Universal Basic Income: The idea that could change our world forever

Written by Marina Lademacher

If we truly want to have an economy that “works for all”, we need to have a welfare system that actually places value on the welfare aspect. Trying to navigate the current benefits system, one wouldn’t be foolish for thinking the government wishes to make our lives harder. As unbelievable as it sounds, one man without legs was actually refused disability benefits after being told he could “walk up the stairs with his hands”.

An psychiatric analysis of suicide rates and their causes found that while economic downturn caused 5,000 suicides across 63 countries, unemployment was the sole cause of 45,000. In other words, the risk of suicide associated with unemployment has risen by 20-30%. It’s not just the unemployed who have a tough time, but the majority of those in any low-skilled/low-wage job thanks to rising wage inequality and greedy bosses who routinely get away with exploitative practices. Not to mention, nearly one million people in the UK are in an ‘insecure’ job. As the debates surrounding radically changing job markets are moving to the forefront, the proponents of this mechanism of universal social security are being considered as less utopian and more pragmatic. A UBI would not replace the welfare state, but rather supplement it and ease pressures off other sources of welfare.

Finland this year has piloted a UBI trial this year giving people £120 a week, or £6240 a year. Perhaps that’s too high in some people’s eyes, but if the UK government decided to give even half that amount, it wouldn’t eradicate our poverty problem but would certainly go a long way to providing some relief to people out of work.

Here is an option that seems semi-palatable: allowing an untaxed UBI for those already earning under £50,000 a year, and a proportional taxation for those upwards. Let’s say it’s £100 a week, given to (roughly) 60 million people a year. In total that would cost the government £312 billion a year. An offensively high number at first glance, but only 20% higher than what is currently spent on benefits; a fair UBI would justify the cuts to welfare that politicians simply love these days. There’s the money to be made back from tax receipts, not-to-mention the huge boost to charitable donations that’s bound to amount if there exists a kind portion of the financially-comfortable willing to part with what’s left over from the handout.

Another way in which the financial burden could be softened is if the government decided to, as heard previously in one of Trump’s many broken campaign promises, “drain the swamp”. By swamp in this case I mean the literal hordes of multinational companies and business tycoons who fail to pay even a smidgeon of their required tax thanks to the lap dogs in Westminster with an eye on a future career in Investment Banking. Granted, the self-employed small business owner may be a much easier target for the IRS bullies. But whatever happened to that phrase ‘pick on someone your own size’? AT LEAST 6/10 of the UK’s biggest companies paid NO corporation tax in 2014/2015 and HMRC reportedly give special tax deals to the UK’s super-rich.

We can predict valiant and resilient attempts to resist a modernisation of our economy, but all trends indicate that we are on the path towards rapid automation. Job sectors and bosses will find it increasingly more profitable to substitute labour for robots despite efforts on the part of workers to resist modernisation (i.e the clash between TFL and self-driving trains). Mass unemployment in the not-too-distant future is more commonly being seen as an inevitable, and yet the safety nets available to those without work, such as that in the UK for instance, is characterised by over-bureaucratic inertia and measly handouts in the form of JSA and benefits. Not to mention a profoundly negative public stigma towards those claiming benefits, and the individual and social trauma associated with getting laid off.

The specifics of a UBI are open to debate, and that’s exactly the point. It’s only through a discussion of different options and potential consequences, negative and positive, that we can arrive at the best outcome. Fundamentally though, a UBI would ideally be set high enough to ensure people can live a life of basic decency at a minimum whether they choose to work or not. As supply of the labour market squeezes, the bargaining power for workers would increase.

Wouldn’t a UBI wreak chaos on productivity and people’s willingness to work, I hear you ask? Well, people who find real meaning in their work will probably continue to do their jobs. For those that don’t, meaning may be found elsewhere in activities that don’t require working 40 hour weeks just to put food on the table. As economist Forget observes, “If you look at the 18th and at the 19th century, some of the great scientific breakthroughs and some of the great cultural breakthroughs were made by people who did not work.”

This is not an unachievable dream for the UK, and nor should it be relegated to the far future. In fact, with the Scottish Government planning to trial a UBI scheme in Fife, there’s a lot for those keen in social justice to be excited about. Our society treats paid work as a mark of someone’s worth, despite the lack of explanatory rationale. It’s time the egalitarian case was advanced.

Looking even further ahead to a potential future in which systemic poverty is overcome, when liberated from the monotonous and instable culture of work-life (and the imperative to work for fundamental needs) the realms of possibility for human flourishing are endless as we pursue our own interests, or voluntary ‘work’. A Universal Basic Income for all is crucial in tackling the psychological pressures and sidelined mental illnesses that arise in the Capital-centred world in which we live, as well as a significant first step towards illuminating the path beyond capitalism.

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