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Basic income advocates lost the battle in Switzerland. They're winning the war.

basic income protest
A protest for basic income in Bern, Switzerland, on October 4, 2013. Activists dumped 8 million coins in a public square to celebrate reaching an adequate number of signatures to hold a referendum.
Stefan Bohrer

On Sunday, Switzerland became the first nation to hold a referendum on the idea of a basic income. Under the proposal, the Swiss constitution would've been amended to "ensure the introduction of an unconditional basic income," which "shall enable the whole population to live in human dignity and participate in public life."

The measure, however, was soundly defeated. Early results suggest that only about 22 percent voted yes, a landslide defeat. That might be attributable, in part, to the huge size of the basic income proposed by activists in the country. The example figures thrown around were 30,000 Swiss francs a year per adult (equivalent to about $23,256) and 7,500 per child ($5,814) per year. So a family of four would get the equivalent of nearly $60,000 a year. By contrast, most American proposals suggest about $10,000 per adult, and $0 to $4,000 per kid, and even those plans are hardly cheap.

There's also the fact that basic income is usually proposed either as a solution for economic hardship or as a way to transition to a more automation-driven economy with lower employment. But Switzerland is not exactly lacking for employment; its employment-to-population ratio among prime-age workers was nearly 80 percent as of 2014, considerably higher than the US, Germany, and just about every other rich country save Iceland. Its unemployment rate is now about 3.5 percent. Poverty is also lower than in many rich countries.

Basic income campaigners wanted to spread the message, not win

The loss was expected; from the beginning, campaigners have framed the referendum as a chance to elevate the public profile of basic income, to force it into the public debate, rather than an effort that was likely to lead to actual constitutional change. The polling before the referendum made it clear it would fail by a large margin; every major political party opposed it.

But as a consciousness-building effort, the referendum was a clear success. Polling data taken by the referendum's backers suggest that large majorities of both supporters and opponents think another referendum on the topic will take place in the future. When it initially got on the ballot in 2013, it prompted coverage in the New York Times, the BBC, and even Fox Business, which took a surprisingly positive tone:

It convinced those of us then at the Washington Post's Wonkblog to host a debate on the topic.

From there, the idea has spiraled until it became a fairly mainstream idea in developed countries. It's gained a whole bevy of prominent endorsers, like former labor leader Andy Stern and Nobel laureate Angus Deaton. Notable American economic policy figures, like former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities president Robert Greenstein, have felt the need to argue against it. The British Labour Party and Canadian Liberal Party are both considering adopting the proposal; the latter added a call for basic income to its platform, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to endorse the idea.

While they opposed implementing one immediately, 77 percent of Swiss poll respondents said they'd support a test of basic income, and on that they're getting their wish. Finland is gearing up to launch a large-scale trial next year, and a more limited effort is current underway in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Y Combinator, the US-based investment company, is doing a pilot in Oakland, California. The government of Ontario, Canada, is launching a test this year, and GiveDirectly, a cash transfer charity, is doing a test in Kenya.

Switzerland's vote suggested that rich countries aren't ready to go all in and adopt a basic income as policy yet. That's reasonable; it's a major, and majorly expensive, step. But the vote also helped generate a firestorm of media coverage and attention that made basic income a mainstream idea. That itself is a huge success.

"There is certainly no week in the history of the world in which the media have allocated so much time and space to a discussion of basic income," longtime basic income booster Philippe Van Parijs wrote in a blog post titled, "Thank you Switzerland!"

He has a point. The Swiss organizers should claim victory, for they played a key role in taking a nearly forgotten idea and turning it into the subject of worldwide debate.

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