pro and con) is growing outside of Switzerland, as well. Just this week Y Combinator, the San Francisco-based start-up fund, announced that it would conduct a basic income pilot study in Oakland, California. Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, argued that a basic income would actually increase poverty in the U.S., because of resulting cuts to programs targeting assistance to the poor.
Basic income is a centuries-old idea, but the Swiss referendum has provided the opportunity to rehash the debate over its merits. Some advocates argue it offers a solution to poverty while streamlining a bloated welfare state; others say it can prepare us for a future when technology replaces human labor. Critics point out it would be expensive, requiring taxation on a scale never seen before; plus, if basic income were to become law, it could encourage people to quit working, with destabilizing economic consequences.
When the Swiss people (likely) reject basic income on Sunday, it won’t be the end of this debate. Either way, basic income is having a moment.
In this video chat, Andrew Flowers and Ben Casselman discuss basic income and respond to questions and comments raised by readers.