While we argue about a guaranteed minimum wage, Switzerland is considering a guaranteed minimum income. The Swiss will vote in a national referendum on whether or not to give themselves a guaranteed income of $33,600 per year, whether they work or not.
Switzerland, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, is engaged in an intense process of soul searching – about money.
This year alone there have been two nationwide referendums on executive pay, one of which approved strict limits on bonuses and banned golden handshakes.
Now two more votes are on the way, the first on the introduction of a minimum wage, and the second, and most controversial, on a guaranteed basic income for all legal residents, whether they work or not.
A universal basic income sounds very radical, but it is not a new idea – Thomas More proposed it in his work Utopia in the 16th Century.
On the left, universal basic income is thought to be fairer, while on the right it is seen as the policy that would make welfare payments obsolete.
For Enno Schmidt, a key supporter of universal basic income, Switzerland is the perfect place, and 2013 the perfect time, to launch a campaign to introduce it.
“Switzerland is the only place in Europe, and maybe in the world, where the people have the right to make something real, [through] direct democracy,” he says.That system of direct democracy means the Swiss could vote for free beer if they wanted to.
To hold a nationwide referendum, all citizens have to do is gather 100,000 signatures calling for a vote, and the ballot must be held – the result is binding.
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The anger among many Swiss voters at the news that some of their biggest banks, such as UBS, had continued paying top executives huge bonuses while also reporting huge losses, has led to a heated debate about salaries, and more widely, about fairness.
In that context, it was easy to gather the 100,000 signatures to hold the vote on universal income, and the government is expected to name a date for the referendum soon.
Swiss business leaders have reacted with dismay, one calling it a “happy land” proposal, the product of a younger generation that has never experienced a major economic recession or widespread unemployment.
Many have also suggested it could provide a major disincentive to working at all, something that could pose problems for Swiss companies already finding it hard to recruit skilled workers.
Mr Schmidt denies this, saying the proposed amount for Switzerland, 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,800; £1,750) a month is scarcely enough to survive on, and that anyway a society in which people work only because they have to have money is “no better than slavery”.
Instead Mr Schmidt argues that universal income would allow people more freedom to decide what they really want to do.
“The thought is not that people will work less, the people are free to decide – more, or less,” he says.
That argument has found some enthusiastic supporters among young Swiss voters.