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Unconditional Basic Income

What do the Pioneers of the Unconditional Basic Income in Switzerland want?

1. What is Unconditional Basic Income?

The unconditional basic income does not pronounce an order. It is not based a certain type of work but rather on the mere existence of the recipient. It remains with the person their whole life, in all situations, without alteration. It is an income that is paid directly to an individual; it cannot be payed to institutions such as marriage or to groups. It always remains individual. It is not affected by a specific location of residence. It is equal in all areas.

The unconditional basic income is not tied to any circumstance. In contrast to conditional incomes that compensate for a certain function or occupation and rely upon certain ability or proven dis-ability to earn an income, this basic income is unconditional. Unconditional means that it is not a reimbursement. It is the amount that everyone, in any case and without exception needs in order to live. It is an amount that does not depend upon whether or not someone has a job.

This amount is to be detached from its current ties and transferred without conditions. It is not an allowance based on indigence as is the case with social welfare. The basic income relates solely to the individual and not to her function or situation. It is an income that arises from a general fundamental democratic right, the Right to Life. The basic income should be considered as one of the human rights.

A basic income already exists today. Everyone obtains one from somewhere; otherwise we would not be able to live. In our society today, no one can survive without an income. The level of a basic income is currently included in the existing incomes. The shift that is needed now is to make current incomes free of conditions up to the level of this basic economic security. In fact, the introduction of an unconditional basic income does not cost anything. To assure basic security by means of a social contract will bring about a new situation for income of all origins. It opens up the possibility for negotiations at all levels. Principally, the existing incomes could be decreased by the amount of the basic income.

2. How is it Possible?

We can differentiate between reimbursement for work in the private sector and public incomes such as social insurances as two fundamentally different incomes. Setting an unconditional base amount would have different effects on these different income areas.

A) Wages in the private sector would be liberated from securing the livelihood of the employee. This new situation opens a space for (re)negotiation for both, employees and employers. A salary becomes a symbol of appreciation, a motivation. It remains performance-based and tied to the market. A salary can be very high or very low, but the actual livelihood of the individual is inviolable because each person receives the basic income as a social right.

An entrepreneur can now be sure that people will come to her because they actually want to work with her. Motivation will become a prerequisite for a job application. Even the employee is now more free in his position of negotiation. He can say yes to work that interests him and in which he can be of optimal use. Personal development through our work, having success and taking responsibility will become key attributes of a job search. The applicant can also say no to unappealing job offers more easily. The threat of taking away a person's livelihood can no longer be used as a means to force employees to work under bad conditions.

The transfer of an unconditional basic income reduces the cost of labor. It acts as a subsidy to the existing wages. Being secured up to the level of the unconditional basic income, each person can now do her work without hesitation. Taxes can be restructured such that labor is no longer taxed (neither on the employer nor the employee side). Instead, a tax on goods (value-added tax) is increased and in part redistributed as an unconditional basic income.

B) Any social funds, extra payments, stipends, pensions and such subsidies can be replaced by the basic income as long as they do not exceed it. In the United States, there are 150 different programs of social balance that could be vastly relieved by the distribution of an unconditional basic income. This unconditional transaction could replace the “social welfare state“ and could mean significant reductions of expenses for the authorities. Currently, all social transfers are tied to concrete conditions that have to be proven and investigated bureaucratically at very high cost.

Unconditionally securing a livelihood for everyone would replace the existing incomes from the bottom up, in the public as well as the private sector. This basic amount is already transferred today. What remains are the conditions placed upon it, and thus seems to present a challenge for some:

Who would still want to go to work, if the securing of a livelihood does not motivate us to work anymore? And more importantly: Who would do the „dirty work“?

3. Good Job or Bad Job?

Because the basic income is paid to everyone, it should be an issue for everyone. The millionaire that lives off the interest of their wealth as well as the dishwasher that lives from paycheck to paycheck.

In the world of work we can distinguish between extrinsically and intrinsically motivated employees. Some employees work primarily for their income. Their motivation is based on the extrinsic necessity to have an income, on self-preservation and personal as well as familial survival. We call their work a „bad job“. On the other hand, everyone knows examples of intrinsically motivated work. The motivation, process and  product of this work are closely related. We call this a „good job“. Amongst the extrinsically motivated „bad jobs“ as well as the intrinsically motivated „good jobs“ we can find both very well paid jobs and also very low paying jobs. What is the effect of an unconditional basic income on those four job categories?

  • The category of well-paid good jobs is not going to change very much with the introduction of a basic income, except the salary is going to decrease by the amount of the basic income.
  • Well-paid bad jobs will always be done. The motivation of making a lot of money will stay the same. But including the basic income in the transaction will challenge the paradigm of „only focussing on oneself“.
  • Low paying good jobs, such as care-work, volunteering, working from one's own vision (every entrepreneur recognizes this type of work from starting their own business) are going to be freer through the basic income, easier to imagine and more realistic.
  • Amongst the low paying bad jobs the distribution of an unconditional basic income will bring about the biggest change.

In the last category we find the so-called „dirty work“. The unconditional basic income will not prohibit these jobs, nor does it claim higher payment for such work (like a minimum wage would). It does, however, put the employee in a new position from which to negotiate, as their existential dependence on a job has been removed. The basic income makes it possible to say „No“.

It is possible that having a person do the cleaning will become more expensive because with a basic income in their pocket, fewer people would be willing to spend time working for a low income. When prices for certain services rise it becomes attractive to invest in technological solutions - solutions that are currently kept waiting because of the availability of cheap labor. The basic income strengthens the trend to automate such tasks. It creates the possibility for innovation.

Good jobs that are badly paid are supported by the basic income, in many cases they only become possible when such an income exists. Services and products that are created in intrinsically motivated work will become more affordable. A real market comes into play, one without opportunities of blackmailing the workforce.

On average, prices will roughly remain on the same level across all the sectors; what will be new is that prices will also reflect popular areas of work.

4. A Fundamental Democratic Right

The introduction of an unconditional basic income brings about a democratization of democracy. It gives time for reflection. It creates possibilities for experiences we cannot pay for.

A democracy gives every adult the right to judge what is best for the whole community based on their own life experience and ability. It gives each individual the responsibility to decide in the interest of others. The individual interest of each person becomes a building block for the greater whole. 

The basic income trusts each person to know how to decide what their path is and how they want to make a difference for others. This is no less than the pursuit of happiness. It is an evolution of democracy itself.

Those who want to hold a monopoly on power can-not see anything sensible in the introduction of an unconditional basic income. No king would introduce a basic income. But the democratic way is the royal road: only through the mutual encouragement of the people can a basic income come into existence.

The first prototype referendum for the unconditional basic income is taking place in Switzerland in June 2016. And who knows what can grow from such an experience?

*Enno Schmidt, 58 and Che Wagner, 28, are both co-designers of the Swiss referendum initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income

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