The idea that everyone ought to be entitled to a minimum basic income as a fundamental right certainly sounds way left field, yet it has piqued the interests of everyone from politicians and CEOs to economists and anti-capitalists, and it’s appeared in all corners of the media, from the Financial Times to Jacobin. Ian Maleny gives us the lowdown.
We’re living in a world where damn near everything has a price. No such thing as a free lunch and all that. Perhaps it’s this widely-held belief, that one doesn’t get something for nothing, which makes the concept of an unconditional basic income such a breath of fresh air. The idea that every citizen ought to be entitled to a fixed salary simply for existing certainly scans as radical, but it’s piqued the interest of a diverse and growing pool of people, from economists and politicians to CEOs and anti-capitalist activists, and appeared in unexpected corners of the media, everywhere from the Financial Times to Jacobin. This broad appeal suggests a complicated, often contradictory, vision. Many proponents on the right see it as a means of individual empowerment which also happens to reduce bureaucracy and might even help relax employer obligations around the hiring and firing of staff.
Those on the left see it as a means of increasing social cohesion, modernising an outdated welfare system and providing a counter-weight to the inexorable rise of automation and precarity in the workplace. A basic income system can be all things to all people in theory, but in practice it cannot. Any attempt to implement such a system would require difficult decisions with regard to taxation, the level of payment, potential conditions and which elements of the existent welfare state ought to be replaced. Switzerland is the first European nation to truly consider a basic income scheme, thanks to a successful citizens’ initiative which proposed a referendum on instituting an unconditional basic income. With advocates collecting over 100,000 signatures in support of the initiative, the Swiss government must now let the country vote on its implementation. This has sparked a national discussion on the merits of the idea.
Gabriel Barta, vice-president of the Swiss branch of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says the primary opposition to the initiative comes from two main concerns: that it will cost too much, and that it will remove people’s motivation to work. While the cost remains something that has to be worked out through public and political debate, Barta is confident the latter complaint is not an issue at all. “If you ask people whether people would continue to work if a Basic Income existed, they say probably 75%-80% of people would no longer want to work,” he says. “You then ask another question; would you yourself continue to work if you had a Basic Income? 80% of them say yes.” This story, though less than scientific, is evidence of how deep the “strivers vs shirkers” narrative around work and welfare runs. For Barta, this is all the more reason to support an unconditional basic income, which would go some way towards removing the social stigma of unemployment and separating human dignity from paid work. “I think the main purpose of the basic income as far as unemployment is concerned isn’t so much to provide a financial guarantee where there wasn’t one before – that’s the immediate purpose – but the real purpose is to divorce the sense of being integrated in society from the necessity of having someone prepared to pay you for working.” Another interesting element of this debate lies in how traditional leftist institutions such as trade unions and the associated welfare state are largely predicated on the end goal of full employment. Basic Income seems to readily acknowledge the more difficult reality facing a growing number of the population in increasingly precarious working conditions. John Baker, a founding member of Basic Income Ireland, suggests that it’s in the space between employment and unemployment, a space that trade unions have been unable to fill, that the potential of basic income becomes obvious. “There’s a third space that is much more the space of where most people would be,” he says. “Basic income would give more people the freedom to withdraw from the market economy for particular periods of their lives, to work part time or take a year off or two years.” He continues, “It provides this greater flexibility in the positive sense rather than in the neoliberal capitalist sense of flexibility.” Basic Income Ireland have been at the fore in boosting awareness and support for basic income ideas in Ireland since the early 90s. However, one major stumbling block for the basic income movement, particularly as it attempts to convince politicians and mainstream economists of its feasibility, has been the lack of available empirical data on the potential impact any scheme would have. Questions about labour demotivation, inflation, wages and migration can currently only be answered with reasoned projections and models. Dr. Evelyn Forget, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada, conducted what is perhaps the only academic study of the only basic income trial in a first world country; MINCOME, a programme implemented in Dauphin, Manitoba from 1974-79. Forget’s paper, ‘The Town With No Poverty’, examines the health benefits of the programme on the population during that time. While it doesn’t provide all the answers, Forget believes it’s more than enough to be getting on with. “Some claim we need more pilot studies like the Dauphin experiment,” says Forget. “I think the claim is a bit suspect, an excuse. We know absolutely what the labour market effects are likely to be. We have, from my work, a pretty fair indication of health effects. We know the direction of other likely effects, even if we don’t have the data to show them. If they are worried about costs, we can extrapolate from existing experiments and simulate effects. Yes, they are models but we make other big economic changes on the basis of models. No one had any idea of the costs or consequences of national health programs when they were introduced.” Baker describes the Basic Income system as a module within a broader political perspective, with its outcomes shaped by what is happening around it. It’s easy to see how, without rent control, any increase in general income could largely disappear into the pockets of landlords. The same goes for any essential service currently provided by private bodies, from rubbish collection to childcare to health insurance. What happens to disability payments, rent supplements, child benefit, pensions? What about those with convictions? One big question surrounds entitlement: when would an immigrant begin to qualify for a basic income? Would they need a passport? Given our less-than-excellent history of “dealing with” immigrants and asylum seekers, you would be forgiven for being pessimistic. Basic income, for now, asks more questions than it answers, which is both its greatest strength and a major flaw. It can be seen as a way to radically reorganise a society, as a tool of mass liberation, or just as a way to grease the wheels of capitalism.
Questions about the nature and value of work, how we reward unprofitable but socially necessary labour, and how much trust we put in other people to contribute positively to society in their own way are important ones to be asking right now. Basic income allows us to burrow into all of them at once. For that reason alone, it’s an idea worth thinking about.
Ilustration by Mice Hell.