Imagine, for a moment, that you received enough money each month to cover all of your basic needs – no strings attached, regardless of whether or not you chose to work.
What would you do?
The ‘radical’ idea that none of us should have to work to survive is the basis of the Universal Basic Income (UBI), a monthly stipend payable to every person, regardless of how they choose to spend their time. Designed to replace existing, means-tested benefit and create a stable ‘economic floor’ under each individual, UBI offers a range of advantages over our current welfare system. For starters, the single, unconditional payment would do away with the expensive means-testing and sprawling bureaucracy that currently distributes benefit, actually saving money. Other benefits (among many) include increasing individual bargaining power in an increasingly exploitative and precarious labour market, rewarding women’s ‘invisible labour’ in the home, facilitating entrepreneurship and stimulating innovation, oh – and of course, eradicating poverty outright.
Basic Income is a resurgent economic idea with a surprisingly long history; advocated by Thomas Paine (who argued for payments to every person “rich or poor” financed by a “ground-rent” paid by property owners) and Friedrich Hayek, (who believed a basic level of economic security would greatly increase individual freedom) among other famous advocates from both the left and right of the political spectrum, it has been tried in various forms throughout history. Experiments in Canada and the U.S. in the 1970s and Uganda in 2008, for example, have explored the idea of a guaranteed income (or, a negative income tax in the U.S. example). While the methods have varied, the results have generally been similar: increased school attendance among children, improved overall health, increased entrepreneurship and a slight reduction in hours worked.
And these experiments aren’t confined to the past – with renewed public and political interest in Basic Income come new studies, with governments in Finland and the Netherlands committed to pilot programmes over the next few years and this month’s historic referendum in Switzerland. In Scotland, on the 13th of May, Professor Guy Standing, author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and international advocate for Basic Income, gave a speech to the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in Scotland where he argued that:
“It’s the year of the pilots, and that is why I would appeal to all of us in this room and many others in Scotland, to take the lead… I don’t mind the motive, but we need pilots and Scotland with the SNP’s new commitment to move in this direction has a fantastic opportunity to do something like this. It’s desperately needed and Scotland could set an example and if it does, I think you’ll see a fire of copycats. It’s something we all must encourage.”
Professor Standing is right; with pilot programmes launching across the world, the time is ripe for a Scottish experiment – and with a Scottish parliamentary majority comprised of Greens, actively advocating for a basic income and a Scottish National Party amenable to the idea, there has never been a better time to push for a Scottish study. Scotland’s unique characteristics, population density, GDP and economic diversity make it an ideal candidate for a national pilot.
The idea has been criticised as ‘utopian’, ‘unrealisable’ and fundamentally unaffordable – but with around sixteen percent of the Scottish population estimated to be living in poverty, a continued rise in reliance on food banks across the country and with ‘jobs growth’ under the current government confined to precarious, zero-hours positions in jobs soon to be lost to automated labour, it’s fast becoming a question of whether we can afford not to implement a basic income.
Recent scandals, such as the Panama Papers leaks (which I wrote about for my last Darrow piece) have demonstrated that the world’s financial and political elite, who preach austerity at every opportunity, are the very reason basic income seems so unaffordable. There are a great many ‘routes’ to financing a universal basic income, from a land or financial transaction tax to simply forcing businesses and individuals, hiding an estimated $32tn offshore, to pay their fair share in tax. And therein lies the greatest challenge on the road to basic income: not affordability, but attitudes towards poverty and social responsibility. The same individuals who hide their assets from the taxman, denying us hospitals, roads, and education, feed us a narrative which vilifies the benefits claimants as scroungers, even though poverty has proven systemic, structural and often, inescapable.
The money to pay for basic income exists, in one form or another, just out of reach.
The Panama Papers were a symbol of ever-increasing global inequality, a world in which the richest 1% of society now has as much wealth as the other 99% combined. Universal Basic Income has the potential to redress the balance and to resolve some of the most pressing issues of our time; to eradicate poverty, to more equitably reward women for their work, achieve the mythical fusion of Capitalism and Socialism and to future-proof our economy, just in time for ‘the rise of the machines’, providing each of us with the basic necessities of life and affording us the luxury of aspiration.
Basic Income is an idea whose time has come – and Scotland, were it to implement a pilot programme of its own, has the potential to kick-start a global movement.
So I’ll ask again: What would you do if your income was guaranteed?
Kallum Corke is a filmmaker, writer and visual artist whose varied creative output is chiefly concerned with issues of social justice, politics, arts and culture. (Bio credit: Darrow) Follow the author at @kallumcorke
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