I’ve long been an advocate of the idea of basic income (or universal income, negative income tax, citizen’s income, “great British cashback” or half a dozen other names for the same principle), but I’ve just realised I’ve never explained on here exactly why I support the idea, and even what it means.
For those who don’t know, the principle behind a basic income is a simple one — the government pays everyone, no matter what their circumstances, a fixed amount of money, enough to live on. This would, depending on the level, either replace or supplement many existing benefits (my own preference would be to set it at a level much higher than most advocates wish, but I think the principle possibly more important than the precise level).
It sounds ridiculous and unaffordable at first, but if that money is counted as taxable income, what you actually end up with is a system like the dole was thirty or forty years ago, with people in work subsidising those who aren’t, progressively, through their taxes, but without any conditionality, sanctioning, or the other brutalities of our current system.
The idea used to be Liberal and Liberal Democrat policy, but it was abandoned in the mid 1990s as being unachievable in the current electoral climate — but that electoral climate has changed dramatically, and people in many parties are now discussing it as a workable idea.
My own reason for supporting the idea is very simple. We currently have thirteen million adults in the UK, give or take, who are not in full-time waged work.
This is because, fundamentally, we don’t *need* those people to be in work to produce the things we need as a society. In fact, given the number of “bullshit jobs” in existence, we could probably get by with far fewer people in employment than we have now.
And that’s only going to increase as time goes on. My dad’s a taxi driver — how many taxi drivers will we need once self-driving cars are the norm? Many other occupations are being automated away — just look how few checkout operators your local supermarket has now.
And this is a GOOD THING — or it would be if we didn’t have a system that fetishised work-for-wages over everything else. We *should* be moving to a system where no-one is forced to work in a job that’s pure drudgery, and where people’s time is spent either on leisure or on work that genuinely benefits themselves or society in some way.
But the problem is that we *do* fetishise work-for-wages. And so we have those thirteen million unemployed or underemployed adults. All of them have to be supported by the state *anyway*, but with the exception of pensioners (who are something of a special case currently, as they have outsized voting power because of the demographic bubble we’re working through, but the government is only preserving their status by ensuring that no-one my age or younger will ever actually get to claim a state pension) it’s conditional. They will either have to pay that money back (if they’re students), or have to jump through increasingly degrading and humiliating hoops to prove that they’re applying for jobs, even when those jobs simply don’t exist in the numbers they would need to to employ all those people.
And at the same time, this system makes it essentially impossible for anyone to deliberately leave employment once they’re in it. If you quit your job, no matter how abusive or soul-destroying, you can’t claim those benefits.
And what this means is that there are people — possibly millions of them — working who don’t want to be working, while there are also people — possibly millions of them — not working who want to be working. But the current conditional welfare system means we’re pushing people who don’t want to work into work — taking scarce jobs away from those who *do* want to work. It’s a system that simply makes no sense.
Whereas with a basic income, the thirteen million unwaged or underwaged people would simply be those thirteen million people who least want or need to work for wages. If you could be sure of having enough to live on if you weren’t in a job, but you could *also* be sure that you would always get more by working — because you’d receive the basic income *plus* your wage — there’d still be an incentive to get a job, but no *coercion*.
And those people who weren’t in full-time waged work would not necessarily be people who weren’t working at all. Oh, some would, undoubtedly — there’d be people who spent their days just watching TV or drinking, and if that’s what they want to do with their lives, who’s to stop them?
But right now, if you want to quit your job and go to university and spend a few years studying molecular biology, say, you can’t do it easily, and most can’t do it at all. If you have a great idea for a small business you want to set up, but it’d take six months to bring in any income, you’re trapped. If you’re Van Gogh, and creating art that will enrich the lives of millions, but which won’t actually sell while you’re alive, you’re trapped.
We currently have a system where many of the thirteen million unwaged or underemployed people are unable to get jobs they want, while many of the twenty-nine million people in full-time employment are only in their jobs because we have a welfare system that pushed them into work or which won’t let them out of it.
A basic income would free people to do what is best for them, rather than what is best for their bosses. It would be a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between the individual and society — it would be society saying “we value you for your existence, and you have a right to exist” rather than “we value you for what service you can provide to the rich”. It would be a small change, but it would make a huge difference.
(Note that here I’m only talking about the principle. I’ve seen many arguments from people who know more about economics than I do, saying that basic incomes of different levels would be affordable with various different assumptions about taxation. I don’t know enough to know how well those arguments stand up, but I *do* know that we’re supporting those thirteen million people *anyway*, that it’s unlikely that the need to support at least that many people will change any time soon, and that we should therefore admit that that’s what we’re doing and put them on a more secure basis.)
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