What’s all the fuss with a Universal Basic Income?

There’s something seductive about a Universal Basic Income. A regular, fixed, unconditional sum of money paid to everyone ‘just for being alive’. Trials are taking place around the world – with Ontario, Canada, announcing one earlier this year and Finland having started their pilot in January.

From left-wing radicals to right-wing libertarians, from so-called socialists to the high-tech billionaires of Silicon Valley – it is an idea with a wide and growing appeal. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have both said positive things about UBI, the latter setting up a working group to consider it. Mark Zuckerberg (worth $70 billion) and Richard Branson have also given their support to the idea.

Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley tech incubator with Airbnb and Dropbox in its portfolio, is to run a trial in two US States; following an earlier trial in Oakland, California. Company President Sam Altman, boasting a total valuation of start-ups at around $80 billion, has wider ambitions: ‘Eliminating poverty is such a moral imperative’ he has said of the initiative.

There is long-standing support for UBI. Sir Thomas More in his Utopia (written in 1516) has his narrator say: ‘it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse’. In The German Ideology, written by Karl Marx in 1845, he looks forward to a new society much like the advocates of UBI do:

… where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic …

There are two important points of difference though between historical advocates of a new society; and today’s champions of a UBI. First, the old idealists had a broad vision of creating a better society than the one they lived in. Those who argue for UBI tend to be driven by fears and anxieties about the world of work, and constrained by a culture of limits that inhibits discussion about how society and the economy might be organised differently. Second, historical materialists like Marx, went beyond More’s utopianism – literally nowhere – to situate their ideals in the real world. It is only because a future society would take care of ‘the general production’ that the individual could be liberated from the daily toil. Today’s advocates of UBI have no plans to expand ‘the general production’ on which such a handout must surely depend. Indeed, many of those arguing the case for UBI are anti-consumption and would rather rein in the general production in the name of a future more ‘sustainable’ than the present.

Advocates though, as I say, are various and have put forward various arguments for the introduction of a UBI. Some are practical – it would be cheaper to administer than the welfare state it is claimed, though it would be impossible to incorporate housing or childcare costs argue others, and depending on its generosity would have implications for immigration policy too. Guy Standing founder of Basic Income Earth Network, wants to reduce inequality and tackle job insecurity and arrest what he describes as the ‘drift to fascist populism’. The Finnish trial is meant to tackle unemployment and avoid the disincentives associated with the welfare trap; though there is trade union opposition, interestingly enough, on the grounds that the introduction of UBI will itself be a disincentive to work. In the context of the UK, changes in the economy, particularly the shift to self-employment and the emergence of a gig economy peopled by a so-called ‘precariat’, make the current welfare arrangements obsolete, it is argued. People tend to drift in and out of low paid work too quickly for it to accommodate to their constantly changing circumstances. In the US, the debate is slightly different but again driven by anxieties about the economy, in particular fears that automation will destroy jobs (keying into wider concerns about national decline).

I wouldn’t ordinarily put Joe Biden, former Vice President, in the company of More and Marx. But as an opponent of Universal Basic Income, next to those who advocate a handout for all, he is the more visionary sounding. ‘Silicon Valley Executives’ he says, are ‘selling American workers short’. Having a job is ‘about your dignity. It’s about your self-respect. It’s about your place in the community’. In this way, ‘[a]ll of us together can make choices to shape a better future’ he says, putting forward at least the idea that people can play an active role in creating a new society. Whatever the practicalities of introducing a UBI – and even the most sympathetic struggle to convince that it can be fully implemented or afforded – its desirability is surely in doubt.

There is, or at least there should be, a formidable moral case against UBI – as a disempowering and ultimately self-defeating policy idea that treats people as passive participants in an elite experiment – one that can only undermine people’s sense of themselves as self-reliant and responsible members of the community. That self-respect that Joe Biden talks about is the foundation of the very idea of being a citizen and a productive member of society. But there are also political arguments that are not being had, about the state of the economy, about challenging low horizons and demanding more of our political class and of employers. UBI has become, in this way, a substitute for coming up with a coherent set of ideas to address today’s social and economic problems. What could in different times be a perfectly good idea has instead become a distraction from more pressing matters.

Based on a speech at Battle of Ideas 2017

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