"Unconditional basic income" - the 2016 Swiss referendum

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your book carries the subtitle: "Why the unconditional basic income is raising the right questions." Indeed, it consists of many questions and of even more partly contradictory answers. Could it be this, which you are provoking with the referendum: to some extend, a thought-experiment imposed on everybody?


No, it would cynical of us, to be satisfied with a thought-experiment. We are convinced that an unconditional basic income will organize a freer society.


We are not forcing anybody into a thought-experiment, everyone is free to make up his own opinion. Once, I organized here in Basel a ten-day events series. Every day, the same woman came. On the seventh day, she came to me after the event and asked me if she had actually understood it all right: that unconditional basic income was a matter of everybody doing what he wants. Then she asked: „Can't I do this today already?“ I answered: „Yes, for sure!“ The woman left and never came back. 

Countdown to the Swiss Referendum

Thomas Spence

Thomas Spence

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Come June, Switzerland to decide on unconditional basic income. 

The date is set: on June 5., depending on the outcome of a popular referendum, the Swiss will be able to start laying the switches for an unconditional basic income. 

The principle of an unconditional basic income is the following: a sum, the same for all, is to be regularly paid out to every citizen, from the drifter to the billionaire, whether employed or jobless, no questions asked, and nothing asked in return.  

Lausanne dares the test 

by Andrea Nucera - NEUE ZÜRCHER ZEITUNG, April 14, 2016

Should we scrap benefits and pay everyone £100 a week?

by John Harris - THE GUARDIAN, April 13, 2016

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Mr Häni - are you a Communist?

From an interview in the Liechtenstein Daily Vaterland (April 9, 2016)

Mister Häni, are you a Communist?

(laughs) Oh no, not at all. But it’s a good question, because the Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) is often presented as a socialist or a communist initiative. Of course, it isn’t!

Why not?

To begin with, it's a very social intitiative, that’s true. But: what was lacking in Socialism and in Communism was the Unconditionality. And this is the hub of this initiative. And this makes it in the same time into a very liberal intitiative.

If not even you yourself believe that the initiative will be adopted, why do you put so much time and energy in the campaign?

Because I have the firm conviction that this is one of the most important societal questions at the beginning of the 21st century. And not only for Switzerland. But we here are in possession of the adequate means to lead such a discussion. Switzerland is the most progressive democracy in the world. We can break new ground in carrying on this discussion full scope…  

Independently of the outcome on June 5th, do you believe that the UBI will ever be introduced in the future?

Yes, I believe this. In the future, we will no longer need hard-working, obedient people. In the future, it's free spirits that will be in demand: people who have learned to think by themselves and to decide by themselves how they will deploy their working powers, and what they will engage themselves for. For this one needs people who are responsible and independent. The UBI is a good way to learn to become like this.

What you have just described is also possible in a free market economy.

Yes, the UBI is also an important contribution to a free market economy, because it would create a free labor market. This we don’t have today. Today, we are forced to participate in the labor market, in order to secure our existence. Through the UBI, we could create the free labor market. Here again you can see the liberal spirit of the Initiative. 

Translated from the german by Anne-Marie de Grazia

unconditional basic income - referendum in switzerland - 8 million coins dumped before parliament
Bern, October 2013: eight million five-Rappen coins - one for every Swiss citizen - were dumped in front of the Swiss Parliament.

Philip Kovce, in Vorwärts, April 7, 2016

«The Swiss UBI invites us to think over the question of income. Something then becomes obvious: everybody, be he poor or rich, young or old, a woman or a man, needs an income. But if everybody absolutely needs what’s necessary to live, then it is a bad idea to create obstacles to its acquisition. To attach conditions to an imperative is a bit inept. It prevents the individual from projecting his self-questioning beyond his income. It prevents the individual to work self-determinatedly. 


The Unconditional Basic Income fosters the sovereignty of the individual. In so doing, it raises the question of power. It does not cost money, but trust – and it will cost their power to those who see themselves forever as the big- time managers of Conditions. 

New York Times: Give everyone a paycheck

"Der Spiegel - Interview"

January 28th, 2016

Behind the Swiss popular initiative, which will be submitted to referendum, we find a checkered mix of groups from Basel, Zürich, Bern and mainly Western Switzerland. Their most visible representative is Daniel Häni, 49, the co-owner of a „culture-café“ installed in a former banking center in the center of Basel, which provides the base for the largest one of these groups. Never mind their common initiative, the groups are working independently, according to Häni, and even in the hot phase of the voting campaign, they will make only informal arrangements. 

Time and again, the initiative has been attracting the attention of the public – so in October 2013, when the 126.000 signatures necessary for initiating the refernedum were delivered to the Swiss Parliament, the initiators dumped eight million 5-Rappen coins onto Confederation Square in Bern. A picture of the action emblazons the cover of the referendum booklet, which Daniel Häni wrote together with German economist and philosopher Philip Kovce, 20 years his junior: What’s missing when there’s everything?

SPIEGEL-ONLINE hosted the pair for an interview in Hamburg. 

Daniel Häni (Basel)
Daniel Häni, 49, is an entrepreneur, the co-founder of a cultural café in Basel, Unternehmen Mitte, and the co-initiator of the Swiss popular initiative „for an unconditional basic income.“ 
Philip Kovce 5Basel)
Philip Kovce, 29, is doing research at the Basel Philosophicum as well as at the faculty for economy and philosophy at Witten/Herdecke University. He belongs to the Club of Rome "Think Tank 30" and writes freelance for the press and radio. 

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Herr Häni, Herr Kovce, why do we need an unconditional basic income?


To put it simply: what a human absolutely needs in order to live, he should also get unconditionally. As a society we can not seriously consider denying him what he needs to live.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But this is not the case, is it? Switzerland and Germany are social states, where nobody must starve. If someone can't come up for himself, he will receive help from society. So where’s the problem?


The problem is in the condition: "If someone can't come up for himself". It can be stimulating to submit to conditions imposed upon one – but not when it's a matter of your existence, or am I wrong? 


Especially the German Hartz-IV System impressively demonstrates what this is leading to: to begin with, the permanent distrust and proving of need is degrading. On top of it, a grotesque obligation to work is being upheld, never mind if the work makes sense or not. Paid work has been downgraded to a fetish. The dominating: „he who can, must“ is putting causality on ist head: "he who must not, can.“

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But this is hardly in sync with the markedly performance-oriented societies of Germany or Switzerland – not to mention the sense of justice of most citizens.


To make this clear at once: basic income is neither performance- nor work adverse, all to the contrary. We can become significantly more productive when our basic existence is assured. Income is not only a basis for living, it is also a basis for performing. My work becomes better, the deeper I am bonding with it. He who works only in order to make ends meet cannot fully deploy his performance.


For the working world of tomorrow, an unconditional basic income will become sheer necessity. Digitalization means: everything that can be computed, will be forthwith executed by computers and robots. For humans, there will remain merely a handful of traditional working jobs. We would be doing well to begin anticipating this state of affairs right now. 

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Hannah Arendt wrote in the early 1950s already about a society of workers running out of work. Already then, the thesis according to which modern technologies cost jobs was nothing new, and ever since it has been formulated anew, time and again – yet it has never verified itself. Rather, new technologies have always created new jobs.


But this time, a lot is pointing towards it's actually happening. The Head of Deutsche Telekom, Timotheus Höttges, only recently gave a detailed explanation of how digitalisation from the ground-up is going to change the world of labor – and he is pleading for a basic income. The CEO of SAP [soft-ware company] shares in this analysis and is even warning us that, in the absence of a basic income, „society will fly apart.“  A study for the World Trade Forum calculated the loss of jobs in industrialized countries to five million, by 2020. And Klaus Schwab, der founder of the World Trade Forum, says: "We need solutions, we must guarantee to everybody a minimum income. One thing is clear: we must develop a totally new way of thinking. „

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your argument is that a human has a fundamental right to what he needs in order to live. In your book, too, you speak often about "existence-insurance," – German readers at least will necessarily think of Hartz IV, the benefits of which have been calculated around a subsistance minimum. To how much should fundamental basic income amount, according to you?


In Switzerland, we are deliberately not putting a sum up for vote. It's a general directive. From our point of view, an amount of 2,500 Francs/month is necessary. In Germany, this would amount to ca 1,500 Euros.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For adult receivers of Hartz-IV, who have nothing else to live on, Germany pays on average around 500 to 550 Euro per month, including costs of lodging. Your amount is several times the amount of what is considered in Germany to be the minimum of subsistance. Is this a rhetorical label-con game? 


No, but you must calculate: every case of Hartz-IV costs far more money, than the beneficiary is receiving. The arrangements, supervision, management, not to mention the human undignity and its consequences end up costing us far more than that.


A basic income should "make a humanly dignified existence and participation in public life possible," this is how it’s formulated in the Swiss voting text. This is what is necessary to existence, isn’t it? 

SPIEGEL ONLINE: This is also the definition of the Hartz-IV-subsistance minimum. Concretely, what are you understanding under this?


There are some criteria: no obligation to work for money. The freedom to chose one’s job independently from its income. The de-stigmatisation of the so-called "performance withholders." Last but not least, the basic income needs to be high enough for an individual to be able to perceive the needs of others in a society, because he is no longer exclusively preoccupied with his own survival. This is the only way a society with division of labor can work. In order to fulfill these conditions, an adult needs 1,500 Euros per month.


A rhetorical con-game, as you say, that’s what those are practicing, who are introducing a basic income at the level of Hartz-IV and in the same time want to get rid of all social benefits. That's a neoliberal trick...

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ...which has at least the advantage, that such a basic income would be relatively easy to finance. According to your model, the basic income in Germany would cost over 1.3 billion euro per year, even if the children get only half. Where should the money be coming from?


The money is here already. Nobody is without some basic income. Everybody today as a basic income, but fraught with conditions. Here’s an example about financing: if you are receiving a salary of 3,500 Euros from your employer, he would in the future have to pay you only 2,000 Euros. The other 1,500 Euros would be coming to you as basic income, the bottom line is, nothing has changed for you. Whether we will be collecting back these 1,500 Euros by way of taxes on consumption or other taxes becomes merely an exciting tax question, once the majority has decided in favor of an unconditional basic income. 

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If you increase the income of low-income persons to at least 1,500 Euro and increase consumption, in the end you’ll only have an increase in prices. That’s called inflation. Then you’ll have to increase the basic income, and increase taxes on consumption – welcome to the spiral of inflation!


In the endsum, income and consumer spending will remain the same. In the individual cases, those prices and incomes which today are too low will increase – but in return those which today are too high will decrease. In the end, the same amount must go into the basic income fund as is getting out. What is considered just is for society to decide.

KOVCE: Frankly: the question of financing is the best of all the wrong questions.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: I beg your pardon? That’s where the decision will be made if a unconditional basic income is merely a utopia, or whether it's a real possibility.


For sure. But what will be truly decisive for the possibility of financing is a completely different consideration: what effect does a basic income have on our activity? Will we become more productive or more lethagic? Will we be more active or more lazy? 

SPIEGEL ONLINE: To put it in another way: what will become of value creation and of economic performance in Germany or in the Switzerland?


Exactly. If it remains the same, a basic income can be financed even to these amounts. Period.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And if it doesn't? That sounds like an extremely dangerous bet.


But The unconditional basic income will not come overnight. We will not have to deal with it all of a sudden all in one day. The way the vote is being implemented in Switzerland, it would not be introduced in one fell swoop even if it obtained a clear majority right away. Then you start the discussions about the right amount and the financing, with all the arguments which we are at this moment raising – and certainly with many more. Here one of the great advantages of Swiss direct democracy becomes apparent: only after all these matters have been negotiated – and if there is still is a majority in favor – only then the basic income will be implemented. Be it only for this, it won’t come to a revolution, I can assure you.


The implementation happens at the end of a long process, during which we must deal with important questions: what do I want and what can I do? What work would I do if my basic income were assured? And what would my fellow citizens do? What do they need? Must they be forced to work, but not I? What is necessary for a functioning society, and how can it be assured? You must not forget: the basic income is an idea without an ideology. There are no ready-made answers. Just thinking about it will change society.

Interview published in DER SPIEGEL ONLINE - January 28th, 2016

Translated from the German by Anne-Marie de Grazia