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LAST SUNDAY, Swiss voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have required their government to pay every Swiss citizen $2,500 a month, no questions asked. That electoral setback is far from a death knell for basic income in Europe, however. In Finland, the center-right government is testing a plan that could pay all Finns about $870 a month. In Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere, politicians are discussing similar schemes, and popular interest is spreading.
But America isn’t Europe, and whatever the odds of basic income taking hold there, they’re a lot lower here. Most European countries already have generous welfare states, with no shame or stigma attached to them. There, basic income is viewed as a way to simplify, not expand, the existing welfare state. Cut out the bureaucrats and the qualifying tests, and just give everyone cash to use as they wish.
The situation is quite different in the United States. Here, efforts over the years to build a welfare state have consistently been thwarted by America’s preference for individual self-reliance, distaste for government, and racism. The result is a safety net so stingy and hard to navigate that many who are eligible don’t even bother. To shift from that to a basic income for everyone would be an extraordinary leap, the mere thought of which pushes two potent American hot buttons: (1) fear that our work ethic will be undermined, and (2) dread that our taxes will soar.