Ensuring all a life in dignity and participation in public life: lessons learned thus far, in Switzerland

July 8, 2017

Excerpt from a piece by Che Wagner, in Medium.  

Ed note:  Barely making it, can’t pay the rent, get their kids the schooling they need, find employment or pay medical bills has a way of interfering with thinking about larger and longer term societal good issues such as climate change.  In reality, as the Pope says, we’re all interconnected and these issues of care, well-being and solidarity are all linked.  This is why the pope told prelates in June that God is calling them “to look at reality, not to let yourselves be distracted by other interests or prospects.”

The Swiss referendum and discussion that was opened last year was based on a proposal to add three new articles in the Swiss constitution:

1st: The national state is required to establish an Unconditional Basic Income.

2nd: The Basic Income has to ensure all Swiss residents a life in dignity and participation in public life.

3rd: The legislation [created by the Swiss parliament] has to set the necessary rules accordingly, especially to organize the financial part.

The proposal sets the main goals to establish a society with Universal Basic Income, yet it does not give answers to many key questions that naturally follow. For example: “How exactly will the UBI be introduced? What tax scheme would have to be set up in order to make it work?” The campaign and the debate around the Swiss vote was what I would call a political discussion about a vision. Instead of trying to deliver all the answers and give a detailed plan, we urged for a visionary — but serious — debate about how we want to live together in the future under our Federal Constitution.

Deep rooted change such as the introduction of a UBI needs time — for it would redefine the social structures of an entire country under a reformulated constitution. Proposing UBI, we are following the Swiss pattern of having a visionary public debate in order to get closer to what we really want to achieve politically.

Main Argument for UBI: Technological Change  

“Robot Protest” with author’s daughter in the front in Downtown Zurich/Switzerland, 1 May 2016

In voter surveys, we tested which arguments for the UBI were the strongest. We discovered a few factors that were convincing in the course of the campaign, e.g. UBI would subsidize unpaid work (see source below). The strongest argument for voters, however, was their belief that, “many traditional types of work will become redundant and that basic income is needed to attain new lifestyle models.” Overall, 72% agreed with this description. Amongst women, young voters and those in urban areas, agreement was even higher (see source below). 

Despite Switzerland still being a very comfortable place to live in terms of social security and the job market, there is a relatively established feeling that current technological change will require new forms of living and re-organization of social welfare. Basic Income is generally seen as an answer to technological change and its consequences.

No immediate change in course is necessary. Switzerland has a comparably high standard of living and low unemployment rate. But what happens when technological change actually leads to more pressure on the middle class, as many experts predict? It is likely that policy proposals like UBI will be seen as a solution.

Reasons for a “No”

The survey data gives us an important understanding of why Swiss citizens voted against UBI this time. Amongst other factors, virtually all participants of the survey who voted with a “No” would agree with the description that, “everybody should generate an income from employment if possible” (see source below).  

Survey question: “Everybody should generate an income from employment if possible”, yellow are No-Voters, blue are Yes-Voters. Left column: “very important” to right column: “very unimportant”

It indicates how deeply rooted the notion of the “protestant work ethic” still is and how it connects to political views, as well as to our way of live. In our modern economic circumstances this conviction translates to the general feeling that only a job that generates some kind of monetary income (on the market) justifies a life in dignity. A UBI clearly undermines this basic rule of capitalism and is therefore a threat to the current system — a system that has served itself for centuries. In a country where citizens vote against more holidays, this notion might not be surprising. Still, these facts show us the complexity of how our beliefs on the issues of work and income overlap. The same participants indicated in the same survey, that they believe that the subsidy of unpaid work (e.g. care work, volunteer work etc.) is a good argument for the UBI.

I am certain that it will be necessary to look deeper into patterns of how people currently think about economic status and into their definitions of income, work and labor.

Three Patterns of the Swiss UBI Movement 

It’s done! Crowd in Basel/Switzerland on voting day 5 June 2016

When reading the survey parallel to the voting results, some interesting patterns appear that ought to be considered. Sitting in front of the data, my biggest question was if there were indications of certain patterns that could be described as “movements” or — at least — as groupings with a strong set of shared interests, beliefs or values that would be more likely to vote for UBI. Three key patterns appeared:

Age Group 55–65

As mentioned earlier, young voters were strongly attracted by the idea of UBI. However, there is a second age group that was more inclined to put a “Yes” into the ballot box. This group is about 10–15 years away from the Swiss standard age for retirement at age 65 (Survey 2, p. 4). There has been a lot of reflection on this particular group lately, as a whole set of research shows low access percentages to the job market. For this group especially, reentering the market of a fast developing economy after being excluded is a major problem. At the same time, day to day politics have mostly been proposing further cuts to pension funds and an increase in the retiring age as a response.  

What age groups voted for/against UBI? Yellow No-Voters, blue Yes-Voters. Note: 45–59 years old substantially more Yes-votes. Analyzing age group 55–65 (not in this graphic) were significantly more likely to vote yes.

The state’s retiring scheme is being reformed nearly on a yearly basis. To this age group, Basic Income appears a rather logical step: instead of putting even more pressure on people aged roughly between 55 and 65 by making them find a job, it would make more sense to enable them to concentrate on what they can offer to re-enter a job market, or even outside of such a market. The survey also indicates what that could be: people want to educate themselves to keep up with a continuously developing job market and particularly people in an older age group want to spend more time with their grandchildren (Survey by Demoscope in Dec. 2015, download via www.basicincome2016.org).

Post Materialists

The endorsement of a UBI as being of interest at all of the Swiss Green Party, which is the only established party that supported UBI in the course of the UBI campaign,is evidence of a second pattern: the UBI is in line with the worldview of the post-materialists. Our second survey clearly shows a strong correlation between so called post-materialistic preferences and the political openness to the introduction of UBI (Survey 2, p. 10). This group or movement can be described as the classic mixture of voters affiliated with either the left party or the green party whose political beliefs are traditionally focused on solidarity and pacifism. This group’s political ideas are often descendants of the political movements of 1968 and the environmental movement in the 1980s, but they are not bound to one age group. Overall, 59% of post-materialists voted for UBI.


The third pattern can be called “globalized individualists,” or simply the “avantgarde” (Survey 2, p. 11). Individuals who can be labeled as the avantgarde typically value migration and new lifestyles in general, and view traditions negatively. In large part, this group is urban. Their work is project-based, and they participate in the so-called “gig-economy.” They can also be referred to as “digital nomads,” but this might only describe part of the pattern. Over half of participants who can be identified as the avantgarde voted “yes” for the UBI policy.

This group might also be the strongest driver for the UBI campaign itself, as many who worked with us identify with this set of values.

Policy for All — Discourse for All  

Let’s discuss UBI from all angles. “Biggest Question” in Geneva/Switzerland, 14 May 2016

Based on observations, it would be presumptuous to finish with a complete follow-up strategy for the realization of a UBI policy. Still, the Swiss referendum hints at a series of conclusions and follow-up thoughts.

It’s the Debate — Stupid

The proposal and the movement started out with a handful of people and eventually grew into a grassroots’ organization that collected the necessary signatures to force a national vote. Nobody and nothing involved in the process was attached to the Swiss establishment in the realms of politics or big money. The result: 23% approval of the proposal. So why would this poorly organized attempt still stir by far the strongest debate about social justice and the future of work in years in Switzerland — and even on a global level?

As I have laid out in this text, there are many answers to that. One key element, though, might be courage. The courage to truly force a debate on issues we might not already have all the answers to. And that might also be the reason why people participate in the debate: in order to find answers in the process.

As shown, direct democracy might be the best tool for forcing these kinds of political issues into the public debate. Representative democracies, with their structural bias toward parties and institutions, may have a challenging time involving the general public to the same degree that it was possible in Switzerland.

Innovation by the Many

The general innovation procedures involving research, experts, political insiders and financial backing from the economic realm might not be the full answer to the problems we’re facing today. The Swiss vote exemplifies this trend. The proposal, as well as some of the most innovative aspects of the debate, were not drawn from established players in Swiss politics, but from the public discourse itself.

The UBI vote shows that the final voting decision is still hugely influenced by established institutions. But general interest in the issue, and openness to participating in a serious debate, indicate the value of exploring alternative pathways in the making of future policies. The best way to encourage this kind of debate is to propose a visionary policy and welcome everybody to the debate.

The Future Needs UBI

Installing UBI as a policy is far from being off the table. The same day Swiss citizens were voting against the introduction of a UBI by a 76.9% margin, 69% declared their expectation of a second vote in the near future. And a total 62% think that UBI now is rather on the table and up for debate than done as a topic. Amongst younger voters and Millennials, 78% think that the 2016 vote was “just the beginning.”

All of this is taking place in a time of substantial economical transformation. Due to technological change and inappropriate social policy over the last 30 years, net-income for the middle class has stagnated or has even declined, as a recent UBS study shows, amongst others.

The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States was clearly influenced by that baseline. Low-income folks, and those in the middle-class who fear the same destiny, were far more likely to vote for Trump, as an analysis of the New York Times suggests.

In this climate of uncertainty and the rise of populist answers to the growing social justice problem, a universal basic income for all members of society might just be the key element to shape future debates.

Patterns of the Current State 

The current state of abundance requires new economic models and policy

In western countries like the US, as well as in Germany, socio-economic challenges are mostly tackled by introducing a minimum wage or other classical social mechanisms and policies. There were noticeable successes recently with minimum wage referendums in Washington D.C., Arizona, Washington State and Colorado. This indicates a growing base that believes there must be a change in terms of economic justice.

In Finnland, the state institution for social welfare started an experimentwith unconditional payments for 2,000 social security recipients starting 1 January 2017. And in the US, we see both a multi-million dollar experiment by tech accelerator Y-Combinator and the freshly founded Basic Income advocacy group called “Economic Security Project,” with several research partners and a aspired funding of $10 Mio.

In Switzerland, the political climate towards socially innovative policies is hard to predict. Recently, apart from the UBI movement, there have been examples of a rise in the political influence of non-partisan groups and new progressive-liberal think tanks like “Operation Libero.”

In Switzerland, the next national referendum is at least five years off. Still, there is a collection of projects on a local scale either to be confirmed or to be completed. In the city of Lausanne, unconditional payments will be tested in the realm of social welfare. In Zurich, a similar plan is to be confirmed by the city council. And an independent lottery fund wants to hand out basic incomes funded by an online crowd.

Patterns of the Next Level

One obvious next step to take about UBI in Switzerland is to test it small scale, e.g. on a local level. Besides the fact that Lausanne and Zurich are already taking action, a total of 44% of the Swiss support the idea to experiment with UBI and even 79% of yes-voters are convinced about trials.

The Swiss want to go forward with UBI by trials.

Similar actions are currently taken in the Netherlands, Finnland and Canada. So what would be the primal reason to do experiments around UBI in Switzerland and if so, what should we do different?

  1. In Switzerland, not only have citizens direct power on the national level but also in their states (Kantons) and even in their cities. In designing a trial to test UBI on a local level, it will be necessary and valuable at the same time to start with a local referendum. Most likely, this will happen in a urban area, where there were much higher approval ratings.
  2. Instead of focusing only on UBI as a tool to enhance/replace social welfare (like in the experiments in the Netherlands and Finnland) or erase poverty, in Switzerland there is the chance to address society as a whole. That would mean to set up a trial which not only had recipients who receive social welfare or other assistance but also people who receive income by working in different industries and even people who are living of capital income. My hope would not only be that results are more complete on the potential effects of a UBI but it would certainly shape the debate about UBI in a more holistic and comprehensive way.  
The Swiss are willing to make local trials happen, either in a state (41%) or in a city (36%)

After all it will be important to keep an open flow of research and experiences across attempts to gather information on UBI. Not only in order to strengthen arguments and possibilities of political feasibility, but also to complement the many projections towards the concept of a UBI and to be able to give better answers to the many sophisticated and legitimate questions we have today.

So my final question is: If we were to run an experiment in Switzerland soon, what would be most important issues, focuses or premises to experiment with, for YOU?

While this referendum may have been voted down, the Swiss basic income movement helped spark an international dialogue on how a basic income can help fix issues related to poverty, social policy, and technology, among other topics.  This conversation has caught the imaginations of citizens all over the world and has led to commitments from governments or non-profit organizations to establish basic income pilot projects in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, Uganda, Kenya, India, and in Silicon Valley, as well as public considerations for basic income research in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, and Namibia. This dialogue is truly global, and media outlets all over the world have begun writing articles and making videos debating the merits and principles for a basic income.

Even with a defeated referendum, the basic income movement is poised to march forward toward a brighter future in the coming years: thanks, in part, to the efforts of the Swiss basic income advocates who triggered this momentous referendum.  We extend a special “thank you” from the BI News editorial team to all of those involved in the Swiss movement who have publicized basic income and worked so tirelessly on this referendum.


More information on the results themselves can be seen here.

Confédération Suisse. Votation nº 601 official results, June 5th 2016

Ethan Jacobs, “Switzerland’s Basic Income Vote Turns Finance Reform Into a Democratic Spectacle”. Inverse, February 11, 2016.