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Unconditional Basic Income Raises the Right Questions

by Daniel Hani and Philip Kovce Monday, Oct. 12, 2015 at 6:51 AM

In the basic income society, work is what one wants, not what one must. Work is the contribution I make, not the obligation I meet to survive..."Alone I can become free but I cannot become free alone. The drama of becoming free is a social drama" (Swiss philosopher Stefan Brotbeck)


By Daniel Hani and Philip Kovce

[This reading sample for the 2015 book “Was fehlt, wenn alles da ist” is translated from the German on the Internet. Daniel Hani is an entrepreneur and co-founder of the Basel cultural- and coffee house and co-initiator of the Swiss initiative “For an Unconditional Basic Income.” This initiative was introduced in 2013 and triggered a worldwide media echo. Philip Kovce researches at the Basel “Philosophicum.” He is a member of the “Think Tank 30” of the Club of Rome and writes for “Zeit,” “Faz” and the “Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.”]

“We need people like these initiators who fundamentally rethink the subject.”

Adolf Muschig, author

“Switzerland would do something sensible if it introduced the unconditional basic income.”

Joseph Stiglitz, economist

“Whoever reads this book knows the unconditional basic income could become reality.”

Gotz W. Werner, entrepreneur


The unconditional basic income will not come from above. It is a basic right, not a right of authority. Citizens first had to fight for basic rights over against the authorities. Citizens should grant basic rights to each other.

As a basic right, the basic income touches the power question. Creative power lies increasingly in the hands of individuals… The sovereign released through the basic income has to release itself.

That the parliament holds a monopoly on legislation as is more or less the case in all democracies except for Switzerland is inimical to the basic income. Obviously basic income can be resolved formally by any institution at any time… Direct democracy moves the relation between citizens and politicians in the right light. Citizens are not petitioners who influence politicians. Rather politicians are service providers who carry out citizen interests.

How something is financed, transferred or subsumed is a question to which politicians and parties can bring all their expertise. The community must resolve what basic income it will pay out. Therefore the people’s initiative is the right way to introduce the unconditional basic income. This way is admired worldwide. The Swiss are not only discussing; they are voting on the basic income. Basic income is both serious and playful, the trick or big deal of direct democracy.


What the political establishment claims is not decisive with the people’s referendum on the unconditional basic income. The questions of the basic income have a strange effect on the political everyday routine and often remain incomprehensible… In the Swiss debate, questions and objections were formulated that manifested lack of understanding more than a differentiated confrontation with the theme. The basic income is a referendum matter that is not exhausted in the routinized political business.

The parties will recommend rejecting the basic income. Their arguments are that it cannot be financed, its consequences are unforeseeable and anxiety about fading of work incentives. Moreover it is said the basic income is anti-social, shows neoliberal characteristics or is illiberal and has socialist features. The referendum posters of the opponents are titled: “Money for nothing? Not with us!;” “Whoever wants to eat must work;” “There is no freedom without charge,” and “Yes to Switzerland! No to social parasites!”

The questions of basic income aim at all individuals. Political trench-battles play a minor role. Whoever bases his vote on what others say without confronting the questions of basic income with one’s own questions misses the chance of asking himself how he wants to live and work in the future.

What will we do when we don’t have work any more? asks the sociologist. What will we do when everyone else works for us? asks the economist. The neighbor, the envious person and the nihilist ask: would any one work if his income was provided? The pessimist asks: who will do the dirty work? The conservative asks: what if all the foreigners did not come? The philosopher asks: what is work? The educator asks: shouldn’t we tie the unconditional basic income to conditions? The unconditional basic income asks every individual about his or her question.


In Switzerland, I feel sovereign as a citizen. This is even normal and not exciting. Whoever feels politically sovereign looks more level-headed and less nervous about politics. The politician appears more as the employee than the boss. Through the initiative process, I can bring impulses into politics. With the referendum, I can shoot arrows back at the politicians. These possibilities are very effective against silly or inane behavior. Politicians are more artisans than builder-owners. They are more connected with tasks than with power. They also enjoy more respect and are targets of less mockery of citizens and the media than in other representative democracies. Power is more shared and politics is more performance-oriented and practical.

While referendums exist in Germany and Switzerland, they cannot be carried out nationwide in Germany. Democracy is a cultural question. The referendum separates and binds. The referendum is an organ of perception that brings opinions together and doesn’t divide them. We vote together. The referendum teaches me how and why others think differently. The referendum is an educational event that makes me more agile, more reasonable and more sensible.

In Switzerland, national policy is not as important as in most representative democracies – where the electorate cast votes every four years for a handful of different or identical parties. I jointly shape and define politics. This possibility spurs me and increases my experience and enjoyment of life… In direct democracy, my will is addressed. My vote counts and is effective.

In direct democracy, I feel sovereign because I have the last word. Because I have it, I often don’t have to use it. I am the one who makes a great fuss over against politicians. Therefore good politicians must be good surfers and sailors. In Germany, politicians apparently throw in the towel and drive motorboats or even U-boats. How can they feel the end?

The economist Bruno S. Frey analyzed the possibilities of political joint-determination in Swiss cantons and concluded that people are happier where there is more joint determination and fewer hurdles for referendums. On the whole, “the higher the economic level of a country, the better the possibilities of direct advocacy of the people by means of initiatives and referendums.”

Frey’s analyses show that “democracies with a direct collaboration in political decisions have considerable economic advantages over representative democracies. The tax burden is lower and the state is more efficient. Public services are provided at less expense. This benefits the economic activity that must grapple with less bureaucracy and regimentation.”

The unconditional basic income is the next democratic step. It paves the way for a society where everyone can freely decide what he or she wants to do. This benefits society since the individual knows himself better, the question what moves him in life and why he is engaged. Andreas Gross, Swiss politician and political scientist, summarizes: “The introduction of basic income would be an essential contribution to democratizing democracy.”


The unconditional basic income provides that much of what is regulated by the state today can be left to citizens’ free decisions. If citizens are protected, there is less need to protect and limit them.

The basic income creates the foundation for working freely according to need and not artificially cutting working hours. In the basic income society, work is what one wants, not what one must. Work is the contribution I make, not the obligation I meet to survive.

Basic income does not demand a minimum wage. A minimum wage is only needed as long as there is no basic income. A minimum wage is needed where people depend on work and therefore must demand a minimum price for their labor. A minimum wage is a right step in the wrong direction. It guarantees the proper payment of wage labor. However it limits work to paid work and raises its price. The more expensive is wage labor, the more it is rationalized away. The more poorly a job is paid, the more it is not rationalized. Out of fear of job losses, the 2014 Swiss minimum wage initiative was voted down in all cantons and only supported by 23% of voters.

The 2013 proposal of a maximum wage urged by the 1:12 initiative received 35% support. In the debate, the horror scenario was sketched that many jobs would be lost with a ceiling of incomes. The basic income would tackle the problem of rip-off wages differently. It creates the freedom of turning one’s back on businesses whose bosses rip off extravagantly. It would spare many unwieldy political battles since everyone would be able to decide where he or she will engage. Whoever wants to win someone for a cause must show why the cause is sensible. If this succeeds, others will engage. Whoever only wants to exploit someone for something will not find himself and ends as a loser.

The argument of declining jobs was a warning to the minimum wage and maximum wage initiatives. The basic income eliminates ridiculous work but sensibly protects income. The individual is less manipulable. Fewer compulsory rules will be needed since everyone can control his desires independently.


The unconditional basic income is discussed differently in different countries. In Switzerland, it is not the solution of a problem. It is not the longed-for instrument for fighting poverty. It is not the urgently necessary instrument for promoting the economy. The basic income in Switzerland is an innovation, not a stop-gap or expedient, an improvement that is controversial and in no way supported by everyone. Basic income is discussed because it can be carried ou9t if the will exists.

At the same time, the theme is a hot iron for Switzerland. It is an affront to all those who insist everyone must provide for himself and see the dignity and value of human existence there. To them, the basic income is a completely wrong and dangerous track that promises paradise on earth instead of reconciling with limited earthly conditions. Whoever thinks this way sees the social contract endangered by the basic income. That contract allegedly urges only helping those who cannot help themselves. Whoever thinks this way sees the economy threatened since it functions through the incentive of gainful employment and will lose its basis if this primacy is cancelled because everyone could do what he or she wants instead of being used by the invisible hand of the market. To some liberal souls, the basic income even appears as a socialist horror, supplying public funds for individual development. The left fear the dismantling of hard-fought social benefits through the basic income. They describe the basic income as a complete neoliberal deforestation and instead urge improvement of the social benefits.

This morally charged debate fed by fears and hopes is radicalized in Germany. Ten years ago in Germany, an unholy alliance of social- and criminal law was forged with the Hartz laws that mock the basic law. These benefits and those administering them will be threatened in the future, not only the recipients of Hartz IV benefits. All those who regard Germany as a paradise of parasites and idlers will welcome the laws since they effectively counteract the plundering of the social state in their eyes.

In this situation, the German basic income debate is usually blocked by two prejudices before it gets underway: that no one would work any more and this could not be financed anyway. This bottleneck must be crossed to enter a discussion about what the unconditional basic income could do – a basic right that many ardently long for because in their eyes it counters the plight of actual work pressure.

In the US, the social danger is far greater than in Germany. However basic income is regarded more as innovation as in Switzerland than a stopgap. The American media echoes the action of the Swiss People’s Initiative.

That every American wants to realize his or her American dream by doing what is fulfilling seems hardly put in question. On this background, the suspicion that no one would work any more with a basic income is unnecessary. Obviously people will work. People will do what they always wanted to do and live their dreams.

In the US, the basic income is seen as a liberal desire with a liberal tradition. “Feeding programs feed bureaucracy,” it is said. Basic income dismantles bureaucracy – unnecessary mistrust and superfluous procedures – by making possible a sleek state – transporting its citizens into freedom. Supplying people with a basic income so they can buy all those produces developed in Silicon Valley in the future and handle their jobs despite income losses seems unavoidable to more and more young IT-entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.

While the basic income is discussed very earnestly in Switzerland, the instrument for introducing it is lacking in Germany: the national referendum. The Hartz IV spirit still flits around that makes people suffer disgracefully. In the US, basic income is considered a liberal promise enabling everyone to do what he or she wants. Basic income in the US is also a means for fighting poverty because proper social benefits are still lacking there. In Germany, the deficiency is artificially produced, morally intended and perfidiously organized. The deficiency in the US is either not experienced as such or as a foregone conclusion so pragmatic solutions are sought to remedy it. In Germany, it could be remedied without a hitch if all the effort to maintain it was abandoned.


Why do politicians take away citizens’ free space for their own decision-making? Politicians already receive a kind of unconditional basic income. They receive an income so they can properly fulfill their mandate without being corrupted. They are subsidized to make independent decisions, not for pre-given services. Why do politicians have a hard time advocating the idea of the unconditional basic income?

The free mandate is a foundation of parliamentary democracy. Every people’s representative can vote as he or she wants on every bill in parliament. No one forces the vote. No deduction in salary threatens. The delegate is paid so he can serve; he is not paid for his service. The service can consist in an act or omission, a Yes or a No. In any case, it is a high good that the elected politician is commissioned and not paid for his services. The voters decide on election day what is expected of him.

No one knows as well as a politician how a basic income feels. All non-politicians will receive an unconditional basic income, every citizen – the craftsperson and the engineer, the single mother and the unemployed father, the interminable student and the early pensioner, the homeless and the CEO. Why is supporting the unconditional basic income so difficult for politicians? Do they believe in something better? Don’t they trust the citizens in being commissioned with their own biographical mandates? Or do they regard their own model of maintenance as outdated? Would they prefer to be paid for their performance – and then only receive money when they act accordingly or successfully?

The reasons for not favoring the basic income are varied.. One reason that stands out is the voter. The task of the politician is not to be the intellectual vanguard of the country. He is elected because he wants what the majority holds to be right, not because he has visions. This politician who sails in the wind of the voters will then change his course when the wind of the voters changes. He will be supportive when the voters trust a basic income. Before gaining this understanding, he sees it as a very absurd idea.

The state machine is not the initiative organ of a democracy. It ensures functioning. No politician will grapple successfully with themes that do not interest any one. Conversely, many successful politicians who are pragmatically engaged are rated highly.

Politicians do what they want because they want to be elected. Until we want something else, they will not be a great help – aside from being a mirror showing us that everything is not a foregone conclusion. This lethargy manifests the democratic way… Every idea that suddenly is massively supported is suspected of being an ideology. Therefore the unconditional basic income will first come when its way is so far advanced that introducing it becomes a foregone social conclusion. The parties and politicians who now declare it bizarre will then play their game differently. They will advocate the basic income – and defend a certain model from their perspective. The political conflict will continue. That is good even if it sometimes cannot be understood.


The credo is: “one for all, all for one.” The three musketeers in Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 French novel of the same name fought under this motto. The phrase quickly became the unofficial election slogan of the Swiss Confederation. It is an expression of free individuality and deregulated community. Only the one who is free can be completely engaged in service of community. Only the community that is released facilitates commitment. In the words of the Swiss philosopher Stefan Brotbeck, “Alone I can become free (no one can take away my free development) but I cannot become free alone. The drama of becoming free is a social drama.”

“One for all” can also mean exaggerated heroism, self-righteousness and high spirits, the individual who takes himself too important toward others or it can mean inappropriate selflessness – the individual who doesn’t take himself too important. In times of division of labor and foreign supply, it is a formula that says I am active for everyone else. I supply others with my work, not only myself. This succeeds best in a voluntary and self-determined way.

“All for one” can also be a false public spirit. The community over against the individual is taken to be too important or it can mean the community acts in a self-forgetting way, focused only on a simple idol. It actually means today: every individual is supplied by everyone else. No one acts as self-sufficient any more. Everyone is supported by the services of the community. The community liberates the individual as a person since it emancipates him from nature which beforehand had to be plowed. Earlier individuality consisted in surviving alone in nature. Today it means becoming a free individual person safeguarded by the community. Modern individuality consists in the individual act that everyone does for others and no longer in the individual plight that everyone solves for him or herself.

“One for all, all for one” means structurally everyone for everyone else. This is the setting for modern living conditions. The unconditional basic income releases me from others for others. That is the basis of the Musketeer society. Persons become capable of action through free commitment. Basic income enables individuals to best serve the community. The community’s highest goal is to release individuals for that service. That is modern Latin: Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno.


The unconditional basic income obviously has conditions. It does not abolish the legal order on which it rests. The postulated unconditional nature contrasts with the conditions in force today for drawing social benefits.

Laws regulate what concerns everyone and are universally applicable. As to drawing the basic income, the legislator has to decide its amount and form. Will it include children? Will it include pensioners? Will it include refugees?

In general, the basic income is not tied to conditions known from the past. Still one has to be born. Basic income is for humans, not angels. One has to be born. Then the basic income is for parents. It is not an allowance for children. The amount for children need not be as high as for adults. Parents could receive a child’s basic income until he or she reaches the age of majority. In any case, basic income replaces the child’s allowance and all other social benefits. Everyone is obviously dependent on additional support – according to need.

Who should not receive a basic income? The feeble-minded? The lazy? The dumb? The impudent? The rich? Children? Entrepreneurs? Politicians? Foreigners? Is there a reason not to give a basic income? Because one doesn’t work? Because one doesn’t want it? Because others will receive one? Because I will then feel obligated to be a good person? Because I will then feel unfree or unliberated? Because I don’t want to accept a basic income from foreigners? Because I want to provide myself? Because I don’t want others to receive it?

The special conditions of the basic income can be discussed after the agreement that it should be introduced. An income that represents an individual legal claim and is enough to sustain life will be granted without return favor or need test.

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