A mixed group of intellectuals, artists and activists are behind the initiative to give an unconditional basic income to every Swiss resident, regardless of whether they work.
Supporters say monthly payments of CHF 2,500 CHF for each adult and CHF 625 per child, would enable us to cover our basic living costs and allow us to live with more dignity.
Opponents argue that an annual CHF 75,000 (US$ 77,129) tax free hand out to a two-parent, two-child family, would tempt many to give up their jobs.
Extra money, but not for everyone
A common misunderstanding is that the initiative would make us all CHF 2,500 CHF richer.
In fact, only a few low earners, below the 2,500 CHF mark, would see more money in their accounts at the end of the month.
As most people working in Switzerland earn more than CHF 2,500 a month, the majority of bank balances would remain the same.
The initiative would however, change the way income is composed. The promoters want to see the first CHF 2,500 of every Swiss resident’s monthly income guaranteed and paid by the state. Those who work would then receive their salary – minus CHF 2,500 – on top of this ‘basic income’.
Employers would not get to pocket the CHF 2,500, saved on each employee’s salary, but would transfer these amounts into the state’s unconditional basic income fund.
The annual cost of giving everyone a monthly income equates to CHF 208 billion. According to the promoters, the lion’s share of this is already available in the form of existing social payments, such as state pensions, disability insurances and welfare. One way to fill the remaining gap would be to raise value-added tax, they say.
A green light to scrap other social benefits
Replacing all social benefits with a basic income is exactly what unionist and national councillor Jean Christophe Schwaab (from the Swiss Social Democratic Party /PSS/SPS) fears. In a radio interview with RTS/SRF he said that the initiative would give parliament a green light to scrap all other social benefits.
The initiative’s financing plan has received heavy criticism. Opponents insist that the current social system is sufficient, and like the economic system, does not need reforming.
They are adamant that with CHF 2,500 guaranteed every month, many would lose their incentive to work, especially those on low wages with unappealing jobs.
One of their concerns is that rather than seeking regular employment, some might look for ways to top up their basic income on the black market. Another fear is that it would attract economic migrants.
Critics also think it would be impossible for Switzerland to adopt this policy on its own. Some go as far to say that handing out money unconditionally shows contempt for people in other parts of the world, who don’t have enough to eat.
The initiative’s supporters are convinced that advances in technology are making the economy less reliant on human labour. And they are not alone. This year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, titled The Fourth Industrial Revolution, was all about artificial intelligence and the digital revolution that is underway, changing the way we live, work and communicate with each other.
Along with other economists, the initiative’s co-founder Christian Müller says it is utopian to believe that we will all have full-time employment in the future.
Mr Müller also said: “We are moving towards a zero-cost economy. Take for example the music industry. No one earns money by selling recorded music anymore, not since it became digitized. Production costs have dropped, making it almost free. And this is a good thing. The same will be the case for other industries. Especially when alternative energies become more affordable.”
The right to work vs the right to exist
Mr Müller explained why the concept is hard for people to get their heads around: “For many, the notion that everyone has the right to work and that the labour market is divided into employers and employees is deep-rooted. Nonetheless, this scenario is changing rapidly. We have an immense opportunity and obligation to adapt to this new situation.”
Supporters say that providing everyone with enough to live off could encourage them to volunteer or to pursue their own interests.
Another advantage they see in dissociating work from income, is a status boost for occupations such as old age care and child rearing, which are either underpaid, or not paid at all.
With government and parties from left to right, advising against the idea, the initiative has a low chance of success.
It has however, sparked a vigorous debate about the value of work, both now and in years to come. Panels across Swiss media have asked whether humans are inherently lazy or driven by motives beyond economic gain.
Switzerland is not alone exploring this idea. Finland will experiment with its own form of basic income next year.
The referendum vote is on Sunday 5th June 2016.
By Jade Cano
Jade is a freelance journalist and lives in Geneva. Originally from Colombia, she has lived in the UK and Germany.
Basic income initiative website (in French, German and Italian)
Institut Zukunft (in English)
The world economic forum – a world without work (in English)
RTS/SRF interview with Jean Christophe Schwaab (in German)
Avenir Suisse criticizes basic income initiative (in French)