Would an unconditional basic income save democracy or breed laziness?
The idea of a living wage has been around since the 1700s, but Switzerland is set to put it to a vote next year
BY JOE HUMPHREYS
Enno Schmidt, of the Swiss Basic Income campaign, who had eight million coins dumped at the Swiss parliament to launch a referendum bid
Switzerland, the home of Sepp Blatter and more secret bank accounts than you can shake a slab of Emmental at, is an unlikely trailblazer for equality. But next year one of the world’s richest countries will have a chance to become Europe’s first to introduce a basic income for all its citizens.
The notion of a basic income – a living wage provided by the state to every adult, regardless of whether they’re in employment – has been knocking about since the 16th century, with little traction.
Progressive thinkers such as Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell were fans but, in every age, predictable objections kicked in: it would be too expensive; it would be open to abuse; it would make people lazy.
European campaigners are now trying to demolish these arguments one by one in the public mind. The system would cost “roughly the same as existing social-welfare benefits”, which it would replace, says Basic Income Ireland.
It also eliminates the whole concept of claimant fraud, reducing bureaucracy and freeing people to do “care work and creative work” as well as taking a salaried job.
As for turning citizens into sloths: “No, I think the current system is driving many people into laziness,” says Enno Schmidt, a visual artist-turned-activist who is visiting Ireland this week to support the campaign.
“Laziness is a healthy reaction towards things whose meaning one does not see and does not want to do. With the basic income no one has to be lazy. You also no longer have excuses why you do not do what you really want to do.”
Schmidt is one of the instigators of the Swiss Basic Income campaign. Launching the referendum bid, he organised the dumping of eight million coins – one for each citizen – outside the Swiss parliament - although the Swiss government has already stated its opposition.
It claims the introduction of a basic income would lead to low-paid jobs disappearing or being transferred abroad, as well as considerable rises in taxes.
Blind to status
Under the referendum proposal, every citizen would be guaranteed a yearly income of 30,000 Swiss francs (€29,000), regardless of other wealth or employment. The payment is blind to status, and would be made to stay-at-home carers and fat-cat bankers alike.
For Schmidt, a painter, documentary-maker and sculptor, the campaign has an unashamedly creative dimension. “Of course, artists are generally not the most qualified to design economic policy,” he says. “However, the so-called professionals are not always the best qualified . . . Some of them are blind, others are cowards and only interested in their careers.”
Ultimately, though, basic income is “not about artists or economic policy; it is about all of us . . . So much is done today only because you need an income, and not because it really corresponds to one’s own responsibilities.”
He believes basic income has an historical dimension akin to “the advent of democracy, the abolition of slavery, the introduction of human rights or the Christianisation of Europe by Irish monks”.
“In Europe and the US, democracy is being dismantled. People are deprived of their rights. There is a growing oligarchy. An unconditional basic income gives democracy a fresh breeze, refreshes human rights and empowers people. In the wage-depending [economy], a residual of the mentality of slavery lives on. I sell my lifetime for a certain time; in return, I have free time. That has nothing to do with work and the meaning of work but with disciplining and power over others.”
Although Switzerland’s public mood has tilted slightly to the left following the 2008 financial crisis, the German-born Schmidt admits it will be a struggle to get the referendum passed. “But if 30 per cent will vote for it, that is already a success and will move and change a lot in Switzerland and abroad.”
Partial basic-income schemes have been introduced in a handful of locations, including Brazil and Alaska. And Basic Income Ireland, whose membership is drawn mainly from academia and community development organisations, believes the time is right for such a scheme here.
A study by Dr Micheál Collins of the Nevin Economic Research Institute, Dublin, indicates that paying a basic income of €32.33 a week to everyone aged up to 17; €188 a week (the equivalent of the current job seekers’ allowance) to all adults; and the usual contributory State pension to those over 65 would cost €27.9 billion a year. This compares to last year’s Social Protection budget of €20.3 billion.
However, a basic income would generate administrative savings of an estimated €100 million, says Dr Collins, as well as a boost in domestic consumption, equivalent to at least 5 per cent of the annual cost of the basic income.
Whichever way the costs are worked out, Schmidt says the key thing is to break the link between work and income. This will help individuals, and society, to value things that don’t carry a price tag.
Returning to his own experience, he admits it might have been easier to stay as a non-politicised artist, but he felt “the medium of painting was no longer sufficient”.
He spent time working in commerce and studied the banking system, and “in the idea of the unconditional basic income, for me, it all comes together”.
In art and society, what is most lacking, he says, is for people to perceive themselves other than just as “paid functions”.
Enno Schmidt and Che Wagner are Swiss Basic Income campaigners. Visit basicincomeireland.com