In Switzerland, voters will head to the polls on Nov. 24 to decide whether every citizen should start receiving unconditional checks for 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,800) every single month.
It's called a universal basic income or basic income guarantee, and it's been championed by everyone from socialists to free market champion Milton Friedman. Thomas Paine advocated for a version of it in Agrarian Justice, published in 1795. Mostly, it has been a kind of utopian pipe-dream, implemented here and there only by local governments.
The idea is simple: Every month, every citizen gets a certain amount of money from the government, regardless of income or any other factors. Someone making $100,000 a year would get the same check as someone making $15,000 a year.
That monthly check, the thinking goes, would guarantee a basic living standard and drive up wages as private companies are forced to compete with the government. On a small scale, this already happens in places like Alaska, where, every year, residents receive a share of the state's oil profits ($900 in 2013).
It has never, however, been implemented across a large, developed country like Switzerland. If it works there, could it work in the United States?
Most of the proposals for a similar program in the United States have thrown around sums much lower than $2,800 a month. Switzerland, with a population about the same as New York City, is one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita — making it hard to relate to when drawing up policy.
In the United States, some have suggested setting the basic income guarantee at the poverty level, which is currently $11,490 for one person. That means everyone would get a check for about $957 every month. Less ambitious, but perhaps more practical, is leftist economics writer Matt Breunig's suggestion that Uncle Sam cut every American a check for $2,920 every year. That includes children, so a family of four would get $11,680 a year, no matter what.
His reasoning was that nearly $3,000 in basic income, added to someone's regular income, would lift about half of the country's poor out of poverty.
"Maybe that will convince a few Americans work isn't worth it anymore," he wrote in The Atlantic, "but the vast majority who will probably continue to work won't have to worry about losing their check as they move up the income ladder."
Of course, that "probably" is what scares conservatives already weary of the "welfare state."
However, it's conservatives that have made some of the strongest cases for the basic income guarantee, mostly because, theoretically, it would replace regimented government spending on programs like food stamps, Social Security, and Medicare with a lump sum that Americans can spend as they please. Other government programs could be slashed and eliminated as Americans got used to receiving a single check from a single department.
"Leave the wealth where it originates, and watch how its many uses, individual and collaborative, enable civil society to meet the needs that government cannot," wrote libertarian columnist Charles Murray in the introduction to his book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State.
In other words: If the government is going to spend money anyway, why not let the people decide how to spend it? This, however, isn't a universal libertarian argument. Economist Tyler Cowen argued that politicians would never end programs like Medicaid or Social Security, which would lead to something that "suddenly starts resembling … the welfare state, albeit the welfare state plus."
The appeal to the left is obvious. New York Times' economics reporter Annie Lowrey made the case for how a basic income guarantee would level the playing field for the 99 percent:
Wages are stagnant, unemployment is high and tens of millions of families are struggling in Europe and here at home. Despite record corporate earnings and skyrocketing fortunes for the college-educated and already well-off, the job market is simply not rewarding many fully employed workers with a decent way of life. Millions of households have had no real increase in earnings since the late 1980s … If our economy is no longer able to improve the lives of the working poor and low-income families, why not tweak our policies to do what we’re already doing, but better — more harmoniously? [New York Times]
Not that Washington is even remotely capable of passing anything like this. Congress can't even keep the government running with the system the United States has now. But it will be interesting to see how things play out in Switzerland, and if the basic income guarantee is a success, whether other developed nations start toying with the idea themselves.
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