Universal basic incomes

Sighing for paradise to come

Arguments for a state stipend payable to all citizens are being heard more widely

Jun 4th 2016 | Maricá, Olten and Zurich | From the print edition


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These, then, are the questions swirling around Switzerland ahead of its referendum. The Swiss initiative does not look likely to pass, both because of its expense and the fear of subsidising layabouts. Though surveys show that only 2% of the Swiss think that a universal income would stop them working themselves, about a third think it would scupper the work ethic of others.


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Hans Peter Rubi, a 64-year-old in the small town of Olten, has no such worries. He was given a pension of SFr2,600 on being sent into early retirement, and became an entrepreneur. “After doing nothing, you get bored—people want more. After a while of boredom you might become innovative.” He has used his pension to start an exotic ice-cream parlour. The avocado ice cream is proving difficult to perfect, and the innovation of staying open through the winter (Olten’s established ice-creamery closes) has yet to pay off. He needs a good summer for the business to be profitable; but he can afford to fail. “My security now is that I have my basic income. It gives a security to take a basic challenge.”

In a world of universal basic incomes, it is possible that the streets would be lined with mostly empty ice-cream shops, as people used society’s largesse on projects no one really needs. It is also possible that such stipends would give workers the boost in incomes they have been missing in recent decades, and the additional leisure time to enjoy it, thus helping to make businesses like Mr Rubi’s profitable.