Why don’t we just give money to people?

In a world with increased inequalities, struggling economies and devastated environment, leaders and civil society are desperate for solutions. In the midst of a sea of world problems’ resolutions, some may simply wonder why don’t we just give money to people?

As crazy as this question may sound, the greatest minds of our society have thought about that (Allen, 2002). Moreover, examples of initiatives like this have happened all around the world – from Namibia to Canada (Wikipedia contributors, n.d.).

As you may have guessed, we are talking about the controversial Universal Basic Income (UBI). But what exactly would it mean to implement it?

That precise question was source of heated debates that took over Switzerland in 2016, when a votation assessed the views of the population on whether or not an UBI should be implemented there.

In a country known for its devotion to work, the whole discussion around this initiative is definitely worth to analyze, even though (not for our surprise), it was widely rejected with a 77% rate.

Universal Basic Income

Let’s look at the Definition

An Universal Basic Income has to fill four conditions.

  1. It has to be unconditional, meaning that everybody, having the same age, would receive exactly the same amount of money.
  2. It has to be individual, since it will not be paid on a couple or household-basis.
  3. It is universal, which means that the UBI is a right to every citizen, as long as the individual is a legal resident and have been in the region for a certain period of time.
  4. It consists of a periodic and non-withdrawable payment: whether your salary increases or you lose your job, you will always receive the UBI on a weekly or monthly basis.

The Main Players

From university professors to private companies; from the cantonal and federal political parties to public administrations; from the associations to the citizens, the UBI controversy in Switzerland brought various actors to heated debates. Media also played a noticeable role by organising TV debates (e.g. RTS), radio shows and publishing newspaper articles (e.g. Le Temps). It reflected the certainty that the initiative was going to be rejected while raising the possibility of questioning the Swiss system (Le Temps, 2016).

Here, we focus on three opposing actors: the association Bien with the Generation UBI and the Swiss Parliament.

  • Based in Geneva, Bien is an association established in 2001 affiliated to the Basic Income Earth Network. It combines members from all around Switzerland and theorizes the concept of UBI. Financed by its members, the association is apolitical.

  • Generation UBI is a citizen movement working hand-in-hand with Bien with the aim of promoting the UBI. This movement collected 126,000 signatures in 2013 in favor of an amend in the constitution, entrusting the Swiss Confederation with implementing an UBI.

  • Federal Assembly (Parliament), composed of the National Council and the State Council, always advises the population on the vote. In that specific case, the Parliament recommended to reject the initiative (Arrêté Fédéral, 2015).

Source: A schema adapted from ch.ch, n.d. 

The schema above illustrates the actor’s mapping and gives a simplistic explanation of the Swiss direct democracy (ch.ch, n.d.). The population votes for a law submitted by an actor of the society which has to gather a minimum of 100,000 signatures (i.a. a popular initiative such as the UBI), or by the legislative power. Once voted, the Legislative (the Federal Assembly) implements the law in the constitution. When the executive power (the Federal Council) applies the law, the judicial power ensures it is respected.

Back & Forth

The opposing arguments

The BIEN association proposed the UBI as a means of eradicating poverty while giving freedom to people, fostering entrepreneurship and making work meaningful. The goal was that anyone could then live with dignity and participate in public life whether they had a paid work or not. 23% of the population supported this view on the ballots.

On the other hand, no political party supported the UBI and the Federal Assembly was firmly against the initiative. Solid, but biased information was provided to the population, who mainly received arguments on why the UBI wouldn’t work. The opposers argued that the UBI would weaken the economy, decentivize people from working and that the risk was too big, threatening a rooted social security system and putting a financial burden in the country.

It could be stated that the UBI challenges institutions and ways of thinking that have been there for centuries. In the end, if the players are winning the game, then why change the team?

    if the players are winning the game, then why change the team?

    Work, work, work

    A way of living or a way for living?

    Source: Confédération Suisse, Département fédéral de l’intérieur DFI

    With a participation rate of 47%, the western part of Switzerland was globally less hostile to the UBI. Supporters’ profiles vary, finding most sympathy among younger generations, attracting people that are proximate to the retiring age as well as several ideological groups. The huge disapproval, however, attests that if an initiative 2.0 was to be proposed, its presentation should be different.

    During the public debate in 2015-16, discussions around the UBI were mainly centered on its financial viability. Without denying the importance of this concrete implication, it nevertheless deviated the debate from other crucial questions. Mostly, the unconditional aspect of the UBI is interesting to analyze within the Swiss context. Indeed, the relationship between Swiss and their job have been source of many studies (Herzog, 2014), especially since Weber (1905) identified the protestant ethic of work as singular. The particular value of work in Switzerland gets along with “nothing is for free; you have to work to get things”. In this context a proposition of unconditional basic income is revolutionary and conflictual with many Swiss norms. Are Swiss people ready to have their basic needs guaranteed without having to work for it? Is it fair and combinable with the specific Swiss working habitus? Those questions are crucial and should be put at the front of the debates in Switzerland. Indeed, rethinking our relationship to work, money and efforts is a first step absolutely necessary before even thinking about implementation modalities.

    A Choice

    Between reason & fear

    Even if seen as a traditional society, Switzerland is at the same time one of the most innovative and efficient countries in the world. Strong values compete with an open-minded culture, ready to vote and participate on the construction of its democracy. How to foster a fruitful debate that could put in a critical perspective both mentalities?

    For the case of the UBI, bringing in critical issues to debate might be a start. More than a utopian idea, the UBI raises questions of social justice and the concept of fairness. If a second motion is to be voted, it must certainly direct towards a more comprehensive approach, explaining the necessity of the unconditional quality of life for the population as a whole. The guiding principles of the Swiss UBI should be at the core of the debate, strong links should be made with the Swiss work culture.



    Admin. (2015). Arrêté fédéral concernant l’initiative populaire «Pour un revenu de base inconditionnel». Retrieved from https://www.admin.ch/opc/fr/federal-gazette/2015/8727.pdf

    Allen, J. T. (2002). Negative Income Tax. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Retrieved from http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc1/NegativeIncomeTax.html

    Herzog, Stephan. 2014. “Les Suisses sont moins usés par le travail que les Européens” in Le Temps. [Online]: URL. Consulted the 28 May 2019.

    Bien. (n.d.). Qui sommes-nous? Retrieved from https://bien.ch/fr/page/presentation-bien-suisse

    ch.ch. (n.d.). Démocratie, La séparation des pouvoirs. Retrieved from https://www.ch.ch/fr/democratie/federalisme/la-separation-des-pouvoirs/

    Generation rbi. (). Qui sommes nous. Retrieved from https://rbi-oui.ch/qui-sommes-nous/

    Le Temps. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.letemps.ch/dossiers/rbi

    RTS. (2016) Infrarouge: Spécial votation. Retrieved from https://www.rts.ch/play/tv/infrarouge/video/special-votation-un-revenu-pour-tous-meme-sans-travailler-?id=7629666

    Weber, Max. 1905. [1964]. L’Éthique protestante et l’Esprit du capitalisme. Librairie Plon: Paris.

    Wikipedia contributors. (n.d.) Basic income. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_income