The Swiss Times - Swiss News in English

Experiment: millionaire heiress lets citizens’ council decide on assets

An unusual citizens' council has begun its work in Austria: 50 men and women met for the first time in Salzburg at the weekend to decide over the coming months how 25 million euros from the estate of 31-year-old heiress Marlene Engelhorn should be distributed to the general public. The German-Austrian social activist herself provided the impetus for this social experiment.

However, Engelhorn is not interfering in the deliberations. "I have no influence on the outcome," she told the German Press Agency shortly before the trial began. The millionaire heiress sees her action as a landmark act to strengthen democracy. "Nobody should imagine that their own comfort zone is more important than a good life for everyone," she said.

For the specially founded "Good Council for Redistribution", 10,000 people aged 16 and over in Austria were contacted as potential participants. Almost 1500 expressed an interest. In the end, 50 were selected to be representative, so that people from all age groups, income brackets, educational levels and regions are represented. The group was "very heterogeneous", but the members were immediately very positive towards each other, Alexandra Wang, the council's project manager, told dpa on Sunday. "This is a historic process," she said. "Everyone can feel this energy."

A plan for the allocation of the money is to be drawn up over six weekends between now and June. On this Saturday and Sunday, however, the focus was not yet on specific projects. With the help of moderators, fundamental questions of social and fiscal justice were first addressed: How does the distribution of wealth affect society, politics and the climate?

"It's not a wild charity campaign along the lines of, I'll pick any NGO, but it really is a big system illumination," says Engelhorn. She herself is campaigning for the reintroduction of wealth and inheritance taxes in Austria. According to the heiress, this would probably raise billions of euros, which could be used to finance basic child protection.

The "Good Council" is largely free to make decisions. However, there are restrictions: The millions may not be spent on "anti-constitutional, anti-life or inhumane" purposes, said Wang. Investments in profit-oriented companies and in the council members' own pockets are also taboo. However, members receive 1,200 euros per weekend. Engelhorn has provided them with a further three million euros for organization, travel, accommodation and childcare.

The money comes from a transfer from Engelhorn's grandmother. The heiress comes from a wealthy industrialist family who sold the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Mannheim to the Swiss group Roche in the 1990s. The heiress sees herself as a "highly privileged student of German studies" who won the "birth lottery".

Her campaign differs from donations by millionaires and billionaires because the allocation of money should be in the hands of society and not in the hands of individuals, says Engelhorn. She is keeping a certain amount for herself to make her transition into working life easier, says Engelhorn, who can imagine a job with a socio-political aspect. However, she is still embedded in a wealthy family and a very good network. "My privileges will keep me going even after the redistribution," said the 31-year-old.


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