Basic Income - a good work intervention - RSA

Basic Income - a good work intervention

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  • Economics and Finance

Recently, we’ve begun to hear MPs and others say things like 'I'm against Basic Income because I'm pro-work'. I think this is a false opposition. One of the fundamental reasons I support Basic Income is because I believe it's vital to improve work – not least by giving workers some power to reject that which is demeaning, underpaid or demoralising.

And yet, there has to be some reflection in the pro-Basic Income community that a hazy post-work narrative floats around, blurring the view. There are many appealing arguments for Basic Income, but the idea that the struggle to improve work is lost so we should just throw in the towel is one of the least persuasive. Silicon Valley futurism has hardly been a help in this regard.

A rather richer conversation took place when Jon Cruddas MP, a thoughtful critic of Basic Income, Dr Louise Haagh, a cautious advocate, and John Thornhill of the FT joined me to discuss whether basic income was the right response to the new world of work for RSA Radio.

Despite different viewpoints towards UBI in the conversation, in favour, against and agnostic, there was rather a lot of common ground. There was a degree of consensus that work was vital for a sense of identity, 'work' and contribution were far wider concepts than simply a narrow economic perspective, and that for a UBI to be effective it would need to be carefully and constructively framed, linked to a raft of other interventions, to improve the quality of work amongst other aims. In Jon Cruddas’s words “we are not seeing the end of work but it’s degradation”.

So there is debate within the Basic Income conversation as well as between advocates and opponents of the concept. Some of this is manifested as a natural tension between idealism and pragmatism. There's something more fundamental though. There is one perspective that sees Basic Income as a route to a post-work future. There is another, one that I happen to share, that sees it as an institution designed to support good and better work.

But even if I didn't happen to believe, ethically, that the contribution we make to others, to our community, to society through work - paid, caring, and voluntary - is fundamental to human dignity, I would steer clear of the post-work narrative around Basic Income for very pragmatic reasons. 

The most fundamental of these reasons is that it kills the conversation. Those who are anxious about purely individualistic and consumerist versions of Basic Income are coming from the right place and advocates should be able to engage proactively with them. There could be a shared agenda. If we are to move towards a Basic Income then it must be one that supports good work and the dignity of workers. There has to be a realisation that Basic Income is just one component of a much wider, more fundamental conversation.

In the context of rising insecurity, spread of new machine-learning technologies (explored by an excellent Royal Society report), the concentration of capital in uber-corporates, 'digital Taylorism', an ageing society that will need to rediscover an ethic of care, a split in destiny between those whose skills are scarce and those whose skills are abundant, and the gnawing realisation that the consumerist aspects of ourselves have to be balanced against our civic, creative and productive aspects, what are the institutions that we need to support better lives? If we frame the challenge in this way, keep Basic Income very much on the table, then an imaginative political discourse may open out. 

It would be a tragedy if this opportunity for a rich and textured conversation about Basic Income as one key intervention were not to open out. The space is one in which there is space for a wide spectrum of politics and philosophies. 

There is a bigger tragedy also. And that is the way that the English debate about Basic Income has progressed. England’s discourse, such as it is, stands in stark contrast to engaged and imaginative discussions that have taken place in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Finland and elsewhere. Just this week, a Scottish Government spokesperson expressed support for Basic Income experiments in Scotland such as those being explored in Glasgow, Fife and Ayrshire. The tragedy of the English discussion is partly a consequence of the post-work framing of some advocates but something deeper is at play also: a reluctance to face the scale of change to British society and economy that has been taking place and could well accelerate.

Never has this been more evident than in Work and Pensions select committee report into Basic Income published today. Let me put this in fairly blunt terms. Seldom has a parliamentary inquiry been more pre-ordained in terms of its conclusions, superficial in terms of its process, and glib in terms of its recommendations. To conclude after a single day’s evidence looking at Basic Income that the incoming Government should not ‘expend any energy on [Citizen’s Income]’ – especially given the insecurity and change mapped out above and a welfare system that is clearly causing relentless harm - does not match the scale of the collective challenge that we face.

A constructive but sensible committee report might have instead said: “given the scale of the challenges we face to ensure all have the security to make the best life choices, though we have very significant doubts about Basic Income, no option should be taken off the table. We encourage the new Government to think in ambitious ways about what we need from our social security systems over the next decades. Whilst we have identified barriers, more understanding is needed. We cannot afford to simply continue on the current path without considering genuine alternatives of which Basic Income would be just one.” The purpose of select committees is to explore in depth and this one fell way short.

So both advocates and opponents of Basic Income have to raise their game. There is a much more constructive dialogue to be had. An understanding that Basic Income is better understood as a support for good work rather than giving up on work has to be the starting point for any realistic discussion.  

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  • It's very unfortunate how limited the debate on UBI seems to be.

    Proponents seem to be fixated on the fundamentals rather than being pragmatic and open to variation. It seems the fear of adjusting any of the fundamentals might introduce a competing or less ideal version of the concept. If the discussion moves to the problem they UBI is trying to solve, the whole debate seems to fragment, since everyone at the table seems to have a different idea of what is wrong and a different understanding of why UBI would solve the problems that they see. Added to this are those addressing actual politicians, doing logical hoop-da-loops to convince them with arguments they they believe are most politically palatable, rather than the ones the proponent actually believes.

    Thus, UBI proponents are all accidental bed-fellows, stuck to fundamentals because to break down the arguments might weaken the resolve of the most ardent supporters.

    So what are the problems UBI is trying to solve? As a big UBI proponent I have strong views, but these differ markedly from those of others. Many people's views on UBI disintegrate on a cursory inspection, but these people only speak to other proponents who will be very generous. Many UBI proponents outright dismiss criticism as just ignorant.

    Ultimately, UBI is impossible to test without changing the fundamentals. For example, a sample segment of a single nationality is not universal, and the data gathered is of limited value when considering scaling to national or supra-national level. What are the demographic terms for entry? How does the selection process work? Is it open to corruption? Does the behaviour of individuals change when they know they are being observed as part of a trial.

    Can the government bring UBI in slowly, with a tax break and direct payment so small as to be insignificant? 1 pound per week per person in Britain would be roughly £3B per year. Nobody would even notice, but Government could scaling up and test as they go. The problems with this strategy are that UBI use to be tested across multiple election cycles. A £3B outlay is pretty easy to cut, particularly if there is a backlash before UBI has had time to grow to have an impact people's lives.

    Reasonable people will surmise that testing UBI is so challenging, and the unknown ramifications so vast, that it will likely die a slow death and end in ridicule as a sort of funny idea that some soft headed people had after the great recession.

    But there is a bf variant that can solve all the same problems. UBI needs to be supported by a broad base of ordinary people, and thus people need to benefit in a way they is deeper than money, so that if politicians see it as an easy target in a tight budget cycle it will actually be do difficult politically to remove.

    People need UBI to bind them socially, and thus UBI needs to be tied somehow to social connection, so that it is not the root of a dystopian isolated future that tears away the threads of society, as many fear.

    The ordinary 90% need to <em>want</em> UBI.

    This is a document outlining a variant of UBI that is probably tenable and testable without spending billions or changing its fundamentals. This version of UBI is testable and scalable:

  • Very disappointed with the Select Committee but also taken aback at the wide scope of perspectives in the RSA discussion panel.  If the idea is going to gain any traction it will need a much more focussed 'problem solution justification' and practical answers to questions about implementation such as 'cost' than all these, dare I say, philosophical and academic perspectives.  The Select Committee said that the idea seems not far from Universal Credit, so maybe we should be arguing just for the abolition of work conditionality.  That at least would remove the evil of 'demonisation of the poor' (quote).

    • Terry, thank you for your thoughts. I hope our report provides some answers to your questions of practicality. It's available <a href="">here</a>. Anthony

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