The Case for Universal Basic Income

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Louise Haagh mounts a passionate defence for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), “to give all residents a modest regular income grant that is not dependent on means-tests or requirements”. Her book “argues for basic income as part of democratic reconstruction at a juncture of global crisis in governance”. She makes some big claims for it: “By weaving basic security into the fabric of society, basic income is a rising tide, lifting all boats, whilst bringing those stranded into common waters”.

The idea is not a new one nor does it just come from the left. She goes over some of the historic support for similar ideas and support from one of the “architects of the new market-led development model” Milton Friedman who “argued for a version of basic income — negative income tax (NIT), as a security net”. Haagh comments that while reviewing the problems with an NIT scheme: “A devil’s deal is one in which basic income supports the structure that generates the insecurity basic income seeks to abate”.

Leading anti-austerity campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) has produced a briefing to assess the implications of UBI for disabled people. DPAC has major concerns noting, “to date there is no precedent for replacing an existing complex social security system with UBI. If we look beyond the basic concept of UBI at what the details of implementation would mean for disabled people, we see a more complicated and potentially regressive picture”. After reviewing some case studies and arguments about UBI in more detail it concludes unambiguously that “UBI is not the demand we should be making if we want an end to the suffering that welfare reform is causing”.

Haagh quotes a 2017 European Social Survey study which claims to show “second basic income is already an electorally viable idea, supported by half the populations of Europe”.

The book covers contemporary examples, including one from Denmark. Here in 2016-7 “several…municipalities were induced to choose experiments to lift conditionalities as an alternative to sanctions…they entail(ed) one of the three elements of basic incomes; unconditionality”.

Ultimately a UBI would not be a unique and permanent social benefit. It would be subject to the same pressures all public services and finances have faced since the 2008 financial crash and the onset of austerity. Haagh describes this moment as “the long-term fall out of the abandonment of planned development in all its forms” and would need to be defended by the labour movement in the way the NHS, benefits and wages are.

The book is very detailed and complex and is likely to be of most interest to those actively involved in the discussions around UBI. Haagh herself remarks “there is not a single way in which basic income can be financed or organised. Nor is it necessary to implement such a reform overnight. It is more important to consider the reasons the goal is valuable in the context of our time”.

Whatever merits a UBI could have, I kept thinking back to the financial revelations from the recent The Sunday Times Rich List that showed that the richest 1,000 individuals are worth £771 billion. Meanwhile tens of thousands more children are living in poverty and over 900,000 disabled benefit claimants on Job Seekers Allowance had been sanctioned between 2010 and 2018. With that in mind it feels that there are many more radical demands we should be making of income distribution.