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Basic income for the Swiss?

Pauper or billionaire: Switzerland prepares for a vote on a basic income for all. Here are the arguments pro and con - and why the referendum is most likely to fail.

To work or not to work for a living - that may no longer be an issue in Switzerland in the near future.

The Swiss go to the polls on June 5 in a referendum on an unconditional basic income (UBI). A guaranteed income for everyone, no questions asked.

The idea is not entirely new. "The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income," Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1967. Austrian economist F.A. Hayek also supported the idea of "a certain minimum income for everyone … a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself."

But Switzerland may be the first country to actually implement a guaranteed income for all.

'Quite a paradigm change'

UBI "gives everybody the basics to live on and based on that, to live a full life," argues Daniel Straub, president of the Swiss initiative For an Unconditional Basic Income. Relieved of the pressure to make ends meet, people would be more creative and productive, advocates say.

In the June referendum, Straub told DW, the Swiss people will in fact be voting on a new article in the country's constitution that stipulates the federal government would have to implement the UBI with an "amount high enough for people to live off in dignity." The initiative has proposed 2,500 Swiss Francs (2,250 euros or $2,442).

The Swiss government and all the Swiss political parties have opposed the idea, with criticism ranging from blasting the initiative as dangerous and harmful, to arguing that it couldn't be financed in any case. Concerns also include the risks of immigration, tax hikes to finance the project, the possible disappearance of certain products and services if many people no longer needed to work to make a living - and in general, the disincentive to work.

Daniel Straub

Basic income is a long-term project, says Daniel Straub

In a recent survey by pollsters Demoscope, the vast majority of Swiss citizens interviewed said they would continue to work even if they had a basic income - only two percent said they would not work. 54 percent of the people polled said they would use the extra income to further their education, and almost as many said they would spend more time with their families.

'Yes' would be a surprise

Straub, whose initiative started preparing for the referendum seven years ago, says he can understand the critics to a certain degree: his initial reaction when he first heard about the concept ten years ago was, There's no way this can ever be financed. Today, he says a UBI would replace part of people's income.

He also doesn't think the referendum will succeed this time around.

"We see it as a long-term project, and this vote is just a step." Straub is confident that even if the majority voted in favor of introducing a UBI, it would take time. "It has to be a political process that should take many years so all voices can be heard, so it's really democratic."

To make his point, Straub describes a panel discussion where a young man asked the UBI critics to outline their vision for the future, and how they planned to deal with the 4th industrial revolution. "The answer," Straub remembers, "was complete silence."

"It's not a revolution where we want to kill the current system, the market economy has a lot of advantages," says Daniel Straub. But he argues it's time to adapt the system, "develop it and take the next step."

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