Today it is quite hard to believe that an income could be received on an individual and unconditional basis without any work requirements. Is this a utopian notion, or simply proof of a lack of will in the mainstream political arena?
The universal basic income is actually an old idea. In the 18th century, Thomas Paine raised the issue and advocated a monthly stipend for anyone older than 21. More recently, the neoliberal Milton Friedman reimagined the welfare state through a “negative income tax”. The guaranteed basic income has also been food for thought for heads of state such as Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter, who tried to pass minimum income legislation. It did not get through the American congress.
A Realistic Utopia?
This alternative to the welfare system has not yet been received with open arms, although basic income plans have been proposed which have contributed to enhancing the public debate. In some countries, there have even been serious initiatives, but without results.
“What would you do if your income were taken care of?” can be read on a giant poster created by the minimum income campaigners in Switzerland. The referendum was held on the 5th of June in Switzerland, and 76,9 % of voters rejected the proposal of a basic income. The fact that voters overwhelmingly rejected the plan was mainly explained by the connection that Swiss citizens see between work and money earned. Despite the strong campaign for a basic income, the initiative didn’t get support from any political party. The question “What would you do if your income were taken care of?” didn’t get a favorable response, but it did set a Guinness Record for the largest poster in the world.
At the EU level, the situation is not positive either. The European Citizens’ Initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income (with a petition entitled “Our chance to end poverty”) was launched in 2013 but couldn’t reach the minimum of 1 million signatures required to be taken legally into consideration by the European Commission. However, the initiative did raise awareness among the EU countries and EU authorities as the campaign gathered over 285.000 signatures from 6 member states.
Initiatives in other countries are underway, but implementation is slow. The Finnish government, for instance, has committed to implementing a basic income experiment as part of its legislative programme. The main purpose of the promised experiment would be to undergird the social security system’s guarantees in response to constant labor market changes. For the moment, preliminary studies are ongoing. The Finnish government is the only one in the EU that is openly entertaining a basic income experiment. Elsewhere the basic income concept has become part of the platform of political parties such as Podemos in Spain and D66 in the Netherlands, but it has not yet been adopted by a political party that has formed an actual government.
An interesting experiment is underway in Germany, an attempt to define unconditional welfare. A startup in Berlin called “My basic income” (Mein Grundeinkommen) has provided through crowdfunding €1000/month for one year at a micro level (very few basic incomes have been funded). The experiment has revealed that the beneficiaries have not saved all of their basic income stipends, nor have they become lazy; on the contrary, they have continued their activities with the sense that their work is appreciated and they have been freed of primordial existential worries.
Money for Free – Pending Payment Status
Getting money for free sounds very attractive as there is an urgent need to tackle the inequalities between rich and poor, but the question remains: how to eliminate poverty for good? Basic income should be universal, individual, and unconditional, and that can’t be easy to bring about.
The redistribution of wealth through a basic income guarantee is proposed simply and mainly because in the future there will not be enough jobs. Sociologically speaking, there is a strong link between labour and income since paid work automatically guarantees an income. Basically, you must work (sometimes quite hard) to get food. An unconditional basic income would establish a logical extension of the social security system by covering the basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter. The defenders are even arguing that a basic sum is finally part of human rights, the right to live in dignity – but for living you need money.
The opponents of such a universal solution express caution respecting the relationship of individuals with the system. Nevertheless, the proposal of reinventing the functioning of the system is intended as a response to the impact of technology on society. Automation is replacing jobs at an ever-increasing pace. More and more is produced with fewer and fewer people.
The immediate effects of a basic income scheme are not easy to predict. What is certain is that the proposed, universal allowance would be a societal innovation guaranteeing sustenance. The objectives of a basic income are in principle noble, but its implementation lies far in the future. It is not clear yet if it is, or is not, possible to afford a basic income, and there are many questions which have no answers: how a basic income would be financed, what would the business sector pay to people who are receiving basic incomes, and who would keep working?