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Basic Income Revisited

On June 5, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected, by 77% to 23%, the proposition that every citizen should be guaranteed an unconditional basic income. But, with up to one-third of all jobs at risk from automation over the next 20 years, that lopsided outcome doesn’t mean the issue is going away anytime soon.

LONDON – Britain isn’t the only country holding a referendum this month. On June 5, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected, by 77% to 23%, the proposition that every citizen should be guaranteed an unconditional basic income (UBI). But that lopsided outcome doesn’t mean the issue is going away anytime soon.

Indeed, the idea of a UBI has made recurrent appearances in history – starting with Thomas Paine in the eighteenth century. This time, though, it is likely to have greater staying power, as the prospect of sufficient income from jobs grows bleaker for the poor and less educated. Experiments with unconditional cash transfers have been taking place in poor as well as rich countries.

UBI is a somewhat uneasy mix of two objectives: poverty relief and the rejection of work as the defining purpose of life. The first is political and practical; the second is philosophical or ethical.

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