Dr Luke Martinelli is Research Associate on the IPR's universal basic income project.
Is it time to move beyond the polarised views that characterise the basic income debate? Universal basic income (UBI) may be an attractive solution to a host of policy problems – but advocates must recognise that moving from abstract concept to reality will involve significant trade-offs and political barriers.
Gaining traction, growing support
In recent weeks, there have been a number of developments which appear to demonstrate the movement of UBI towards the political mainstream: in the UK, the influential Trades Union Congress (TUC) has endorsed social security reform that embodies the principles of basic income; in Canada, the Government is moving forward with concrete plans for a basic income pilot, adding to those upcoming in Finland and the Netherlands; the French region of Aquitaine is consulting on the idea; and in Germany, the single issue party Bündnis Grundeinkommen (Basic Income League) has just been established. These trends seem to suggest that UBI is gaining traction that will lead inexorably to widespread implementation.
After all, UBI is not just a good idea; it is an increasingly good idea in a world in which the nature of work, family and society is rapidly changing. Automation of production processes, both in manufacturing and, increasingly, services; large and growing wage gaps between ‘lousy’ and ‘lovely’ jobs (Goos and Manning, 2007); the growth of zero-hour and temporary contractual arrangements; and long-term unemployment among disadvantaged groups are all problems which urgently need addressing. Nuclear families have given way to the emergence of complex and unstable family structures, and the ‘new social risks’ of lone parenthood and gaps in the provision of care for children and the elderly threaten vulnerable sectors of society.
All of these factors are feeding into the widespread failure of existing social security systems to achieve equitable and efficient settlements for growing numbers of people – exactly what UBI claims to be able to provide.
Yet despite (or perhaps because of) intensified interest in basic income, the debate has become more polarised than ever. It is an elegant balance of justice and liberty; it is the worst of all possible worlds. It is the saviour of the welfare state; it will destroy it. It can be implemented tomorrow; it is a vague and distant utopia.
All things to all people
When considering these polarised views on basic income, it is worth noting that UBI is best considered as a family of proposals, rather than a specific policy per se.
The core characteristics of UBI as an idea are that payments should cover the entire population, and eligibility cannot be conditional on income, work history, or behavioural requirements. Beyond this, there is a great deal of variation between plans in terms of a number of important aspects – including, crucially, the level at which payments should be made, and how the basic income fits into the wider constellation of welfare and tax policies.
These design features vary in relation to the precise goals that basic income is intended to achieve, which themselves are contested. Although it can be seen as a prosaic way to simplify a complex welfare system, alleviating administrative costs and bureaucratic intrusion while reducing marginal tax rates – and thus eliminating the poverty and unemployment traps that pervade means-tested systems – it has also been touted as having the potential to fundamentally alter how we think about ‘work’. Releasing individuals from the compulsion to enter paid employment – and the exploitation and domination this entails – in order to survive, and liberating them to pursue a variety of socially valuable and creative activities, UBI has been mooted in radical terms as “a capitalist road to communism” (Van Der Veen and Van Parijs, 1986).
The protean nature of basic income helps to ensure that the concept appeals across traditional party lines. One of the striking things about this idea is the wealth of favourable theoretical arguments which appeal across the political spectrum, leading to the popular description of UBI as 'not right or left, but forward'. In isolation, these arguments apply to other ways of organising social security – but few if any such systems so effectively marry the priorities of the social democratic left (equality, solidarity and redistribution) with those of the libertarian right (small government, freedom and efficiency). By both left- and right-wing proponents, UBI is viewed as the saviour of a broken welfare system which is stigmatising and intrusive yet unfit for purpose.
For basic income advocates on the left, the focus is on the failure of the system to provide security for all in an adequate and dignified fashion, as socio-economic conditions have made the Beveridgean system increasingly untenable. Gone are the days – if they ever existed – when male breadwinners provided for their families with stable, well-paid jobs. The Trente Glorieuses, that period of yet unmatched growth and prosperity following WWII, gave way to deindustrialisation, structural unemployment, rising wage inequality, and the increasing prevalence of precarious employment.
For the right, the welfare system is seen as the cause of dependency and societal breakdown, as the complex array of means-tested benefits reduces work incentives and discourages family formation. The bloated government bureaucracy which administers the intrusive work tests and financial conditions creates higher taxes, which act as a drag on the efficiency of the economy as a whole.
Basic income, perhaps miraculously, seeks to balance these competing goals and priorities. But does this congregation of political views mean that it is universally and normatively desirable? Clearly not.
There is an equivalent (and possibly more significant) meeting of minds across the political spectrum that finds basic income a deeply discomfiting notion. Social democrats believe that welfare should be generously available for all, and those on the right that it should be a residual safety net – but both agree that the right to an income comes with a responsibility to work (however this responsibility is actualised). Notwithstanding the claims of political philosophers such as Philippe Van Parijs that “even surfers should be fed”, Bowles and Gintis (2000) demonstrate that people “support the welfare state because it conforms to deeply-held norms of reciprocity and conditional obligations to others”. Of course, this goes beyond the simplistic equality of contributions and receipts – but the belief that everyone has an obligation to contribute to society if they can, and that only those unable to work through incapacity, involuntary unemployment or caring responsibilities are deserving of state support, provides a philosophical foil to the arguments of basic income advocates (Anderson, 1999). Bay and Pedersen (2006) show that support for universal welfare drops when respondents consider the possibility of foreign immigration. Data on attitudes to welfare, which have hardened in recent years, appear to uphold these insights – as analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey by Eleanor Taylor and IPR Director Professor Nick Pearce serves to demonstrate.
For progressive opponents of UBI, welfare should be restricted to those most in need, since the wealthy do not need it; if you are going to spend more on welfare, why not make payments more generous for the poor? Thus, basic income is likely to be seen as ineffectual by the progressive left, as demonstrated by reactions to Compass’ UBI proposals stating that “a powerful new tax engine will pull along a tiny cart”, and that feasible UBI schemes are “not generous enough to achieve the aim of replacing wages in an increasingly automated world; or they are not funded properly; or both”. The concept of uniform benefits also appears to conflict with the principle that levels of support should correspond to the needs of claimants – which are complex and varied, and therefore might be seen to justify an equally complex range of benefits.
At the same time, conservative opponents argue that UBI would be prohibitively expensive, require huge tax rises, and significantly damage work incentives. Although the unconditional nature of UBI leads to lower marginal effective tax rates (as the benefit is not withdrawn as income rises), if payments were pitched at subsistence level or higher, there would be a significant negative labour market response as individuals opt for more leisure.
Thus, while basic income has supporters across the political landscape, it also has detractors – and the large family of basic income proposals provides a wide target at which to direct criticism.
A fragile coalition
The multifaceted nature of basic income enables detractors to criticise the least desirable type of basic income (from their particular perspective). Thus, basic income’s association with ‘undesirable’ political views permits left-wing opponents of basic income to attack UBI as an alternative to decent public services and a project to dismantle the welfare state, while simultaneously allowing right-wingers to criticise it for inflating the role of government in welfare provision and dampening incentives for self-provision.
Exacerbating the political challenge of UBI is what De Wispelaere (2015) calls the “problem of persistent political division” among supporters. While agreed on the general principle, UBI advocates on each side of the political divide have different ideas about the key parameters. When UBI is operationalised in a specific scheme, divisions appear; as De Wispelaere observes, a residual scheme such as that proposed by Murray (2006) is “entirely unacceptable to anyone supporting basic income on progressive grounds”. At the same time, libertarian UBI advocates would only support basic income schemes that sought to replace the entire welfare system. Thus, support from the ‘opposite’ political side may taint the concept of basic income by association: progressives cannot get behind a policy supported by right-wingers, and vice versa.
Although steps to realise basic income show signs of progress, therefore, this ultimately hinges on the extent to which meaningful coalitions of interests can be built and sustained around concrete proposals. This prospect is a lot more distant than appears at first glance; the apparent unity of the basic income movement masks a multitude of deeply divided actors, and a highly fragile coalition.
To end on a more positive note, these political difficulties are not necessarily intractable – but it may be that advocates have to sacrifice their broad coalition in favour of congregation around specific schemes. This would give lie to the idea that basic income is ‘all things to all people’, but it might garner new and more enthusiastic supporters as well.
Anderson, Elizabeth S. (1999). "What Is the Point of Equality?" Ethics, 109(2): 287-337.
Bay, Ann-Helén, and Axel West Pedersen. "The limits of social solidarity basic income, immigration and the legitimacy of the universal welfare state." Acta Sociologica 49(4): 419-436.
Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis (2000). "Reciprocity, self-interest, and the welfare state." Nordic Journal of Political Economy, 26(1): 33-53.
De Wispelaere, Jurgen (2015). "The struggle for strategy: On the politics of the basic income proposal." Politics (2015): 1467-9256.
Goos, Maarten, and Alan Manning (2007). "Lousy and lovely jobs: The rising polarization of work in Britain." The review of economics and statistics, 89(1): 118-133.
Murray, Charles. (2006). In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute Press.
Van Der Veen, Robert J. and Philippe Van Parijs (1986). "A capitalist road to communism." Theory and Society, 15(5): 635-655.
Van Parijs, Philippe (1991). "Why surfers should be fed. The liberal case for an unconditional basic income." Philosophy and Public Affairs, 20: 101-131.