Switzerland May Have Voted Against Basic Income, But This Is Just The Start

What’s truly remarkable is that the idea–which just a few years ago was looked at as entirely crazy–was on the ballot in a European country.

Switzerland May Have Voted Against Basic Income, But This Is Just The Start
Illustration: Eugene Sergeev via Shutterstock

Two-and-a-half million people voted in Switzerland’s basic-income referendum on Sunday, and their verdict was decisive: the idea was rejected by 77% of the voters. The margin was large and, to detractors of the basic-income idea, quite apt: an appropriate-sized disavowal of an intrinsically silly idea.


But, looked another way, the vote was quite encouraging to the basic-income “movement.” Putting a basic-income measure on the ballot–$2,555 a month to every adult and $642 to every child–was remarkable enough. The fact that almost a quarter of the population–568,905 people–voted in favor is even more impressive.

Swiss Radio International has an interactive of the results here. More than 30% of voters in Geneva and Neuchâtel voted in favor, as did 25% of Zurich and 24% of Bern. The cantons of Basel-Ville and the Jura showed 36% support.

The Swiss group that mounted the referendum effort expected to get 20%-25%, so it wasn’t too disappointed; none of Switzerland’s leading political parties supported the idea. The important thing for them, and other national groups watching this weekend, was to get basic income on the agenda, both nationally and internationally. “It was quite clear they wouldn’t be successful,” says Christian Lichtenberg, from the Mein Grundeinkommen basic-income campaign in Germany. “It’s a radical idea for a very conservative country [like Switzerland]. But that’s fine. Now, for the first time, the media in Germany [and other countries] are giving a lot of attention to the idea.”

Exit poll data gathered by the Swiss market research firm Gfs.bern gave some encouragement to the campaigners: 44% of Swiss said they support a basic-income trial in a town, canton, or different country; 69% said they expect another basic-income referendum in the future; 31% expect a basic income to become law within 30 years (millennials said yes at an even higher rate than that).

Voters were most likely to reject the measure for three reasons: it would attract immigrants; it would cost too much (about three-quarters of the $200 billion annual price would have come from new taxes); or it would discourage work (the most common criticism of basic income). Swiss politicians were generally against the initiative too: the left, because it would interfere with existing social programs; the right, because it would add to them, and without evidence of benefit. “The social system does not need to be revolutionized,” said the socialist minister Alain Berset on Sunday.

But advocates of basic income say its time will come. As technology automates away employment, and work becomes more insecure and delivers less income-value, basic income may become more popular. The income level proposed in Switzerland was high, in any case, and the amount expected in new taxes huge (and the country already has one of the strongest safety nets in the world). More modest initiatives in less conservative countries may have higher chances.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.