Think about a guaranteed basic income of $2,800 per month, payable to every adult, regardless of employment or status. If it sounds utopian or even delightfully absurd, consider that the idea is to be seriously debated in Switzerland next year, where supporters' petitions have secured more than 100,000 signatories – enough to launch a national referendum to enshrine it in the constitution.
Thumbing their nose at powerful banking and big-business interests, the Swiss electorate is on a roll. In March they voted in favour of some of the world's toughest curbs on executive pay, banning golden hellos and golden parachutes. Another referendum, to be held on Nov. 24, proposes to make it illegal for Swiss-based businesses to pay any employee a salary more than 12 times that of the lowest paid staff.
Swiss business lobbies got a rude shock in March when Thomas Minder's initiative secured the backing of 67 per cent of voters, ushering in mandatory shareholder polls on bosses' pay and the outlawing of sweeteners and payoffs. It reflected mounting concern about boardroom excess among a nation of traditionally conservative people – notably plans by drug maker Novartis to pay its departing chief, Daniel Vasella more than $70-million (U.S.). In the face of huge public outcry, Novartis backtracked but the Swiss seem to agree with Mr. Minder that the culture of big rewards in the boardroom is a vulgar and unwelcome foreign (read: American) import.
This month's vote, promoted by the youth section of the Social Democratic Party, takes the argument much further in the direction of income equality. Opinion polls suggest support for the basic income proposal has drifted from evenly balanced to a majority opposed, reflecting the vigorous business campaign against the initiative. But the Swiss public mood is clearly volatile, and decades of forelock-tugging in deference to the business and political establishment has been replaced by radical and sometimes belligerent politics. Voters in Geneva – a sophisticated Swiss city state which has been heavily colonized by foreign multinationals and is also Europe's oil trading capital – recently elected a member of a right-wing anti-immigrant nationalist party to the governing coalition.
Switzerland's Federal Chancellery signalled this week that the minimum income proposal would get a referendum. In the absence of any clear notion of how it would be financed, it seems unlikely to succeed. But it would be wrong to dismiss it as left-wing flag-waving.
When the supporters lodged their petition, they dumped a truck load of eight million five-cent coins on the steps of the Federal Assembly in Bern, each coin representing a member of the population. The real purpose of this vote is to provoke a debate about the link between livelihood and employment.
In a world where capital is cheap, where automation is ever more sophisticated but where labour is expensive, the opportunities to earn a good living through work diminish. Information processing is killing the office worker as fast as it decimated the assembly line. Even outsourcing jobs to Asian sweatshops no longer makes sense, due to the cost of transport and the availability of non-human alternatives. In Germany today, less than half of the adult population earn their income through paid work. The rest are supported by state-funded benefits and other economic transfers through spousal relationships or charity.
In developed countries, the income divide between the gainfully employed and the rest is widening, even as the proportion of people who are at least in part dependent on financial support increases. There is huge debate about the widening wealth gap, but even more damaging than large disparities of income is the social and political gap between the employed and the dependent. Supporters of the minimum base income reckon that Western society has come to a point where we need to break the link between employed work and livelihood.
No one has a clue how it would all be financed – Swiss opponents are quick to point out that the 2,500 Swiss francs in proposed income would be less than what some recipients of social benefits are already receiving from the state. The tax burden would be huge, they say – and what would be the incentive to work if it were possible to live without employment?