The front page of my Zeit has a nice title: "The Dream of Money Without Work." It’s a3-page special feature in the business section about the idea of a guaranteed minimum income for every citizen of Germany, provided without any conditions. You need not prove any sort of need or fulfill any conditions — you just get a check in the mail. The idea has support among unlikely political bedfellows.
Tory "father-state" conservatives on the right, such as the CDU President of Thuringia Dieter Althaus, want to peg the basic income at under 700 Euro per month and call it something warm, fuzzy, and patriotically Christian-sounding: Solidarisches Buergergeld (citizen-money of solidarity!). The theory is that you’ll save enough money by abolishing the costly state bureacracy that administers current welfare schemes to finance the additional amounts necessary. Left parties are also interested, although they would put the monthly sum higher and call it a Grundeinkommen (basic income).
Götz Werner, super-rich founder of the dm chain of drug supermarkets, is traveling the country propagandizing his version, which envisions payments as high as 1500 Euro monthly (which he concedes to be a "distant goal"). His primary motivation is to free humans from the compulsion to work, so that they can satisfy the artistic, literary, or humanitarian drives that really make their lives worth living. Werner is a follower of anthroposophy, sort of German-language "spiritual science" founded by an Austrian philosopher in the early 20th-century (think a German version of Scientology, with its own schools and complex mythology).
The idea, its backers insist, is not crazy. It’s based on a original concept developed by a Belgian social reformer in the 1840s, and its most prominent 20th-century backer was the libertarian Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman, who called it a "negative income tax." Yes, the State should mitigate the misery of the worst-off he concedes; but it should do so in a way that creates the least government interference in citizens’ lives. According to the idea’s supporters, people will still work even if their basic needs are covered, because humans have an in-born drive to engage in meaningful activity. The nastiest, worst-paid jobs — like toilet attendant, dishwasher, or migrant farm worker — will probably go unfilled, unless employers offer significantly more money to induce people to do them. (In America, these jobs are filled largely by immigrant labor).
But hold on! Some of you are sputtering — is that really realistic? Will people still go to work when they get enough money free to live on from the state? If not, then the state’s tax revenues will decrease, and paying the minimum income will no longer be feasible. Even German supporters of the idea admit that it’s "risky and filled with uncertainties." Gary Burtless, an American economist who participated in studies of the basic minimum income in U.S. cities in the 1970s found that men actually did decrease the amount of work they did when they got a guaranteed minimum income, women decreased it even further, and students most of all. He concluded the idea wasn’t workable, even though he was supportive at first.
I’m not sure what I think of the idea, since I’m one of those lucky people who’s got a job I would happily do even if I didn’t need the money. However, I find it reassuring to live in a country in which the idea is at least taken seriously, and discussed openly.