Switzerland will hold a national referendum on giving every Swiss adult a guaranteed income of 2,500 Swiss francs a month—equal to about $2,800, or $33,600 a year. I don’t know whether this would be feasible, but it would be an interesting experiment. There are two arguments in favor of a guaranteed income—one philosophical, one practical.
The philosophical argument is that basis of our material prosperity is not our own individual efforts, but the achievements of those who came before us. Thanks to the inventors of the printing press, the steam engine, the electrical generator and the digital computer, I enjoy a kind of life that was available only to kings and emperors in centuries past.
But I did not create these things. So there is no reason why I have more of a right to the fruits of these achievements than anybody else. All I have by right is the incremental value added by my own efforts.
The practical argument is that the United States and other wealthy countries already have made the decision that nobody is going to be left to starve. But we have a patchwork welfare system that is costly, inefficient and full of perverse incentives that discourage people from supporting themselves. The free-market economist Milton Friedman advocated a guaranteed income as a lesser evil than the current welfare system, because it would mean less bureaucracy and less distortion of the free market.
The Swiss also will vote on a referendum to limit corporate executive pay to no more than 12 times the pay of the lowest-paid employee of the firm. Based on my (possibly very ignorant) idea of what the Swiss are like, I don’t expect either referendum to pass.
From my standpoint, that would be a pity. I am curious as to how these ideas would work out in practice. Would the Swiss become a more humane society, or a nation of lazy do-nothings? Or would the referenda after all not make much difference?
Click on Swiss to vote on 2,500-franc income for every adult for Reuters’ report on the referendum.
Click on Switzerland’s voters reject basic income plan for BBC’s report on the result [added later]
Click on Rupees in your pocket for a report on an experiment with guaranteed minimum income in a village in India.
Click on Are you willing to trust the poor? for a report on experiments with guaranteed minimum income in Canada and Britain.
Click on Milton Friedman’s Awesome Idea for comment by a blogger who discusses experiments with guaranteed income and wonders why the only ideas of Friedman’s that are actually tried are the one that benefit rich people. I found this highly interesting, although things that work in small pilot projects don’t always work when applied to nations as a whole.
Click on Proposed Roads to Freedom for Bertrand Russell’s idea of the “vagabond wage.” If everyone was guaranteed a subsistence income, Russell thought, artists and writers would be free to create without fear of economic reprisal. Click on In Praise of Idleness for more of Bertrand Russell’s thoughts about the good society.
Click on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for more Zach Weiner cartoons.