Basic income, debated

I’ve been dipping into a collection of essays on universal basic income, It’s Basic Income: The Global Debate, edited by Amy Downes and Stewart Lansley. There are nearly 40 short essays, mainly in favour but with a handful of opposing voices. The final section includes descriptions of pilot projects from North America to East Africa.

I’m a sceptic about universal basic income, an idea which revives every time there is a wave of concern about the prospect of technological mass unemployment – as in the 1960s and early 1990s. The opening essay is by robot apocalyst Martin Ford (The Rise of the Robots), making exactly this case. It seems to me an easy opt out for high tech types to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the consequences of their innovations by calling for a universal basic income, paid for by everybody else, a policy unlikely ever to be implemented.

However, others in the ‘pro’ camp deploy a wide range of arguments. There are contributors such as Anthony Painter, Ruth Lister and Caroline Lucas who have serious credibility as advocates for progressive policies.

The ‘anti’ arguments range from the cost to the likelihood that focus on universal basic income will divert energy and attention from higher priorities (universal services) and more feasible policies. My objections are that any feasible level of basic income will not help people improve their lot in life, in contrast to a high quality universal basic infrastructure (public transport, broadband, and health/education). Being handed an individual income is not going to solve collective challenges.

Still, pilot schemes are welcome; there isn’t much evidence about the effects discussed in the debate. I’m reasonably confident universal basic income at national scale will never happen, but if this discussion leads to a simpler and fairer benefit system with lower adverse work incentives, described as ‘incremental’ basic income, that would be great. And this book is a nice survey of the many arguments brought to bear on both sides of this debate.

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