Basic income is not left-wing or right-wing, it’s forward
The time has come for us to at last establish an inclusive society
Politics in Western democracies is now at its most bitter and partisan in decades. Middle ground parties are almost entirely squeezed out as extreme populist leaders of left and right act as magnets for disgruntled voters.
We may fear this reflects some deep decline in the morality of politicians, manipulation by the rich and powerful, or possibly even the dark arts of foreign nations. However, the real underlying cause has been forty years of rising inequality.
Politics is now as confrontational as it was in the pre-war years of the twentieth century, precisely because this was the last time inequality reached such extremes. As the owners of capital fight to protect their monopoly profits, workers dig in to demand better pay and benefits, and the stage is set for a bitter stand-off.
Into this highly charged political atmosphere, the radical idea of basic income has suddenly exploded into popular discussion. In the midst of our partisan battles those sceptical about UBI have immediately attacked the motives of its supporters, rather than engage in a serious debate.
Advocates on the right are accused of wanting to use basic income as a Trojan horse to dismantle existing welfare and benefits. Left wing enthusiasts are attacked for wanting a “communist” society, where all are promised a guaranteed income, but in return for compulsory work.
Surrounded by such partisan noise, how can we know what the real basic income is all about?
To properly understand the revolutionary nature of a universal basic income, we must first recognise the age old connection between power and money. The true value of money within a market economy lies in the power it gives the owner to control the allocation of resources, and most importantly to purchase the labour of others.
On the political right, capitalists want this power to reside exclusively with large companies and banks. These are the corporations who shape big private investments, deciding which jobs will be created or destroyed, and in which towns, cities, or countries they should be located for maximum profit.
Capitalists want the unemployed to remain in poverty, so that they are obliged to take whatever jobs are made available in their local communities, and agree to whatever terms and conditions their employers see fit to offer. This in turn makes businesses more competitive in the Global market and maximises return to capital, which remains their main driver when making investment decisions.
On the political left, socialists also have their own control agenda. They believe the power to create and shape jobs should lie with the government. Nationalisation of key industries turns workers into public sector employees, who get guaranteed incomes and benefits in return for meeting mandatory work requirements.
This is the socialist principle advanced by Karl Marx, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. But it also creates barriers to innovation, and leads inevitably to the need for “means tested” benefits. Indeed the system of means testing, which devalues low paid work and creates poverty traps, is as much the creation of the left (based on the principle of reciprocity) as it is to persecution of the poor by the right.
Universal basic income cuts right across both of these political power agendas. It proposes that instead of all resources being allocated either by government (typically around 35–45% of GDP in G7 countries) or by private finance (typically around 55–65% of GDP), we should hand some of this power (potentially 10–20% of GDP) directly to citizens in the form of a basic income, paid unconditionally to every individual.
This idea is naturally a red rag to politicians on both sides of the divide, because it effectively delegates real power and freedom of choice to individual citizens, and on an unprecedented scale.
Most politicians have spent their whole careers fighting to grab a greater share of power from the other side ( in the form of either increased or decreased taxes and public spending ). The very last thing they want to do is give this hard won power away to ordinary people. Indeed, the idea has them so scared, that they will immediately seek to undermine any trial of basic income to ensure it doesn’t get off the ground.
Take Finland for example, where politicians quickly decided that their “basic income” trial should only give money to the unemployed. This turned it into little more than a test of enhanced unemployment benefits, adding only that they are not tapered out if the recipient starts working. It completely dodges the central question of what happens when you give money to people who are already in paid work.
So what does happen? If we just give money unconditionally to citizens, will they really use it responsibly? And will they still want to work and contribute to society instead of just becoming layabouts paid by the state? The central question here is about trust.
Ask most people if they would give up their jobs once they were in receipt of a modest basic income, and almost everyone says they would continue working. The only exceptions are people who want to start a business, spend more time caring for family members, or going back into education. But ask them what they think other people will do and you suddenly get a very different answer. This reflects how far the neo-liberal narrative has penetrated our society, insinuating that most people (but of course not me or my children) are fundamentally lazy unless motivated by poverty.
Modern attacks on proposals for UBI frequently concentrate in this area, by suggesting that hard working higher rate tax payers will end up subsidising poor kids to sit in their parents basements, smoking dope and playing computer games. Strangely, the same rich people who make this argument sill give huge sums of unconditional money to their own children, or leave them vast sums of wealth to inherit, apparently free from any fear that it will ruin their lives. But then of course rich kids are different aren’t they!
A philosophical viewpoint on this question was neatly framed by the American, John Rawls as the “Malibu Surfer” problem back in 1987. He asked whether young people, once given a basic income would simply live a life of leisure surfing on Malibu beach instead of working.
But while the “surfer problem” cannot simply be ignored, we already know that the way people will behave on a universal basic income, will not be universal. Like all human behaviours it will exhibit a bell curve. While a small number of people may choose to live a life of leisure for a few years, the vast majority will want to keep working to build a better life for themselves and their families, while a small proportion at the very top of the curve will become hugely empowered in making changes to their own towns and communities.
We therefore need to take a much more holistic approach to assessing the potential impact of a basic income. This should not focus on the highly emotive issues of rich vs poor, and hard working vs lazy, but recognise that :
- True freedom includes the freedom to make mistakes, as well as opening up the opportunity to succeed. You cannot have one without the other, so don’t throw out the idea based on individual cases where it doesn’t result in the best outcomes.
- Only an individual can decide what gives their life purpose and meaning, and this should not be dictated by the state or wider society. If someone chooses to dedicate their life to finding the perfect wave, who are we to say this is a waste of their lives? Do we really have the right to judge this, any more than we can attach a societal value to Sir Edmund Hilary reaching the summit of Everest, or Neil Armstrong standing on the moon?
- In the end, what matters to society is not what individuals choose to do with their lives, but what the aggregate effect of UBI on human progress becomes. Here, all the evidence says that the vast majority of people want to work with others to create value and meaning for themselves and their communities. Indeed many people already do vast amounts of unpaid work today, even though they may already have considerable personal wealth. The real question is how much faster our collective progress could be, if every individual was empowered with the financial freedom to innovate and choose work which gave them real purpose?
Western countries have long prized our cherished principles of individual freedom, but so far this has only really extended to freedom of speech, and freedom from injustice.
True freedom is economic. It means giving every citizen the kind of “freedom of purpose” that only the rich and well educated enjoy today. It is the ability to make personal choices about how we spend our lives including how we work in cooperation or partnership with others to achieve our goals. In such a society “work” is no longer a place where we go each day, but becomes an enterprise to which we are personally committed. We no longer work for the profit of others, but to build a better life for ourselves, our families and our local communities.
Those with social and economic advantages today already know what this freedom feels like. The financial security to make our own choices, and to pursue our own ambitions is personally empowering. But for the vast majority of The Global Race, such economic freedom is still a distant dream. Every day they must earn wages just to survive, and can therefore only pick from whatever low paid, and increasingly insecure jobs, are immediately available where they live.
It makes little difference whether these jobs are created by capitalist corporations on the right, or socialist governments on the left, because they are still not active choices made by citizens of their own free will. What’s more they will not reflect the ideas and priorities of local communities. The key investments that create these jobs today are increasingly decided nationally, or even globally, by people who have no concern about what happens to our communities beyond their own personal gain.
If we seriously want to deliver true power of choice for every citizen, and every local community, then we must put in place the three universal pillars, without which “freedom of purpose” cannot be achieved:
- Universal quality education
- Social inclusion (equality of opportunity)
- Unconditional basic income
The countries that succeed in The Global Race of the 21st century will be those that can put these three essential pillars in place, not just for the fortunate few, but for every citizen. However, achieving this goal will mean crossing political boundaries that are now deeper than at any point in our lifetimes. We will have to learn to cross the political divide, to understand and value opinions of those on both sides of the fence.
We must express the ways in which a universal basic income can solve problems that are central to both capitalist and socialist viewpoints. But more importantly, we must be willing for the first time to put real trust in our own citizens. We do this knowing that a few will inevitably abuse these new rights. But the prize of empowering and releasing the creative energies of entire communities far outweighs the risks of spoiling a few. Much like raising children, we will never be able to help people and communities thrive and prosper if we hold them back from making their own choices.
The time has come for us to at last establish a truly inclusive society. One in which every individual enjoys the freedom to choose their own life. If we succeed, we may yet be surprised to find that we will come to no longer resent the very rich, in a society where no-one is really poor. And if we do, then the partisan gulf, which so divides and poisons our politics today, may even be healed at last.
In the end, it will become clear that basic income is neither left nor right, but the way forward.
Rob Bruce, author of ‘The Global Race’.