“A certain small income, sufficient for necessities, should be secured for all, whether they work or not.” – Bertrand Russell
“I am now convinced that the simplest solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a new widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” – Martin Luther King
Up until a month ago I was not particularly familiar with the details of the concept of a “Universal Basic Income.” I have listened to the arguments for and against and initially I couldn’t disagree with much of what is put forward by its proponents; it all sounded perfectly reasonable and sensible.
However, several of the criticisms I have encountered (and some of my own) have now led me to believe that implementing the Universal Basic Income would be “square pegs in round holes” and fundamentally flawed.
For me, separating the idea of work being linked to living and survival can only be a positive thing. My thoughts on this are summed up perfectly by the American Polymath, Buckminster Fuller – “We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”
The first concern that struck me was that; if you provide everyone (regardless of wages) with £400 a month Universal Basic Income, then what about the people whose benefit payments currently exceed £400 a month? What about relatively wealthy individuals who absolutely do not require a £400 a month Universal Basic Income?
The stock answer to this seems to be along the lines of – “We will just adjust payments at both ends of the spectrum, to make it fair.” How then, is that going to be any different than the benefits system we currently have?
Secondly, while people with little or no income will (in theory) benefit from having an extra £400 a month to spend on essentials and provide for themselves something approaching a dignified existence; essentially, it would be replacing benefits with a Universal Basic Income that is a marginally larger sum than they would have received on the old benefits system.
While nobody would argue against this theoretical uplift in income (however minor), what about those who are paid a relatively comfortable wage? What benefit is the Universal Basic Income to them?
I include myself in this category so I can answer this question from my own perspective. There are two people in my household so a Universal Basic Income would mean an extra £800 a month. We do not require this money for the essentials of living or for the fripperies and extras that take up our disposable income. We do not require the money (as much as I would like it) so why give it to us?
I would spend the money on what for many people would be considered luxury items. Maybe an expensive holiday, a car, an ISA, a deposit for a house, or maybe become a “Buy to let Landlord” (I wouldn’t, but it would provide opportunity for many in my position to do so).
A Universal Basic Income would essentially provide my household with £9,000 a year that I would spend on things that many would find unnecessary or indulgent. It seems to me that a Universal Basic Income would actually increase the gap in standard of living between people on very low incomes and those considered to be middle income earners.
This is illustrated by a quote from the, pretends not to be posh, Laurie Penny, in a New Statesman article calling for a Universal Basic Income, who asked the question: “What would you do if somebody gave you a few hundred pounds each month to spend on whatever you wanted? Would you quit your job? Retrain and look for a better one? Spend more time with your kids?”
I have no idea of who Laurie is thinking of when writing this guff but someone without a job and (or) not much money, would not be able to undertake any of those things by having a £400 a month Universal Basic Income. Those folk who have had reasonably well paid jobs (or partners with the same) may be able to be part of Laurie Penny’s fantasy vision, but for most people, it will remain unattainable.
The reason why the idea of a Universal Basic Income is being floated is because of the inequality that exists under capitalism. While the basic income is designed to remedy some of those inequalities, it is exactly because it will be implemented within a capitalist system that should it ever be implemented it would be strangled at birth.
Firstly, society and work functions in a way as to ensure that the boss class has the whip hand. An in-built unemployment line is a central component of the capitalist system. This coupled with the divide and conquer tactics from the government of the day, pits worker against worker. In theory, a Universal Basic Income would go some way to reversing this. For that reason, we will never see a Universal Basic Income, and if we did, it would be very different from that which is being proposed. The ruling class cannot and will not tolerate a system that puts working people in the driving seat.
Secondly, as soon as every adult is guaranteed a Universal Basic Income; company bosses will be rubbing their hands with glee.
Pressure to increase wages annually or provide decent terms and conditions with go out of the window. Business exists to create and maximise profit, therefore, the state providing workers with £400 a month will undoubtedly lead to a severe driving down of wages in the medium to long term; rendering the Universal Basic Income, completely worthless.
The same idea applies to inflation. If you provide everyone with an extra £400 a month to spend, this will have a knock-on effect on the cost of things like rent, shopping, and energy prices. The more money you have in your pocket, the more that big business knows it can charge you. This really is elementary stuff.
Again, within no time at all your extra £400 becomes worthless.
Advocates of the Universal Basic Income would say that – “We could legislate to prevent bosses from cutting wages and against retailers increasing prices.” Oh really? That begs the question why we wouldn’t or can’t do that now. If it was so easy to reform the corrupt and rigged system we live in then we wouldn’t require a Universal Basic Income in the first place.
While the criticisms that my cursory thoughts have raised are all of a financial nature there is also the problem of attitudes and perception. Whilst the overwhelming majority of the population buys into the concept of hard working people & scroungers, a Universal Basic Income could lead to the creation of a new underclass to be sneered at as lazy and feckless.
You can’t create round pegs and expect them to fit in square holes. You have to change attitudes and fashion round holes first.
I have no problem with the underlying principle of a Universal Living Wage. I am just sceptical of the practicalities of implementing it within a system that is anathema to it.
The list of criticisms and queries that I have discussed is in no way exhaustive; and I am positive that others will have thought of numerous other potential problems and undesirable knock-on effects of implementing the Universal Basic Income.
If anyone has solutions to the pitfalls I have discussed or can tell me why I am wrong, then let me know as I would genuinely love to be convinced.