In June, the Swiss will vote on whether to give everyone in the country an unconditional basic income. American Scott Santens has already achieved that for himself – through crowdfunding. And he argues it’s accessible to the whole world, not just those living in a direct democracy.
In an era where machines are quickly replacing human workers, 38-year-old Santens believes a basic income would free people to make career decisions with their heads, not their wallets. And the jobs left over that no one would want to do anymore? They would go to the robots. A win-win, he says.
Is it realistic?
On a small scale, Santens argues he’s proof of the fact that basic income works. Since 2014, he’s been using the crowdfunding platform Patreon to get people to pledge a set amount of money to him per month that has become his basic income. Currently, he has some 180 backers who give him a small stipend each month for a total of $1,000 (CHF954) every 30 days. Anything above that amount goes into funding others who have since pledged to do the same.
Santens got interested in basic income while reading an article about self-driving trucks and how they are already transforming the industry – as well as making truck drivers obsolete. As he learned more, he realised the result of this automation of labour could be “a dystopia where people are worse off, or a utopia where we could go if we made different decisions.”
So he began reading and writing about basic income, first as a hobby and then as a job. Apart from his earnings from Patreon, Santens is now self-employed, writing about and promoting basic income full-time. Over the course of the year it took him to get enough pledges for $1,000 a month, he says he learned what a difference even a small amount can make.
“Even when I was only receiving $300 a month, I perceived it as a very secure source that could at least pay for food,” he says. “I didn't feel like it could be pulled out from under me.”
On a national and global scale, Santens thinks basic income is possible if it’s tied to carbon taxes – what he calls a “carbon fee and dividend”. Under his proposed scheme, money gained by governments by taxing carbon emissions would be re-distributed to everyone as a basic income.
Wouldn’t everyone just stop working?
No, Santens argues – they would be empowered to choose work that is “intrinsically motivating”. That also means they would be more productive at their work, and employers would be forced to pay more for jobs that are not as in-demand in order to entice people to work at them.
But, “wages could stagnate or go down for high-demand jobs because people love to do them so much”, Santens admits.
The bottom line, he says, is that wages have already stagnated in many Western countries while productivity has gone up. Basic income would re-align the equation in favour of workers.
Here’s how wages and productivity have developed in Switzerland over the past decades:
Has basic income been tried before?
Several countries and US states have tried something similar to a basic income in the past. Alaska has a type of de facto basic income with its oil dividends, where the state leases land to oil companies and re-distributes the money made to its residents through a sovereign wealth fund.
Though he admits it could be an outlier, Santens says the Alaska example shows how a basic income wouldn’t necessarily raise prices of consumer goods, since the state’s inflation rate used to be higher than in the rest of the country – until the oil dividends were introduced, when the trend reversed.
Other countries that have tried basic income experiments include Namibia and India, where according to Santens some consumer prices dropped because of more purchasing power and greater demand. The province of Manitoba in Canada also tested out basic income and saw hospitalisation rate drop as a result.
It amounted to a sort of “social vaccine”, Santens says, that allowed people to address poor health outcomes for those in poverty.
Is Switzerland’s initiative the right way to go about it? How much should people get?
On June 5, the Swiss will vote on an initiative that, if passed, would require the government to find a way to give every person in the country an unconditional amount of money every month. The initiative text doesn’t mention a set amount, though its supporters have mentioned an ideal amount of CHF2,500 ($2,600) per month per adult and CHF625 per child. Backers say its aim is to allow people to choose how they want to live their own lives, without making choices based on financial necessities.
However, last December, parliament voted overwhelmingly against recommending the initiative, and Interior Minister Alain Berset said implementing it would require a “profound transformation of society and the social security system”. Cabinet has also formally recommended voting against the initiative.
Santens agrees with the idea of leaving the amount open to debate and interpretation if the initiative passes. He also thinks every country should negotiate its own amount loosely based on the poverty rate, an amount that governments have already agreed on. In the United States, Santens advocates for $1,000 a month in basic income, since the federal recognised poverty line stands at $11,770 per year.
“I don't believe there has to be a perfect amount, that's subjective,” he says. “What's really important is that everyone gets something greater than nothing, because right now, every country has a minimum income guarantee of zero.”
Could basic income happen in more countries?
In addition to Switzerland’s initiative, Canada, New Zealand and Scotland are currently in various stages of discussion about basic income at a governmental level. And Santens argues that “you don’t need a Western democracy for it to work”.
“China, for example, obviously doesn't have a form of a direct democracy,” he says. “But they need to make sure more of their people can buy their own goods, so it’s very possible that China could look at a basic income as a way to create a middle class.”
What happens next?
Regardless of whether the Swiss vote for a basic income, Santens says the initiative has been crucial for launching a worldwide discussion.
“Google Trends showed the discussion exploding when Switzerland got the required signatures for people to vote on it,” he says, adding that campaigns like handing out free money at train stations went a long way towards highlighting the issue further.
“It's such a clear idea to say, you're a person, you're alive, here's the cash.”
“Every time they do something, it gets the world's attention.”
Contact the author of this article on Twitter: @vdevore