Rebuilding after COVID-19: Is Now the Time for a Universal Basic Income?

Covid Anniversary Blog

Has the time finally come for a universal basic income (UBI)?  Many believe so, especially in light of the economic fall-out from the covid-19 pandemic. Experiments of basic income are running in many advanced welfare states. What for centuries has been an outpost of radical, even obscure, philosophical and economic debates could soon become a reality.

Historically, basic income has held little tract with mainstream European political parties.  Rather, its supporters were found across a range of radical traditions, such as anti-work theory and various strands of libertarianism.   Yet in an age of disruption, radical policies can take on an unexpected persuasion and, before long, appear the most pragmatic of choices.

Given its diverse support base, the problems that basic income can purportedly solve often appear breathtaking in range.  But its recent popularity can be explained by its convincing claims to solve four key challenges facing advanced welfare states: automation; labour market precarity; gender inequality; and the desire of many for a better work-life balance.

That these are profound and genuine challenges for societies is without doubt.  Yet that basic income is the policy answer is unclear; so let’s apply three tests.

  • Can UBI win widespread public support?

Basic income will require a higher tax settlement than at present and public enthusiasm for much higher public spending is largely undetectable.  Whilst opinion polls tend to show reasonably high support for basic income, once people are informed of the tax consequences support falls significantly.

Perhaps more fundamentally, basic income is at odds with social norms on welfare deservingness, with entitlement to social security largely wedded to notions of contribution or need.  UBI would go to those who do not contribute, as well as to those who have little need and so contrary to dominant social norms around the moral, as well as economic, value of paid work.

  • Can UBI to correct those problems its supporters identify? 

Here there is a case that basic income is not nearly transformative enough: Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for example, describes basic income as a defeatist proposal.  It does not seek to contest and correct the inequalities and problems its advocates identify.  It takes these inequalities as inevitable and, absent of an idea for how to truly eradicate them, offers a small income to compensate people’s losses.

  • What would be the impact of UBI on existing and alternative social policies.

It would for example leave less expenditure, and less public will, to maintain and expand existing social policies, and to develop new ones.    Equally, it raises the potential that basic income could be used as an excuse to retrench existing welfare arrangements in the future.

This is the real dilemma posed by UBI: what policies should be prioritised?  A basic income or better-funded childcare?  A basic income or reskilling and training programmes for young people and the unemployed?  If the argument can be won for stronger social investment, governments will not have the capacity to provide both basic income and more generous, expanded social interventions.  A stark and difficult choice would have to be made.

More plausible, credible and evidence-backed social policies exist as viable alternatives.  Whilst not as elegant or seductive as UBI, they offer stronger claims to winning public support and transforming societies for the long-term.  Now is not the time to trust in a single, simple solution for the most complex social and economic challenges.

Dr Daniel Sage is Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at Edge Hill University.

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