How has basic income progressed from radical idea to legitimate policy? - RSA

How has basic income progressed from radical idea to legitimate policy?


  • Picture of Anna Dent
    Anna Dent
    Employment and skills policy & research specialist
  • Economic democracy
  • Public services

Previously an idea very much at the margins of politics and policy debates, basic income has recently enjoyed a steep rise in popularity. But how and why has this occurred, and what has led a growing number of countries to invest in basic income experiments?

Basic income promises a life free from poverty, where all citizens enjoy real freedom and an equal stake in society; where automation is no longer a cause of anxiety; and where no-one is forced into poor quality, low-paid work.

It has moved from a little-known, utopian idea, to one which attracts regular coverage in the mainstream media, and amongst commentators and think tanks as diverse as the RSA, Compass and the Adam Smith Institute. Pilot projects are underway or in planning in at least eight countries.

Basic income is now a credible and much-debated alternative to existing welfare policies and, many believe, a genuine opportunity to address poverty and inequality. However, this rise from utopian idea to legitimate policy is, so far, little explored or understood.

Previous attempts to secure a place for basic income on the policy agenda in countries including Finland and Canada, small-scale experiments in India and Namibia, and examples of universal benefits in Iran and Alaska provide some insight into basic income’s growing popularity, but can’t fully account for the rise in interest.

I have just completed a study into four of the pilot areas, Finland, the Netherlands, Ontario and Scotland, interviewing key players to reveal how basic income has been legitimised as a policy solution, and the problems which each area hopes it will solve.

Each of the pilots has its own character, with local politics, culture and administrative concerns significantly shaping them all. However, what’s striking is the number of common factors which feature strongly in all cases.

Although this can’t be considered a universal route-map to implementation - you can’t underestimate the importance of local influences - it does give us an indication of the kind of contexts and circumstances in which basic income might find a foothold elsewhere.

Firstly, all four of the pilots showed a convergence of a number of different factors, coming together at roughly the same time, shaping, influencing and strengthening each other. Whether or not this convergence happened by accident or design, it seems to have been a critical factor in preparing the way for the pilots to take place.

There’s a feeling that social problems, such as poverty, unemployment and precarious work, have grown over time, and that ‘traditional’ policy solutions haven’t kept up. The strongest motivating factor in all four cases is the perceived failure of social assistance systems to address unemployment and keep people out of poverty. More and more citizens and politicians have become aware of the impact of these problems, and the search for radical solutions has led many to basic income.

In all four pilots, basic income is framed as innovative and different, and a legitimate alternative to the well-used, but ineffective, usual policies. All four pilots also viewed basic income as appealing to many different motivations and political positions, and providing a solution to a huge range of different problems.

All the pilots, Ontario in particular, acknowledge the interconnectedness of the problems they are trying to address, and see basic income as a holistic solution. Particularly in the Netherlands and Scotland, basic income seems to resonate with local cultural identities. Experimenting with basic income enables places to project positive qualities such as innovation, progressiveness and leadership, and attracts a certain kudos, partly a result of the high profile of basic income on the international stage.

Allied to the wide range of potential outcomes from the pilots is a huge diversity in the people and organisations involved in each. These aren’t experiments driven by politicians or policy-makers in a vacuum, disconnected from their wider society and citizens. Activists, advocates and experts from academia and think tanks have been crucially important in raising the profile of basic income, getting the problems of poverty, insecure work and unemployment on the agenda, and providing a critical mass of engagement and interest in basic income which helped to legitimise it as a solution. This mix of actors doesn’t always make for smooth decision-making processes -  in fact it can complicate things when different motivations and priorities come to the surface - but the coalescence of individuals and organisations seems to be a key factor.

It’s important to note that each pilot project is just that; an experiment to see what effects basic income might have. An increased interest in evidence-based social policy was cited in all four cases as an important feature of the policy-making environment which helped to get the pilots agreed. Whilst advocates of basic income may consider it as a conduit, or a signal, for deep societal change, interest in experimentation in these four cases doesn’t necessarily signal any wider shift in attitudes or policy. And indeed, none of the pilots is actually testing a full basic income, paid to everyone in society with no conditions attached.

The simple, core idea of basic income has undergone significant change during its implementation in these cases, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes bureaucratic; compromise has been a key factor, particularly in the Netherlands, in order to make experiments feasible.

No one single factor has brought about the implementation of any of the basic income pilots in this study, each displays the convergence of a range of different circumstances and events. As more countries look at developing their own experiments it will be fascinating to see if they follow the same pattern, or if they find new ways to get basic income onto the agenda and into action.

Get in touch via Twitter for a full summary of my findings:  @anna_b_dent

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