In the 1970s, a small town in Canada tried something radical: Families who earned below a certain amount were given money that they could use for anything. Essentially, it was money for nothing.
It was a variant on an idea called "guaranteed basic income." That concept has seen a resurgence in popularity recently, fueled by techno-utopian dreams of an all-robot workforce.
But the proposal was just rejected in Switzerland. More than 75 percent of voters opposed it on June 5.
"This proposal had a lot of ideals but not a whole lot of detail about how exactly it would be paid for and implemented," says the BBC's Imogen Foulkes. But the idea isn't completely dead in Switzerland.
"The campaigners in favor said that if they got more than 20 to 22 percent of the vote they would be happy because it's the first-ever vote on such a thing," she says. "That's the interesting thing about this system of direct democracy. You have these votes and it forces people to talk about new issues and new possible political legislation. So I think the supporters are quite happy with 23 percent of the vote."
Foulkes says it's worth noting that state pensions in Switzerland had to be introduced and proposed three times before they were approved in the 1940s.
"Obligatory maternity leave took even longer," she says. "So what they say is that new ideas take a while."
So maybe they'll get there. But right now, it's one step further than the Swiss are willing to take.
Under the Swiss proposal, voters decided whether the government would give every adult citizen $2,600 per month.
Skeptics have a lot of questions. Will people still work? Who will benefit the most? Is it affordable?
“Most people don’t quit real jobs because they’d rather live very close to the poverty line,” Forget says. “If you’re making $50,000 a year, you don’t quit a $50,000 a year job to live at $20,000 a year.”
But, in poor families, mothers might take a little more time off after a pregnancy and teenage boys might stay in high school rather than drop out and work. At least that's what they found in the Manitoba experiment.
“If you can imagine the differences in opportunities for those people over the subsequent 30 years, you can imagine the different kinds of lives these people would’ve led,” Forget says. “It reduces some of the terrible outcomes that come along with poverty.”
Conservatives and libertarians don’t usually support government handouts. But Matt Zwolinski, a philosophy professor at the University of San Diego and founder of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, likes the idea of a basic income. He says it gives poor people more agency than the current “paternalistic” way welfare is distributed.
“If we give people cash, they’re likely to use it in responsible ways,” Zwolinski says. “That assumption, grounded in I think a certain view of human nature … is really fleshed out by the empirical evidence that we have about a variety of cash transfer programs throughout the world.”
And he adds, it slices away chunks of government bureaucracy:
“We spend close to a trillion dollars federally and at the state and local levels in the United States on various programs to combat poverty. And at the federal level alone there are over 120 of these programs. That leads to a lot of complexity and administrative bloat in government.”
Cutting everyone a check for $1,000 a month is, theoretically, an easier program to administer. Though it would be very expensive: nearly $4 trillion in the US.
So, yes, there will be a lot of details to iron out before your income check arrives in the mail.
A version of this story originally appeared under the title The Politics and Promise of A Guaranteed Basic Income on WGBH Innovation Hub. Listen to host Kara Miller's discusion with Marco Werman of PRI's The World.
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