Free money

Does everyone deserve a universal basic income?

5th May 2018

A concept sure to set the average baby boomer’s brain alight with indignation, universal basic income is the idea that everyone in society should be given enough money to live on, unconditionally.

Got a bad job, with few guaranteed hours and low pay? Not a problem pal, your UBI means you’ll definitely have at least enough money to both eat AND pay the electricity bill – huzzah! What’s that you say? Your job pays pretty well, actually, not millions but a tidy few quid, and you’re alright for money? Have some anyway mate, knock yourself out. You never know when you might lose that job, or get ill, and you shouldn’t have to worry about your life instantly falling apart were that to happen.

It sounds far too good to be true, doesn’t it? Like some fantastical wonderland that would only ever be possible in a particularly high-spirited Pixar flic? A criticism often levelled at UBI and other progressive policies, is that they sound nice, but could never work in reality.

But is that fair? Yes, we’re talking about a payment made to basically every adult citizen individually, working or not, willing to work or not, on a weekly or monthly basis. UBI would be a big step up from our existing system, in which anyone not working who wants support must do an awful lot to receive it, and even then, would likely be left wanting.

But in terms of the money on offer, figures have been bandied around between £70 and £100 per week for every adult, so not a whole lot more than Jobseekers Allowance currently offers. The big difference with UBI is that it isn’t just for unemployed people, and there are no other conditions to receiving it.

This aim of helping out those at the lower end of the social scale makes UBI seem like a policy borne only out of compassion and kindness, which makes it easy for opponents to misrepresent it as overly idealistic

For those who are unemployed, this means no arduous hoops to be jumped through, no sanctions enforced for minor infractions, and more of a solid base from which to build up from, into employment.

This is the more focused-on aspect of UBI, which is understandable, given it’s the area that we are most able to predict the likely effects of such a policy on. This aim of helping out those at the lower end of the social scale makes UBI seem like a policy borne only out of compassion and kindness, which in turn makes it easy for opponents to misrepresent it as overly idealistic.

Perhaps the most interesting potential effect of UBI though would be the freeing up of individuals to pursue passions, re-train and re-educate or to launch new and exciting entrepreneurial ventures. Safe in the knowledge of a functioning safety net below them, how many more would be willing to take a leap which could yield success? It’s no secret that for many in the middle classes career success can sometimes be easier achieved, simply because there’s always that safety net; the bank of Mum and Dad. What if that existed, and worked, for everyone?

Too good to be true?

So far, so good, right? Well, according to critics it would likely bring about an erosion of work ethic by reducing the incentive to work, and possibly bring about a period social and economic stagnation. These criticisms are often, but not exclusively, levelled from the right of politics and rest on ideas about personal responsibility and, seemingly, the idea that we’re all just idle twits, awaiting the day we can just melt into the sofa and watch Netflix for the rest of our meagre existences. Or at least, enough of us to fuck things up for those few squares who’d keep going to work, even if they technically didn’t have to.

When I put this last idea to Will Stronge of The Autonomy Institute, a progressive thinktank and proponent of UBI, he laughs.

If you had a lot more free time, you’ll say you’d learn another language but if you ask someone what everyone else would do, people say ‘they’re lazy, they’d just sit around’

“There’s a famous quote from Rutger Bregman that goes something like, ‘If you were asked what would you do if you had more free time, you would probably say something like “I’d learn another language” or some other, worthwhile activity. But if you were asked what other people would do, you would probably say “ah other people are lazy and would just sit around'”

Though it appeals to that little bit inside most of us that secretly believes we’re better than everyone else, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to focus on the few people who might not try to contribute to society if they received an unconditional basic income, for a few reasons.

There’s an interesting arrogance to these arguments too, often laced with classism, with opponents of UBI essentially saying, “Look, I’d keep going to work, us civilised people obviously would, but those bloody proles would never do another day’s work in their lives”.

For a start, UBI would only move up the already-existing baseline for society, which existing institutions like welfare are there to support. By moving up the minimum level at which we think it’s acceptable for human beings to live, and doing a better job at maintaining it, would we really stifle any ambition to exist beyond it? Is that what happened when the welfare state was introduced? The near-century of unparalleled economic and technological expansion that proceeded it seems to suggest otherwise.

It also seems to suggest that the current system provides an effective incentive to work, which, as explained by Stronge, is not necessarily the case.

“If you have money coming in on the condition you’re looking for a job, once you get a job, you don’t get that money anymore and you probably don’t get paid for a month. So then you’re left without any money and it’s a very difficult thing to go through. Sometimes the work pays less than benefits, so that can be a strong disincentive too”

The largest UBI experiments have consistently shown that the incentive to work has multiplied under UBI

Fundamentally though, most criticisms of UBI ignore the real-world trials that have been carried out.

“The actual experiments that have gone on in the world, in Kenya, Namibia and India, the largest UBI experiments, have consistently shown that the incentive to work has multiplied under UBI. People’s income has multiplied too, meaning they’ve found new ways of making money thanks to UBI. Alcohol and drug consumption has always dropped. This idea that if you give people money, they’ll just sit on their arse, just doesn’t bear up in any of the experiments”.

It seems that, basically, whether or not you support UBI is dependent on whether you think that people are, on the whole, alright really. If you think that given the opportunity and the right conditions we’d all more-or-less give it a good go, we’d all contribute to society — whatever that means — then it makes sense. If you don’t — hey, nobody is judging (except you) – then I can see why you’d think universal basic income is a bad idea.

Money money money

Sounds like a great idea but where’s the money going to come from? Well, how about the multinational mega-corporations that operate in the UK yet pay fuck all corporation tax because they just pure don’t fancy it. It might help too if we increased the taxes that rich people pay on unearned incomes — money accumulated through assets, like inheritance, property or shares — which has fallen significantly anyway over the last few decades.

The benefits, both in economic and less tangible terms, could far outweigh the costs

What’s particularly exciting about this model is that UBI would actually cost very little extra to implement because it would see large reductions to other state benefits, at least at the basic level. Other more far-reaching models would come at a significant — multi-billion pound — additional cost to the taxpayer. We’re talking about giving away lots of money here, so it’s inevitably not going to be the cheapest policy. But we’re also talking about potentially changing the way society functions fundamentally, to be fairer and kinder, yes, but quite feasibly more productive too; and the benefits of those things, both in economic and less tangible terms, could far outweigh the costs.

There are more nuanced arguments to be had around UBI, and it should be clear that this policy alone is not the answer to all our problems, as some might like to think. The idea initially sounds radical but when all we’re actually suggesting is that every person has a birthright to live in decent conditions, maybe it’s a damning indictment of where we are that we consider it to be so radical.

5th May 2018