In the beginning of June the Swiss will be called upon to make a historic decision. Switzerland is the first country worldwide to put the idea of an Unconditional Basic Income to a vote and the outcome of this referendum will set a strong precedent and establish a landmark in the evolution of this debate.
The Swiss Basic Income Initiative in a demonstration in front of parliament. As we have previously reported (see “Swiss Parliament Shoots Down Socialist Utopia” for details), Switzerland’s parliament has already rejected the idea, with even the socialists voting against it (proving that they are still in possession of most of their marbles and quite likely in possession of an abacus as well).
The Swiss public will have to approve or reject a change in the constitution that would allow for an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI), or a preset, monthly minimum income to be paid out by the government to every adult and child in the country if their income falls below a specific threshold. Even though details of this proposal have been few and far between, the most commonly cited amount of this guaranteed income would be 2,500 Swiss Francs for adults and 625 francs for children. The architects of the proposal stress that this government-guaranteed payment, unlike the current benefit programs, will be entirely “no questions asked”, i.e. it will not be means-tested and it will apply for every person legally living in Switzerland.
Currently, these are all the details that the Swiss have at their disposal to make their decision. No plan has so far been put forward to specify how such a proposal would be financed, whether an increase on income tax or VAT will be enforced, which specific existing welfare programs it would replace or how they would avoid the glaringly obvious exploitation possibilities of such a plan, without any kind of means test – or without “asking any questions”, as is one of their campaign’s catchphrases.
The main argument of the supporters of this initiative is that it would support the people that will, or already do, lose their jobs to automation and technological progress; a defensive move against “the rise of the robots” as they put it. They also claim that such a measure will give people the opportunity to grow, to learn and to pursue skills or professional goals that are now rendered prohibitive by their current meaningless and mundane jobs, that they are forced into for simply paying the bills. “What would you do if your income were taken care of?” asked the pro-UBI campaign in Geneva, with a poster that officially made it to the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest.
The Free Lunch – A Fantasy As Old As Methuselah
The promise of a free lunch is by no means a new thing in politics. Getting “something for nothing” is an age-old shiny trinket that has been dangled before the eyes of the public since time immemorial. In fact, it has appeared so excruciatingly often in our political history, for centuries on end, that one would think that it wouldn’t work anymore; not in 2016, surely. And yet it does. UBI is the proof that there are still people who choose to believe that “no strings attached” freebies and gifts are promises one can rely and build an economy on, especially when they are coming from their governments and rulers.
However, there are always some strings attached to such gifts and if history has taught us anything on this matter is the distinction between a gift and a bribe. Unsavory political ideologies and catastrophic cultural philosophies often tend to make their debut in front of the public hidden inside a Trojan gift horse. Unrealistic yet enchanting promises have always been a reliable political tool and it was always quite “unchallenging” as a strategy, to corrupt the people by granting the majority something they have stolen from minorities. We can easily spot the parallel in the promotion of Basic Income: Even though the architects of UBI in Switzerland, quite wisely, omit any reference to the realistic and structural aspect of their scheme, at the end of day, someone will have to pay for it. “Tax the 1%!”, argue their international fellow basic income supporters, which, rather predictably, makes UBI even more attractive to a large portion of the public. This whole discussion about UBI reminds us of the following quote by Thomas Jefferson:
“A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.”
Thomas Jefferson knew a thing or two about the true nature of government. By accepting a “free lunch” offered by the government, one is no longer free, but becomes dependent on the whims of the ruling elite – which is of course precisely what the ruling elite wants. In other words, what happens in reality is the exact opposite of what the UBI supporters imagine will happen. They assert that a basic income distributed by the State will “free people”, as they will no longer be forced to deal with the drudgery of having to earn a living. Thus, in a quite Orwellian twist, dependency is marketed as “freedom”.
The Cultural Argument For Collectivism
Key figures of the pro-UBI camp take pride in claiming that the main motivation behind the campaign is not economic but cultural. They say this proposal aims to make people think about the nature of life and work, it is a way to liberate them from the jobs they don’t like but need, a status which the scheme’s advocates, quite unhistorically, equate to the indignity of slavery. On top of this, they claim, UBI will help society survive the imminent unemployment apocalypse: they believe that with the help of automation and artificial intelligence 50% of all the existing jobs will be taken over within the coming decade by computers and machines. Such an argument might sound rational, but goes deeper than that: It presupposes that we as human beings see ourselves downgraded and equated to a machine, like just another cog that can be replaced at any time, in a system where man is defined as a human resource, literally.
The truth is that it is indeed a cultural debate, far more than it is an economic one. The only conceivable aim of such a factually unhinged and unfounded proposal can be to gage the mind-set of the Swiss people in this moment in time. The outcome of this referendum can provide a valuable insight about the Swiss mentality, and whether they are prepared to accept collectivism over individualism. Such a signal could serve as cue for further escalation of government empowerment: After all, the collapsing centralized system, is bound to show symptoms of desperation by “doubling down” and accelerating and maximizing its centralization efforts. Thus focusing on the symptoms and secondary effects is futile; a real difference can be made by addressing the root cause, the system itself.
Despite the economic non-sequiturs and plain utopianism that lie at the core of the idea of Universal Basic Income, the concept seems to be gaining popularity worldwide. Canada is set to conduct an experiment with this idea later this year. The city of Utrecht in the Netherlands is launching a pilot program, Finland is planning a two-year trial and a British proposal is gathering interest, while this month, the nonprofit group GiveDirectly will start providing a guaranteed income to 6,000 Kenyans in a decade-long scheduled program and track the results. The western left seems to be gaining traction for this idea, however the polls in Switzerland paint a dramatically contrasting picture: the UBI initiative is projected to suffer a crushing defeat.
A Bastion Of Liberty
The Swiss have been voting counterintuitively for years: When they held a referendum for or against 6 weeks of vacation, or when they were called upon to vote for an initiative advocating less working hours, or even when they made their choice on the issue of minimum wage, they always deliver outcomes that seem surprising to the rest of the West, especially the rest of Europe. Up to now, the Swiss consistently reject interference by the state when it came to this kind of topics and they refuse to grant more powers to their government. Even in recent years, when the trend for aggressive state expansionism seems to be stronger than ever, Switzerland appears to still hold the fort, as the last standing bastion of liberty.
So what’s so different about the Swiss then? Switzerland is indeed very different, because it became a nation by its peoples’ own will, based on limited government, strong private property rights and a direct democracy founded on the principles of subsidiarity. This has always required open dialogue and being exposed to different ideas and values: Debate itself, leads to an enlightened society. Thus, the essential difference lies in the nation’s culture, mentality and philosophy. The Swiss have grown up in an environment where the people were always able to decide for themselves, but they have also a long tradition of doubting and of dissenting. Every critical issue is discussed and decided on by the people, the actions of government are subject to and limited by the citizens. All viewpoints are heard, even anti-establishment voices have their say, and critical thinking provides the basis for the society’s future. However, this is only possible when people use their own mind to think about a specific topic individually and independently.
High up in the Swiss Alps, where they are playing strange instruments. The Swiss have always stood up for the rights of the individual against the State. They successfully defended themselves against the Hapsburg dynasty and other would-be conquerors, and attempts to introduce collectivist decay from within have been consistently rejected as well.
Switzerland is, therefore, quite the hostile terrain for those who wish to promote their free lunches and their “no strings attached” gifts. Their long history of independent thinking, of consequential analysis and of government limitation, makes it very easy for them to see past the populism-fueled empty promises and their matching publicity stunts. Their rejection of the UBI proposal on June the 5th will and should serve as a reminder that the Swiss still remain the exception to the rule.