Switzerland: An Initiative to Establish Basic Income for All

An initiative to establish a new federal law known as “For an unconditional basic income” [fr] was formally introduced in Switzerland in April. The idea, which consists quite simply of giving a monthly income to all citizens that is neither means-tested nor work-related, has generated commentary throughout the Swiss blogosphere.

The Swiss referendum process is a system of direct democracy that enables citizens to call for legislative change at the federal or constitutional level.

If the initiative to introduce a basic income gathers more than 100,000 signatures before October 11, 2013, the Federal Assembly is required to look into it and can call a referendum if the initiative is judged to be credible.

Swiss Francs by Flickr user Jim (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Swiss Francs by Flickr user Jim (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

On his blog, Pascal Holenweg explains what it's all about [fr]:

L'initiative populaire  pour un revenu de base inconditionnel  propose d'inscrire dans la constitution fédérale l'instauration d'une allocation universelle versée sans conditions devant permettre à l'ensemble de la population de mener une existence digne et de participer à la vie publique.

La loi règlerait le financement et fixerait le montant de cette allocation (les initiants la situent à 2000-2500 francs par mois, soit, grosso modo, le montant maximum de l'aide sociale actuelle, mais n'inscrivent pas ce montant dans le texte de l'initiative). Le revenu de base est inconditionnel : il n'est subordonné à aucune contre-prestation. Il est universel (tout le monde le touche) et égalitaire (tout le monde touche le même montant). Il est individuel (il est versé aux individus, pas aux ménages).

Il n'est pas un revenu de substitution à un revenu ou un salaire perdu. En revanche, il remplace tous les revenus de substitution (assurance chômage, retraite, allocations familiales, allocations d'étude, rentes invalidité) qui lui sont inférieurs. Comment le financer? Par l'impôt direct sur le revenu et la fortune, par l'impôt indirect sur la consommation (la TVA), par un impôt sur les transactions financières, et surtout par le transfert des ressources consacrées au financement de l'AVS, de l'AI, de l'aide sociale et des autres revenus de substitution inférieurs au montant du revenu de base.

The grassroots initiative “for an unconditional basic income” proposes that “the establishment of an unconditional universal benefit” be written into the federal constitution which would “allow the entire population to lead a dignified existence and participate in public life”.The law will address financing and set the amount of the benefit (the proposers suggest around 2,000-2,500 Swiss francs per month (or 2,200-2,700 US dollars per month), which is about the same as the maximum current social security payment, but they have not written this into the text of the initiative[fr]). The basic income does not come with any conditions attached: it is not subject to any means testing. It is universal (everyone will receive it) and egalitarian (everyone will receive the same amount). It is also personal (it is paid out to individuals, not households).It is not income to replace a lost salary. Rather, it replaces all inferior income support (unemployment benefit, pensions, family allowance, student grants, disability payments). How will it be financed? Through direct taxation of income and wealth, indirect taxation on consumption (VAT), taxing financial transactions, and most especially through the reallocation of resources currently allotted to financing state pensions and unemployment payouts, social security and other welfare payments lower than the amount of the basic income.

On his blog [fr], Fred Hubleur makes the point:

Le truc important, c’est que ce revenu est fixé pour toutes et tous sans qu’il n’y ait de contrepartie de travail ; oui, un revenu sans emploi. Cela peut choquer. Mais dans le fond c’est une idée parfaitement défendable. D’une part, on lutte ainsi contre la pauvreté et la précarité, plus besoins d’aides sociales en complément de revenus autres et des dizaines d’aides différentes et complexes à mettre en œuvre. Ce revenu inconditionnel est également un bon point pour l’innovation et la création. (…) On est aussi dans un nouveau paradigme qui peut effrayer les capitalistes acharnés : libérer l’Homme du travail et lui rendre son statut d’homo sapiens prévalant à celui d’homo travaillus qui a tellement cours dans notre société.

The important thing is that this revenue is fixed for everyone without there being a requirement to work; that's right, it is income without employment. This might seem shocking. But at its heart it is an entirely defensible idea. On the one hand, we are fighting against poverty and insecurity, there will no longer be a need for social security to bolster other incomes, and dozens of different and unwieldy benefits. This unconditional income is equally good news for innovation and creativity. (…) We have also made a paradigm shift that dyed-in-the-wool capitalists might find alarming: the liberation of working man, returning him to his status as homo sapiens over that of homo travaillus (ed's note:  Homo travaillus is a play on word to describe the working man) which holds such sway in our society.

Martouf sets out a number of arguments in favour of a basic income [fr], as illustrated here:

Human reason to work by freeworldcharter.org via active rain and adapted by Martouf in French with permission to repost

This new world vision has most notably been explored in the Helvetico-German film Basic Income: A Cultural Impetus, by Ennon Schmidt and Daniel Hani, two of the eight Swiss citizens founders of the initiative:

“And what would you do with a basic income?”

On the website of BIEN_Switzerland, the Swiss branch of the global network calling for a basic income, Internet users were asked the following question [fr]:

Voilà, ça y est, vous l'avez. Chaque mois vous recevez 2500 francs sans condition. Dites-nous en quoi votre vie a changé. Dites-nous ce que vous faites de votre temps. A quoi vous consacrez votre vie ?

So here it is. You receive 2,500 Swiss francs every month no strings attached. Tell us how your life would change. Tell us how you would spend your time. What would you devote your life to?

The responses were varied. Antoine would set up a restaurant. Gaetane a farm. Renaud would devote himself to music:

Mon premier projet serait de finir et de tenter de produire un instrument de musique que je suis en train de créer. Parallèlement à ça je proposerais des cours d'utilisation de mon instrument de musique préféré et peu connu dans la région

My first project would be to finish a musical instrument that I am in the process of creating and attempting to put it into production. At the same time I would offer lessons on how to play my favourite musical instrument, one which is not well known in this region.

User herfou70 would prioritise his family [fr]:

Je suis Père de famille (3 enfants – 6-11-14 ans) et suis le seul salairé de la famille. Disposer d'une revenu de base me permettrait de consacrer plus temps à mes enfants. Mon épouse pourrait également avoir une activité autre que celle qu'elle occupe dans le foyer, ce qui lui permettrait de plus s'épanouir

I am a father (3 children – 6, 11 and 14 years old) and I am the family's only earner. To have a basic income would allow me to devote more time to my children. My wife would also be able to do something outside of looking after our home, allowing her to grow and develop.
A poster by the initiative[a poster from the “revenu de base inconditionnel” initiative]

On Facebook, supporters of the basic income initiative have launched a competition [fr] called “star for life”. Visitors to the site are invited to take a photo of themselves as if they were sentenced to life.

A basic income will “do more harm than good”

But not everyone is convinced by the idea. According to Jean Christophe Schwaab, a member of Switzerland's lower house of representatives, socialists must not support the proposition, which he judges will “do more harm than good and be a disaster for employees”. He gave the following explanation on his blog [fr]:

Les partisans du revenu de base prétendent que ce revenu doit «libérer de l’obligation de gagner sa vie» et entraînerait la disparition des emplois précaires ou mal payés, car, puisque le revenu de base garantit le minimum vital, plus personnes ne voudra de ces emplois. Or, c’est probablement le contraire qui se produirait. Comme ces faibles montants ne suffiront pas à atteindre le premier objectif de l’initiative, à savoir garantir des conditions de vie décentes, leurs bénéficiaires seront obligés de travailler quand même, malgré le revenu de base. La pression d’accepter n’importe quel emploi ne disparaîtra donc pas.

Supporters of a basic income claim that it must “free people from the obligation of earning a living” and lead to the disappearance of unstable or poorly paid employment, because, as this basic income guarantees a minimum living wage, no one will want these jobs. Now, it's more than likely to produce the opposite effect. As the low level of the payouts will not be sufficient to satisfy the initiative's primary objective, namely ensure a decent standard of living, the beneficiaries will be obliged to work anyway, despite the basic income. The pressure to accept any available job will not go away.

He added:

Enfin, le revenu de base inconditionnel aurait pour grave défaut d’exclure définitivement bon nombre de travailleurs du marché du travail (dont on nierait alors le droit au travail): ceux dont on ne jugerait pas la capacité de gain suffisante (p. ex. en raison d’un handicap, de maladie ou de faibles qualifications) n’auraient qu’à se contenter du revenu de base.

Lastly, an unconditional basic income would, worst of all, permanently exclude a good number of workers from the job market (by denying their right to work): those who are judged to have insufficient earning potential (e.g. due to disability, illness or lack of qualifications) will just have to content themselves with the basic income.

His analysis is controversial, as can be seen from the comments thread under his post. From a French perspective, Jeff Renault explained why the left are “dead set against” [fr] an unconditional basic income:

La gauche de la fin du 19è et du 20è siècle s’est forgée autour de la valeur travail et la défense des travailleurs. Ce combat se retrouve dans la défense persistante du salariat et de son St. Graal, le CDI, alors même que ce “statut” ne concerne plus qu’une minorité de personnes.

The left of the end of the 19th and the 20th centuries was forged on the values of work and defending workers. This fight centres around the never ending defence of the salaried worker and the Holy Grail of permanent, salaried contracts, even through this “status” only applies to the minority.

With the launch of the initiative, Hubleur hopes [fr] that a great societal debate will open up in Switzerland:

Ce sera au moins la porte ouverte à un grand débat de société et l’occasion de réfléchir à ce que l’on veut et à quelle vie on aspire. Ce système d’allocation universelle (ou autres noms), ça fait un moment que je le suis, je me souviens qu’on en avait parlé dans des cours sur la précarité et le lien social il y a une dizaine d’années à l’université. Le principe est franchement séduisant et mérite qu’on s’y arrête.

Quand on voit le monde que nous donne le système capitaliste et productiviste actuel, on peut bien se prendre à rêver d’autre chose, d’un monde laissant plus de chances à chacune et chacun.

This will at least open the door to a great societal debate and the chance to reflect on what we want and to what kind of life we aspire. I've been following the idea of a universal benefit system (amongst other names) for a while. I remember talking about it in a class on instability and social ties a decade ago at university. The idea is frankly very seductive and deserves a closer look.When you look at the world created through the current capitalist, productivist model, you could easily end up longing for something else, for a world that gives everyone a better chance.


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