Universal Basic Income (UBI) — a basic wage given to every member of society without question — has fluctuated between a presidentially endorsed policy to being a fringe radical idea. In recent years, however, the idea seems to have been reinvigorated. The wage provides enough income for every individual to be above the poverty line. In the UK, for example, this would be a payment of £15,000 per year from the government. The initial concept may sound drastic, yet when examined, it exposes itself as the rational — even unavoidable — solution to global poverty. Further, it provides scope for tackling larger, global crises such as the climate emergency and automation. In essence, UBI has huge potential to remedy the most daunting social and environmental ills.
Perhaps the most notable debate on the implementation of UBI was in the United States in 1968. A letter, signed by 1,200 economists, was published on the front page of the New York Times calling for Nixon to guarantee an unconditional income of $1,600 to a family of four per annum — around $10,000 today. Indeed, Nixon went as far as to propose a UBI bill. The US was on the edge of drastically reducing poverty for good and being the first country to have unconditional financial security. So what went wrong?
In the weeks leading up to the announcement of the bill, Martin Anderson (a right wing Ayn Rand devotee) presented a briefing entitled ‘A Short History of Basic Income’ in which he drew parallels to a British government initiative from 1795. The ‘Speenhamland Plan’ gave an early form of UBI to the population of Speedhamland in order to reduce revolutionary sentiment. Although the revolution never happened, the census collected after the implementation was unequivocally damning. It claimed UBI had failed completely, with idleness rising and irresponsible spending. For centuries after, economists read the Speenhamland report as decisive evidence that UBI did not, and would not work.
It was only two hundred years after the government initiative that economists discovered that the majority of the report had been fabricated. 90% of the report had been written before the data had been collected and not a single beneficiary had been surveyed. Nixon had been tricked by Martin Anderson into believing an ancient scam, resulting in a stark change in stance. Nixon quickly announced his plans, not for welfare, but for “workfare”, furthering his laissez faire style approach to the lives of those struggling.
This pattern is not a one off. Frequently, strong evidence is put forward for UBI, yet it is considered too drastic to be politically feasible. Not only would it improve the happiness of citizens, but despite initial assumptions, it has been proven in multiple studies not to encourage laziness or fewer working hours. Within 50 years, the newly possible investment in education and innovation would grow the economy enough that the scheme almost pays for itself. Somewhere along the positive rhetoric, however, an influential conservative is always spooked by the drastic change and manages to dissuades others. Studies and facts are ignored, and gut fears of the powerful prevail. Whatever the reason for this pattern, UBI might soon evolve beyond a proposal for the eradication of poverty, and find itself an unavoidable necessity in the age of climate change and automation.
For the first time, climate change is reaching the top of the global agenda. In the UK, 71% of citizens see climate change as more pressing than Brexit. Unfortunately, climate action directly opposes the growth obsession. GDP growth must take a back seat as governments across the world legislate and regulate to ensure that the feasible continuation of life on earth continues. Not only is this true on an international level, but it is also a decision that must be made on an individual level, and this is where UBI comes in.
For decades, climate conscientiousness has been a luxury only afforded to the middle classes. The degree of investment necessary to buy solar panels for your roof is simply unaffordable for the majority of homeowners in the UK, let alone the growing number of people who rent. UBI would allow the financial autonomy and security to look beyond what is happening tomorrow, next week or next month. It would allow everyone, regardless of previous wealth, to have the time and resources to look to the long term. Only then can every member of society act on an individual level to ensure that the future is sustainable for their peers and children. It is impossible to begrudge the family who, like millions across the UK, live a hand to mouth existence and are therefore too preoccupied with survival now to worry about survival later. UBI allows a break in the cycle to give space for insight and investment for a sustainable future. These actions must be universally affordable.
Similarly, another dystopia looms. Automation could destroy up to 73 million jobs in the US alone by 2030. Nixon’s “workfare” may simply be impossible within our lifetimes. This automation crisis will only become more avaricious: our obsession with GDP growth and efficiency directly encourages automation, which leads to large scale job destruction and individual poverty. Money is directed even faster to the hands of the elite few, who use it to invest in further self sufficient automation. This crushes any (already flawed) hope for Adam Smith style trickle down economics. UBI will soon be an unavoidable means of survival. It is imperative that measures are already up and running by the time unemployment reaches tipping point.
Having systems in place before this occurs could result in a far more hopeful future. John Maynard Keynes wrote in his 1930 paper, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” that we would soon be working no longer than 15 hour weeks. Indeed, work would become a luxury in itself as its necessity wilts. Though this degree of enforced unemployment may be daunting at first, a lack of work is far from idleness. Perhaps it is better seen as an opportunity to truly explore individual interests. This freedom has been dreamed of since Karl Marx, who penned his hopes “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” True and productive freedom, unbound by “should” and “must”.
– Karl Marx
“To hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
This simple fiscal policy opens the possibility of a totally revolutionised society. No individual would go hungry, be homeless or be unable to seek help. Poverty would be, by definition, eradicated. Further, the lack of poverty removes the fiscal distraction from the masses, allowing post automation efforts to be focused on truly beneficial areas such as climate change and innovation — not wage labour. Universal Basic Income presents a tangible utopia well within our grips. It is simply for a politician to take the leap and revolutionise poverty permanently. Indeed, it is better to take this utopian jump before we are pushed by dystopian alternatives.
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