Switzerland is soon to vote on the possible introduction of a basic guaranteed income for all citizens; regardless of their employment status or circumstances. The amount will be 2,500 Swiss francs (about £1,750) per month. That’s right, the citizens of Switzerland may about to be guaranteed a set monthly ‘wage’ without having to do any work at all, unless they are so inclined.
Now, I had never heard of such a staggering concept before, but this article from the BBC suggests that actually the idea of a basic income for all has been around since this 16th century when Thomas Paine (I think incorrectly mentioned as Thomas More) presented it as part a utopian ideal. In ‘The Rights of Man’ Paine argues that a basic income which would provide for a child’s education and welfare as well as a comfortable state pension and funeral costs should be a considered a human right rather than charity. In a later pamphlet Paine stated:
It is wrong to say God made rich and poor. He made only male and female; and he gave them the Earth for their inheritance.
So, this brings me to the real point of this post: what would you do if your material needs were met and you were free to do whatever you wanted with your life?
Of course there is an argument that a guaranteed income will lead to laziness. Swiss economist Rudolf Strahm suggests that, “There will be no incentive for young people to learn a job or study”. I think this takes a fairly dim view of humanity. Just because people are financially comfortable it does not mean that they will drift into inherent laziness. If this were the case then no one born into wealthy families would ever be motivated to do anything, and we know that this is not the case. It is ridiculous to suggest that money is the only thing which motivates people, I like reading, drawing and blogging. None of those things pay, I’m not going to stop anytime soon because I believe they help me to develop, allow me to engage with the world and I find them interesting – but mostly because I enjoy them.
In my experience people are always in pursuit of something that will give their life purpose and meaning, whether that be raising a family, career success, a relentless pursuit of more money to add to the pile or even simply power; everyone is looking for something and financial stability will put these things within reach rather than cause them to disappear. I believe that human beings enjoy learning, being productive and developing their talents and a guaranteed income would allow them the time and financial freedom to do these things. My own personal take on this is that I would probably be in further education right now if it weren’t for the crippling debt involved.
Be an entrepreneur
A society where people have the freedom to pursue what they like and are good at can only be a good thing, could Switzerland become a nation of happy entrepreneurs? Young people are curious about the world around them and eager to learn and develop new skills, in fact, they are the driving force behind the guaranteed income in Switzerland. It would help them to study, learn a job, and be more engaged in society rather than hinder them as Strahm suggests.
Still be an employee
I often wonder if there are people out there who might be doing my dream job, but they are totally and utterly miserable and are unable to give it up because they can’t afford to. I have my suspicions that there is probably a lot of this unhappy job clinging going on at the moment, and there are a whole plethora of people waiting for the economy to recover so that opportunities might arise for jobs they might actually like. If a guaranteed income was introduced then people would have real power to choose a job that motivated them, rather than do something they hated just to pay the rent. Enno Schmidt (as quoted from the BBC article), a campaigner for basic income suggests that ‘a society in which people work only because they have to have money is “no better than slavery” ‘.
Switzerland need not worry about employees suddenly just giving up work because they don’t need the money anymore, so many people love their jobs and have spent a lot of time and effort getting good at them – they aren’t about to throw that away. Perhaps there would be more freedom of movement between jobs where you would have an opportunity to try something out for a while, with no pressure to stay if it didn’t suit you. This might sound a little bit flakey initially, but in the long term companies could be sure that their employees were there because they really were dedicated and enthusiastic, not just present under miserable duress. I really do believe that a happy workforce is a more creative and productive one. For those people in currently in wage-slave jobs who would definitely leave if they could, then perhaps mass resignations would prompt employers to reconsider working conditions.
But is it possible?
Switzerland is a very wealthy country with the fourth highest per capita income in the world at $78,881 (Wiki), so affordability is not the the central issue. Nonetheless, if Switzerland did vote for a guaranteed income then it would be a fascinating and very risky social experiment. 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,750*) per month is scarcely enough to survive on according to Mr. Schmidt, so maybe everyone will be keeping their day jobs for a while yet, although it would undoubtably make life a lot easier for the majority of people.
My two cents: UK perspective
A guaranteed liveable basic income will never be introduced in the UK, but I thought I would muse over the possible implications.
*Yeah, ok, what? £1,750 is pretty crazy amount of money from where I’m sitting here. It’s more than what I got paid at the best paying job I’ve ever had, and I think there would be plenty of adults in the UK who would be delighted with this princely sum on top of their usual wage, given the real clamp down on pay increases and level of inflation here. It certainly throws an interesting light on the notion of a living rather than a minimum wage. However, I hear through the traveller grapevine that Switzerland is a hellishly expensive place as it is a very wealthy country, and a guaranteed income is probably going to drive the prices up even further – so if you were depending on this income alone then maybe life would be possible rather than easy per se. I assume that unlike benefits in the UK the basic income would keep people above poverty levels, because otherwise this defeats the entire object. Also there is something to be said for an income which everyone is entitled to, rather than fostering a suspicious and cold society where people are criminalised because they are poor; so called ‘benefit scroungers’. It also eliminates the Dickensian idea of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor which is increasingly creeping into the UK discussion state benefits (by actually treating people like human beings, we all have a right to a certain standard of life, opportunites and education). If I was a viable adult in a career that was progressing well then I would probably hope to be earning slightly more than this in times not blighted by recession – and I would be proud to earn my own money. However, it would be nice to know that I wouldn’t fall into poverty and be branded as scum if this were not the case. So yeah, I do think the economic/personal incentive to work would still be there, just not in such an authoritative, threatening, shouty and judgemental way; all carrot and no stick – touché Switzerland.