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  • David R Thompson

Universal Basic Income as a concept has been around for a while – so why hasn’t it happened yet?

Founding Father of the United States of America, Thomas Paine, wrote about Universal Basic Income in his Pamphlet on Agrarian Justice in 1797. As we have seen, a basic income has been awarded to residents of the state of Alaska since 1982. Today, UBI is said to have a role to play in providing an income for the citizens of the world in future by leading thinkers such as Mark Zuckerberg and Barrack Obama. But there has been minimal movement during this 200-year history towards any widespread adoption of the policy, except for a few limited pilot studies, even as a plank in a platform for Office, let alone a proposal for implementation. So why is this?

Universal Basic Income is essentially a victim of its status of being, at best, too hard to think about, and at worst, an affront to decent democratic societies everywhere. The reasons for this are, at first sight, desperately simple.

1) Why the hell should people receive free money from the government for doing nothing?

2) Who the hell is going to pay for all this free money anyway, and what are they going to get out of it?

3) Why the hell should people pay taxes from what they earn from work to pay people who don’t?

Inclusion of the phrase ‘the hell’ in each of these questions is deliberate – it is an indication of the anger with which many people will raise them. Let’s try and answer them. Calmly.

1) People already receive money from the government for doing nothing. It’s called ‘welfare’ or ‘social security’. Most modern sophisticated societies provide a safety net for people against illness, poverty or hardship, and most societies feel that this is a necessary activity of government to stop its citizens dying of disease or malnutrition. In comparison with the societies and communities of a century ago, there is much less mortality and hardship, and we can call this ‘progress’. However, not only have mortality and poverty in the developed world been rising over the last forty years, and accelerating, but the entire world of work and reward is changing so that many people can no longer rely on a regular income, leading to more precariousness of sustenance. If the government provided one, this would help to reverse the trend of worsening statistics and declining productivity and inequality. We can look at the history of the improvement of societies and their metrics to show that, objectively, this would be a good thing.

2) Universal Basic Income would be expensive. Of that, there is no doubt. You can play with the figures a little by changing the amount that people actually receive, but in order for the effects to be appreciable, the amount will have to cover the basic needs of every citizen. But maybe you can look at the benefits before the costs and look at the general improvement of society referred to above. Maybe then you can decide that this is worth doing despite the high financial outlay required. Maybe there are ways to justify this economically. And this is where it gets difficult. Imagine that this is not just ‘free money’ but a form of dividend, just like the system in Alaska. Imagine that people are receiving a monetised product of their citizenship of a country that they would be already receiving, if only they had the financial clout to realise it. Land appreciates, if you are lucky enough to raise the funds to buy some. And it appreciates because of the success and desirability of the surrounding community. If you had a land appreciation tax, you could pay the people of the surrounding community for their help in raising the value of the land. And that’s just the start. Not only are there other ways of raising money for society that we can think about, but there are other ways that the people who pay for it will benefit. You may find that you will be able to reduce taxes. If people had a basic income, they would likely be less stressed by the process of being alive. Mental health would improve. There would be less sickness and people would be more productive. People could afford to remain in education and have more skills to improve their place of work. There would be less need for childcare because parents could do it themselves. People could set up their own businesses. The welfare bill could go down because people will be released to improve themselves instead of being forced into a hand-to-mouth existence by the system that is supposed to be helping them. Maybe that’s what the people who pay for this will get out of it – a reduction in their required financial participation in an improved society.

3) People don’t work? Who are these people? Parents who don’t look after children? Carers who don’t look after relatives? Home-makers who don’t maintain a household? People who have no dreams? Citizens who have no ambition? Everyone works. It just may be that the current economy doesn’t pay a person to do that work. It may be because of the lack of financial benefit from doing this work that it gets neglected, or left to the State, or is done by people who feel exploited and down-trodden because they are the only ones left who do it. So maybe the government should pay something for this work and call it Universal Basic Income.

Okay, so in order to support these arguments and believe these answers, you have to have a certain political leaning. You have to believe that all individuals benefit when society as a whole benefits. But that isn’t so far from the forces that have shaped the improvements seen by the human race throughout its history. It isn’t so radical as it might seem when we still provide schools, and sewerage, and charity for the disadvantaged. They can do it in Alaska – you just accept that the people should share in the benefits of a common resource, which is the oil under the ground. Once you look a little more into what those resources actually are, and agree how everyone can share them, then you can answer the questions about Universal Basic Income and make it happen.

Maybe there are other answers out there – or maybe you can tell me why I’m just wrong?

David R Thompson