At the beginning of the month, Swiss voters rejected a universal basic income by a very large margin: 77 percent of the voters opposed it in a referendum.
Switzerland is very conservative in the broadest sense of that word: It is a very successful country and, unsurprisingly, cautious about change. (The federation didn’t give women the right to vote nationally until the 1970s, and one canton held out until the 1990s.) The expected arguments against the UBI were deployed: that it would be costly, that it would provide disincentives to work, that it would not fit in with traditional Swiss expectations about personal responsibility and self-sufficiency, etc.
But there was another argument that should be appreciated beyond those of us who are simply interested in Switzerland: immigration.
Though it doesn’t actually seem to be all that likely, given the way the UBI was to be implemented, many Swiss voters told reporters that they feared the UBI would be an immigration magnet, that the promise of free money would cause immigrants to come pouring across the border. In online discussions of the UBI, immigration often was brought up as the first argument against it. Opponents said that it would cause immigrants to “flood into the country.”
The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which is anti-immigration, has been performing well in elections, and it currently is the largest single party in the Federal Assembly.
It’s not that the Swiss have entirely embraced the SVP’s anti-immigration agenda: In fact, SVP has lost two important referenda this year on the subject, one a fight against streamlining Swiss asylum laws and another in favor of expelling foreigners convicted of minor offenses. (It doesn’t pay to be running against governmental efficiency in Switzerland, I suppose.) But immigration anxieties have a way of working themselves into questions that are only partly or indirectly about immigration. As in the United States, immigration concerns are more often and more intensely expressed in relation to other anxieties (about the economy, crime, or education) than on their own terms.
In the United States and Europe both, politicians failed to take seriously public concerns about immigration, whether that means illegals here or refugees in Europe. That is in no small part why the Republican party is saddled with Donald Trump, and why equally unsavory figures are on the rise in much of Europe.
Those anxieties do not go away simply because politicians choose to ignore them.