I forget where it was that I first came across the Basic Income, but it seemed obscure at the time. There was almost no debate about it in mainstream media outlets. The idea has a rich history and it clearly had supporters, but the organisations campaigning for it had websites that looked niche and out of date. It has been intriguing to watch its rise since. Driven by the financial crisis, the ongoing frustrations of the welfare system, and the success of direct cash transfers in developing countries, the Basic Income is back.
“The legitimacy of basic income as an idea may thus be greater than at any time in the past” says Guy Standing in this timely book, Basic Income: And how we can make it happen.
What is a Basic Income? It’s “a modest amount of money paid unconditionally to individuals on a regular basis”. There are many ways to frame it, but we’re essentially talking about a national dividend, a rightful share in the nation’s wealth paid out to everybody, with no conditions on who gets it and what they do with it.
Why would you want such a thing? There are a variety of reasons, and Standing begins with social justice, freedom, and economic security. Social justice is the most important, because much of the wealth we enjoy today is wealth that we did not create ourselves. It may be the work of previous generations, or the use of things that nobody created, such as land or natural resources. It is right that this kind of wealth is shared more evenly, and some places do this already in various forms.
The basic income enhances freedom by allowing people to carry out unpaid work, such as care, or work shorter hours and enjoy more leisure. It also gives people the freedom to reject underpaid work, or to take time off work to retrain, or to start their own business. For those on lower incomes, it would also mean freedom from the intrusive bureaucracy of welfare.
Economic security is another key reason for the basic income. Standing is clear that it wouldn’t end poverty, and neither could it completely replace all forms of welfare, as more libertarian supporters argue. But it would provide basic security for everyone. It would also do away with the poverty trap. Current welfare systems, Britain’s included, often disincentivise work. The moment a claimant takes employment, benefits are cut off. Once they have paid for everything that was previously paid for by benefits, disposable income may not be any higher than it was without the job. So why bother? A basic income would remove that obstacle. Rather than encouraging laziness, as some opponents suggest, a basic income “would increase the incentive to take relatively low wage jobs, or undertake inherently risky own-account economic activity.”
Guy Standing explains all of this clearly, chapter by chapter. Once the main arguments for it are dealt with, he turns to the common objections – how to you pay for it? Why should the rich get it too? Would it depress wages? How would it work in developing countries? It is a policy idea that raises a lot of questions, and these deserve full consideration. Whether you are a supporter of the BI or still sceptical, it’s worth reading these counter-arguments and caveats. If you’re not on board, it will show that BI isn’t naive or utopian. And if you are, it will avoid over-promising on what the BI can achieve, and help navigate some of the framing issues that hold the issue back.
Towards the end, the book takes us on a tour of pilot programmes, past experiments, and places where a basic income is planned or promised. It’s a surprisingly long list, including places such as Namibia, Canada, Finland, Kashmir, and Mexico City. After centuries of debate, we are closer to implementation than ever before. It’s an idea to keep an eye on, and Guy Standing’s book is the best guide to it I’ve come across so far.