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November 14, 2013 at 6:14 AM

Civil Disagreement: A guaranteed government-paid income in Switzerland?

Civil Disagreement is an occasional feature of the Seattle Times editorial board. Here Bruce Ramsey and Lynne K. Varner offer different takes on a proposal in Switzerland for a guaranteed minimum income.


Apologies in advance if this gives you indigestion, but I just read that Switzerland is thinking about offering a monthly allowance to every citizen. No strings attached.

Americans will immediately think of Social Security, but Swiss citizens of all ages, not simply the elderly, would receive a check from the government. Others might think of public assistance, but Switzerland is not trying to help the poor here. There would be no means-testing. If advocates of the proposal gather enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot, and if it passes, every Swiss citizen could count on a check.

Bruce, I’m intrigued by the plan’s author, German-born artist Enno Schmidt, and his invitation to consider what kinds of lives we would all lead if we could count on a small, but consistent, monthly stipend.  Schmidt is part of the basic-income movement getting notice in many parts of Europe and among socialist political circles. It has its roots in income-inequality debates but unlike the minimum-wage battle here in the U.S., basic-income proposals do not rely on recipients participating in the workforce. So it’s not about improving incomes by raising working wages, but rather achieving the same means with a monthly check from the government for as long as you live.

This New York Times story compares conversations surrounding the idea to talk in the U.S. about Robin Hood taxes and single-payer health care. The article notes that “certain wonks on the libertarian right and liberal left,” are coming together around the idea, although they differ on whether the money should be an unconditional stipend or a means-tested minimum income to supplement the earnings of the working poor.

And from the same Times story, Charles Murray, darling of the conservative right wrote in his books, “In Our Hands: A plan to Replace the Welfare State,” guaranteeing $10,000 a year to all Americans over 21 and who stayed out of jail.” Let me take a moment to fantasize about what I would do with my check.

In the end Bruce, this is not an idea for America. But Switzerland is a smaller country with one of the most stable economies in the world. The Swiss are a socially conscious lot. Guaranteeing every citizen the ability to feed and shelter themselves without the stigma attached to welfare may work for them. What do you think, and more importantly how’s your digestion?






My digestion is fine but my dander is certainly up. The Swiss are a levelheaded people, and I hope they vote this idea down.

Life requires work. The government should not give able-bodied and able-minded citizens an idleness option in the prime of life. It’s bad for them. It’s bad for the people around them, especially their kids.

The chief promoter of this bad idea argues that the receipt of free money will “unleash creativity and entrepreneurialism.” And guess what? Enno Schmidt’s an artist, which is one of the few occupations on earth that millions of people will pursue even if not paid. Put on a stipend, many an artist would go on making art. (Indeed, there was a sculptor in Norway who had a deal like that with the local authorities, and Oslo has a park full of his work.) But, put on a stipend, would a watchmaker go on making watches? Would a waitress go on serving table? Would your garbageman go on picking up trash?

On this matter, we’re expected to trust the social imagination of an artist?

Or a libertarian, namely Charles Murray. In his book “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State” (2006) he proposed a grant of $10,000 a year to every American over 21 and not in jail–but provided that we give up all other benefit programs. But it wouldn’t be done that way. And he knew that. And the author of “Losing Ground” (1984), the famous indictment of the welfare state, should have known better than to make a such a proposal.

Paying people not to work results in less work done. I trust myself here. I’m about to retire. If I didn’t have sources of money, I wouldn’t do it. I’d keep working. I can stop working now, in my 60s, because the system under which I’ve worked, and the decisions I’ve made under that system, give me an option of idleness. That I have this option after almost 40 years of work is one thing. But should the young have it?

And if we’re talking about a payment too small to live on, but big enough for a fling—what would be the social purpose of that? Imagine something like Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, which this year pays $900 to qualifying residents. Suppose every adult American had it, adding $200 billion to the deficit every year.  Would that be a wise expenditure?

It might, as you say, provide everyone an income “without the stigma attached to welfare.” But the stigma is good. It is a sign of cultural health. We shouldn’t want to end it.

Comments | More in Civil Disagreement, Pro/con | Topics: economy, minimum wage, poverty


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