Unconditional Basic Income: Countdown to the Swiss referendum

Der Spiegel

Thomas Spence

Thomas Spence (1750-1814)

See also: The Thomas Spence Society

Daniel Häni has a way of asking questions that is more than direct. Häni provokes. He forces his interlocutor to move from theory to praxis. From the general to the individual. From the economic to the moral. 

“And you?” he asks, “would you give up your job, if there were such a thing as an Unconditional Basic Income?” 


„And why do you believe that others would?” 

With this, he is right in the middle of it. At the core of the question. The question of all questions. Will people stop working if they no longer have to? It’s funny, says Häni. He has almost never met anyone who said that he would throw his job over the hills if the necessity to work came lacking. Yet everybody is worried that the others would become lazy. Maybe there is something with our own idea of humanity that just doesn’t add up? Häni is at the head of a campaign which is raising attention all over Europe. On June 5th, the Swiss will vote over whether an Unconditional Basic Income is to be introduced in their country. Nobody is expecting a victory. But 15% of “Yes” votes, according to Häni, would already be a success.

His aim is to bring the idea into the realm of political reality. That one should be compelled to talk about it, to forge oneself an opinion about it, and to vote about it. In opinion polls, the initiative garners around 20%. One can hardly imagine a better casting than Häni for such an enterprise: he is reasonably enough obsessed with the idea to be able to sweep others along. And in the same time realistic enough to know that he will have to wear himself out for many more years before the utopia will ever become a reality. He is drilling deeper: 

“The real question is not if the others will stop working. The real question is, can you stand the thought of the other getting what he needs to live, without him satisfying your own representation of what it takes to be a productive member of society?” 

He doesn’t mean this personally, in the contrary. This is a friendly, even cheerful conversation.
But first of all, Häni is a passionate human being, and second, he is leading a campaign and he has learned by experience that he comes through better when he does not theorize, but when he is becoming personal. How, is he asking from anybody who is willing to listen, how would your life be changed if you never again had to fear to end up in material want.

Häni, with his Swiss initiative, is by no means the only one fighting right now for an unconditional basic income. And certainly not the first. This open-handed idea was formulated already in 1796 by an Englishman, Thomas Spence, and it has been popping up time and again in economics and in politics ever since. The US economist Milton Friedman and the French philosopher André Gorz picked it up. Lately, German Telecom chief Timotheus Höttges took to defending it. But nowhere has the idea been translated into reality. There have been small experiments, hardly adequate for generalization, in small Canadian cities and in villages in Namibia. Presently the government of Finland is planning an experiment on the terrain, and a test is due to run in the Netherlands, in Utrecht. But in truth, the idea has never moved beyond the theoretical state. The majority of economists reject it. Politics shy away from it. In Germany, the Greens ogled a “green basic income,” the Christian Democrats discussed a “citizens’ solidarity payment.” But as of now, no relevant party is offering it seriously. For the German Liberal Party, the idea is too performance-adverse. The Socialist Party sees it as a danger to the status of workers. The left “Linke” is divided. The Party of the Pirates wrote a basic income of 1,000 Euro per month into their party program – which rather hastened their downfall.

Yet recently the debate is picking up speed again, and it’s not all due to Switzerland. Especially in Silicon Valley, they are thinking about the future of the working world. The basic thought is: when in the coming years and decades, robots will be taking on ever and ever more jobs which up until now had been done by humans, then those whose services are no longer needed should nevertheless not fall into poverty. „If we do not act so as to create more shared wealth, the anger of people will increase,” according to Erik Brynjolfsson. Since he published his book „The Second Machine Age“, which he wrote together with Andrew McAfee, he has become something like the global guru in matters of robotisation, automation, and their consequences.

One can see this as a social gesture, or as an attempt to quiet down future redundants by means of a handout. Only one thing is certain, namely that Unconditional Basic Income is moving one pace closer to reality thanks to digitalisation. Two perspectives are overlapping in this debate, which must first of all be distinguished cognitively: a social perspective, and a liberal one. For the supporters from the left, the unconditional basic income signifies the final liberation from poverty, existential need, and their consequences. Before anything else: the end of blackmail for those who are forced to accept any job that comes along. Knowing that your basic needs are taken care of, according to them, means that one doesn’t have to work at any price at a slaughterhouse, at cleaning toilets or at distributing packages. Also those who have a job would become free, because the loss of a job will become less of a threat. It will become easier to insert phases of additional education. If you become unemployed, you will not have to exhaust all your own resources before you can receive support from the state. Old age poverty will disappear.

The arguments from the liberal side are sounding the same tune, but they pursue a different purpose. It is mostly a matter of getting rid of the political-moral primacy of human labor – and with it, of the obstacles to the replacement of humans by robots. The basic thought in this instance is: when everybody is taken care of, whether he is working or not, then the State will not have to concern itself with jobs, or establish rules for the compensation of work done, or be concerned with the protection against unemployment. 

The welfare net in this case will not become woven more closely out of charity, but because in the future it will have to include ever more people. All this sounds expensive. But it also saves money, because first of all the administration and the control of social benefits will fall away, and secondly because there will no longer be any jobs which are directly or indirectly subsidized, despite their being technologically no longer competitive. Job-creation will cease to exist as a goal of economic policies. One can see right away that this is not just a matter of a little tinkering applied to the Social State. The German Hartz-IV-reforms were barely a coat of paint when compared with the radical reconstruction which the Unconditional Basic Income would represent. It touches two ways upon the very core of our society. In how we define freedom and how work is relating to freedom. And in the way we interpret social cohesion and solidarity.

At bottom, it is a question of how we want to live together. If our form of social market economy manages to reconcile sufficiently the two poles of freedom and solidarity – or if a society is conceivable and feasible which would solve this basic problem not only differently, but better.

Häni is sitting in front of his Café „Unternehmen Mitte“ in Basel. It is the biggest in Switzerland and it is not just a café like any other. Like eveyrything that Häni takes on, it is a half political, half economic project. There is no obligation to consume. Not because Häni wants to gather around him all the exhausted and the down-and-out of the city. Prices are as high in his place as they are anywhere in Basel. It is just that he thinks that people are annoyed to have to pay always and everywhere for something. 

"People are fed up with always having to having to have to do something,", he says. "There is a need for not having to have to do. And this is the need which we are addressing."

And, if one is to believe Häni, all of this even turns out to be good business in the end. People do not abuse of the freedom of not having to consume. They rather reward him for it. And so it is also with: not having to have to work. Every citizen should be free to refuse a job without putting his existence into jeopardy. The obligation to work is unworthy of a democracy and of a liberal society, says Häni.

 “What kind of a society is this, in which we handle hundreds of thousands of people as if they were sloths, and force them to do work which we ourselves would never accept to do?”

Häni’s basic income would not automatically mean more money for everybody. It is true that every citizen would pocket some 2500 Swiss Francs every month. But if someone already earns that much, he would not receive any additional money.

"For most people, nothing would change as far as the amount of money is concerned. But decisive changes would be taking place inside the heads. There will be no ground any longer to fear for one’s means of existence, and the excuse, not to be able to do what one would actually want to do will no longer be relevant.”

This is the socio-political, humanistic side of the idea of an Unconditional Basic Income, so to speak, also its ethical one. In Germany, nobody has thought it through more deeply than the Berlin sociologist Wolfgang Engler. Engler is in his main job the rector of the Ernst Busch High School for Acting in Berlin. In 2005 his book Bürger, ohne Arbeit, “Citizen, jobless,” was published in which over 416 pages and in 44 paragraphs he is pleading for a “radical reconstruction of society.” It was the year in which Chancellor Gerhard Schröder lost the elections and the so-called Agenda 2010 tore apart the German Socialist Party. Engler described impressively how humans caught in structural unemployment lost not only their job and their income, but also their dignity. In a society in which respect for an individual is depending on his professional standing, the unemployed become second class citizens. In East Germany, says Engler, this has lead to a drifting apart of society, which has shamed both the winners and the losers. In the end, milieus came to form which were merely “facing each other down wordlessly.” An Unconditional Basic Income, Engler was saying already then, would change all that. His vision: “You may fail economically, and this may lead you to see yourself as a failure in your own eyes: yet you never fail socially. As a member of society, you will remain unchallenged.” A good decade later, Engler is looking back upon his book very self-critically. The mass unemployment which he had predicted did not occur. Instead, there was a labor boom, almost full employment. “At least, when one is looking at Germany.”

On the other hand, the country has not become any more just. The basic question remains: “Is it imperative to work, in order to be someone?” Engler’s students are all future actors, puppeteers, dramaturgs. In some way, their lives are a blueprint for the working society to come. Between engagements, there are always times when they are unemployed. “Project work,” if one may call it that.

„When I discuss the concept with them, they understand it right away. They are living through it already – however always in existential worry.” Engler teaches every year at the elite University of St. Gall, in Switzerland. With his students there, too, most of them future managers, he discusses the Unconditional Basic Income. “They too understand.” But out of a very different perspective. “They find it interesting because it would allow to soften the blows which they will have to deal out one day.”

Engler has not to this day brought together his two student groups. It would be an interesting occurrence. Be it only in order to find out if an understanding could be possible between those who see in a basic income a humanistic social utopia – and those who recognize in it a political-economic necessity, in order to soften the mounting anger of the underclasses and not to let the bottom fall out of the market.

For in the end, this is what’s really at stake, when author Brynjolfsson is reflecting in „The Second Machine Age“ over the way in which the progress of technology will go forward while in the same one should be able to assure “that as few people as possible will remain by the wayside.” The job-market of the future, that could be for millions a precarious shuttling back-and-forth from mini—assignment to mini-assignment. Overall dispensed through platforms, which will give the job to the one who asks for the least money to do it. Nobody will be able to live from it – which is why the basic income will function quasi as a combi-remuneration for the digital job-market. In the USA, the debate over it is already fairly advanced. It is getting one more impulse from the erosion of the middle classes which are considered by many to be the main reason for the successes of Donald Trump and for the hatred of the Establishment.

Year after year, the pace of innovation has grown, the number of billionaires has grown in the USA. Yet employment sank. The income of the average American household decreased as well. And whoever is aware of Brynjolfssons prognosis, can guess: this is only the beginning. The great social conflicts are yet to come. For until now, it was mostly the simple jobs which were lost to rationalisation. In the coming years and decades, it will also be the jobs of the well-educated and of the professional classes. They will be taken over by intelligent machines and by algorithms which have learned to learn by themselves.

And even if work should not go away altogether, the middle classes will – at least for a time – fight amongst themselves over the well-paid jobs and over decreasing wages. This is not only a social problem, it’s an economic one. Or to put it like Henry Ford: „Cars don’t buy cars.“ Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the administration of Bill Clinton, drew attention to this a week ago in a conference in Zürich. He told that he had met recently with a top-manager of Silicon Valley, who had expressed worries about WHO in the hell would still end up buying the products which one is still considering to produce. 

In order to understand this development, one must be able to imagine where the economy is heading. One might pointedly imagine an "iEverything-App." An App, which would know how to do everything that a human needs, only: without human help whatsoever. Of course it would be fantastic, but no human who is living from working could buy it, because nobody could earn any money any longer through working. And all of a sudden, the Unconditional Basic Income appears as a universal formula for all and for everything: it frees the individual socially, saves society from political collapse and on top of it, it is economically necessary.

Is this not a bit too simple to be true?

“To begin with, it sounds great to free humans from the pressure to gain,” says economist and president of the IFO Institute Clemens Fuest. „But experience shows that the jobs which nobody likes to do, only get done when people are under a certain pressure to gain.” And this is the case as it happens for many jobs. He, Fuest says, considers the debate about Unconditional Basic Income as an elite phenomenon. It is being propagated mostly by people who have had the experience that they are working better and more creatively the freer they are. But this does not apply to the major part of work. It must simply be done, whatever happens.” Besides, says Fuest, we could not pay for it.” The question is, if the concepts can be agreed, if the social and the liberal approach can be reconciled. And that’s were, as is the case with minimum wages, the question becomes, how high such a basic income has to be.

On the one side, it must be high enough to mean freedom for the individual. On the other hand, it must be low enough to be affordable, and to be still motivating someone to do work. A simple answer on the question, if such a thing can be financed at all does not exist. If you take the liberal computations, the State would even end up saving money. The “left” variants can only be realized through a massive increase in income taxes, property taxes or inheritance taxes. Can there be a golden mean in all this? Yes, says Hamburg economist Thomas Straubhaar. He champions an Unconditional Basic Income “not on moral or political grounds, but because it is economically the cleverest solution. “. Straubhaar has computed his concept in 2007 in two variants. At the time, he considered 600 or 800 Euros per month as adequate and financeable. Straubhaar has two main arguments, which are both economic. 

To begin with, he considers that today’s benefits systems are arranged for normal work biographies which hardly exist any longer: life-career paths in which every interruption, every change is considered a potential catastrophe. “When it is normal today that gainful work-biographies are shot with holes.." Phases of monetary gain alternate with phases of job-searching, of retraining, of continuing education. "We must not punish such flexibility, but reward it."
On the other hand, he wants to free humanity, out of economic considerations, from dangerous and pathogenic labor. “The human is much too precious economically to let him do such work. And later for society to have to drag him along ill, for decades.” But when nobody any more can be found to do this kind of jobs, it would become more expensive – which would lead to automatization becoming profitable. Straubhaar bets on indirect effects. That a citizen secured by a basic income would maybe drive a taxi for a few hours. But that he would ask for higher compensation to cut-up pork or to push stones around. „The unconditional basic income would protect the individual, but speed-up the overall rate of change in the economy,” Straubhaar says. „It is a lack of imagination to say that, in order to remain competitive, we need an exploitative system in order to force people to do work which otherwise nobody would want to do.” It is much better to let robots take care of dangerous, or dirty or strenuous standard work, and to train humans in their freed-up time for better jobs.

And if all this didn’t work, in the end? If in the economy of the digital revolution millions will have to remain on the wayside, and will no longer be needed, except as consumers? “It is irresponsible to say, we just give them money, and that’s it!” says sociologist Engler. Silicon-Valley-thinker Brynjolfsson thinks: „A guaranteed basic income protects from need, but not from vice or boredom.” This is the back side of the utopia. That the space of freedom of the individual citizen may not be increased, but narrowed. Is it better for him to exchange his entitlement to work against the freedom of sloth? Beyond any questions of financing and discussions on laziness, this is the truly risky point. Because it is hardly possible to imagine how people will react. It may be that society will not move closer, but that it will drift apart even more. At the top those who have money, work, prestige. Below, those who are receiving alms and must constantly justify themselves.

It may be that work will become even more an element of social status. It may be that people will simply not know what to do with themselves with their newly found freedom. On the other hand, an Unconditional Basic Income would not signify the end of politics or the end of a striving for justice. It would create a new security – as well as new insecurities.

The framework of earning will change, and it seems to be fitting the new world of labor better. Yet this new framework must be structured politically, and therefore German parties will have to start serious discussions. There is much at stake when one is renegotiating the balance between sociality and liberality in a society. Sociologist Engler doesn’t trust the freedom which an Unconditional Basic Income will give all citizens to carry the day. He is a creator, a man of culture. To him, the vision that millions of people who are socially secured will then waste their lives watching the afternoon programs of private TV is one of dread.

Maybe, he reflects, that it would be good to tie up basic income with some proof that one has done something for his own growth, but how this can be done, he has no idea. He confesses that the freedom to waste one’s life is for him the weak point of an Unconditional Basic Income.

Daniel Häni sees this in a much more relaxed way. Of course that such a change in the system could not occur from one day to the next, including for psychological reasons. People would have to get used to being free. Get used to the fact that their bosses, their company, the economy would no longer relieve them from the decision about what everyone should be doing. To superimpose over an Unconditional Basic Income any kind of condition, be it out of the best of motives, would turn it into a joke without a punchline. What makes the idea convincing is its radicalism. It’s faith in the individual. He almost hollers through his café: 

“When will they ever stop wanting to educate people?”

Markus Brauck in Der Spiegel #20, 2016 print edition.

Translated from the German by Anne-Marie de Grazia