Swiss Initiative Would Give $2,800 a Month to Everyone—No Strings Attached

Activists dump a truckload of 8 million five-centime coins, one coin for every person living in Switzerland, in front of the parliament building in Bern on Oct. 4 Photograph by Peter Klaunzer/EPA via Corbis

A movement to give every person an “unconditional basic income”—no work required—is gathering speed in Europe. In its biggest victory to date, earlier this month supporters in Switzerland garnered more than 100,000 signatures on a petition and managed to get an initiative onto the national ballot.

“It will be the first time in history that a country will actually vote on whether they want a basic income for all,” Stanislas Jourdan, a “mediactivist” in France who is working on a similar Europe-wide initiative, told me in an interview today. The Europe-wide initiative requires 1 million signatures to get on the ballot and has acquired about 100,000 since the start of 2013.

There is nothing like this happening in the U.S., where conditionality is very much a part of getting government assistance for the young and able-bodied. You can’t collect unemployment insurance without proof that you’re actively looking for a job. And since the Clinton administration, you can’t get welfare without fulfilling welfare-to-work requirements that vary by state. (Here are California’s.)

The Swiss ballot initiative, which isn’t scheduled yet, doesn’t state how big the unconditional stipend would be, but supporters have mentioned 2,500 Swiss francs a month, which is a little under $2,800.

I asked Jourdan whether giving people money with no strings attached might encourage them to be lazy.

“Everyone wants to do something with his life. The question is whether we trust people to do that or we think we have to force people to take a job,” he said. “The morality of work is fading because people can see that whether they’re working or not, they’re not being rewarded according to their efforts.”

Jourdan added: “Many supporters of basic income say it’s also a way to distribute better the jobs. In France there are 3 million people who don’t have a job, and 5 million who work too much. We can surely find a better answer than this.”

I came back to the question of whether people would slack off if the government gave them money with no strings attached. “I think it’s really not true that human nature is lazy,” he said. “I think it’s the opposite. We are all creative. We don’t want to drink beers in front of the TV.” He conceded that some people might abuse the system but added, “It’s better to look at the 99 percent and empower them to do what they want, what they would find fulfilling.”

Practiced in the art of public relations, the organizers on Oct. 4 dumped in front of the parliament in Bern a truckload of 8 million five-centime coins, one for each person in Switzerland.

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