For a Universal Basic Income

Long ago when I was young, people still believed that in the near future we would all have a lot more leisure time, as increasingly efficient production would mean that there would be less need for us to work. I remember my architecture lecturer telling us that we would all be designing cities for people who would be spending more time doing other things than going to a job. But that didn’t happen. What we have instead, is people working long hours, and more and more tedious administrative employment.

work life balance

a better work life balance

Those optimists underestimated the nature of capitalism. Capitalism depends on growth; on a growing demand for more and more stuff and more and more unnecessary services – in fact anything people can make money on. So it will make more work. And if we are so buried in boring work that we desperately try and buy things and experiences to make ourselves happy, then all the better for business.

Further, just as it fails to share the products of labour, so capitalism fails to share the jobs it creates. In fact it relies on a there being a pool of people who are un or under employed in order to keep those who are in work on their toes. Alongside people struggling with long hours, are others desperate for work to do.

But this is not sustainable. There are only finite resources on our planet, which cannot support ever expanding production and energy-guzzling activity. And growing automation is now threatening to increase that unemployed pool to dangerous proportions, threatening social stability and people’s buying power.For a capitalist world these are serious problems; but they also provide the key to the solution.

Naomi Klein titled her book about climate change ‘This Changes Everything’, because she argued that climate change demands a move towards socialism – though she is still reluctant to accept the full force of her own arguments. Socialism (or eco-socialism) would enable us to end the capitalist dependence on unlimited growth and replace this with a planned use of resources.

And automation also demands socialism so that its benefits can be shared, rather than all ending up with the 1% who are able to own or invest in the new technologies. Then, far from being a problem, automation can open the door to a better world.

This ecosocialism is very different from the old images of industrial socialism typical of the last century, which were symbolised by the heroic factory worker. It takes advantage of new technologies to meet human needs with a minimum of human labour, and so allows a real and fundamental shift in values away from the centralisation of paid work as the reason for existence.

Capitalism aims to make us focus on buying more and more things and services to create the demand for growth. Greed makes the capitalist world go round, or, in the words of Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street, ‘Greed… is good’.

But in an ecosocialist world, automation, planning and sharing would allow people’s  needs to be met with relatively little individual effort. Without worries over the basic necessities for a decent life – shelter, food, clothing, education, health, transport – and without the capitalist pressures for competitive consumption, we would be free to focus on things of real value. There would be time for those things that most people associate with their happiest days and wish they had allowed more time for: being with friends and family, helping others, art, music, sport, cooking, gardening, just enjoying and interacting with the world around us.

How can we reach this utopia – and what’s it to do with Universal Basic Income? Sadly, I accept that people are not yet ready to believe that such an alternative approach would be possible. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do all we can to promote it and persuade people it can be a reality, but we can’t realistically expect people to fight for its cause against all the vested interests just yet. However, people are beginning to accept the idea of a Universal Basic Income (or UBI), and this can provide a step on the way to more fundamental change.

A UBI is a regular sum given to all without question. It gives everyone freedom to choose to spend time doing other things than work for pay. Also – and anyone who is familiar with the current benefit system will realise the significance of this – because it is given without conditions, it removes the whole monitoring regime: no more need to prove that you are ‘genuinely seeking work’, no requirements to perform useless tasks, no sanctions. And since you continue to receive it alongside your pay when you get a job, it avoids the problem of the ‘benefit trap’ whereby people who take on a bit of work can find themselves little better off due to loss of benefits. You can work and earn on top of the UBI, but it gives people the freedom to say no to bad or poorly paid jobs.


So why would the powers-that-be accept a system that allows workers to refuse exploitation? Like any reform under capitalism – it will only be accepted as a compromise. We can’t expect benevolent leaders to hand out reforms as a measure of their generosity. They have to be fought for. UBI will only be accepted when politicians realise that there are votes in it and that the alternative would be serious social unrest among the growing number of underemployed and underpaid. And reforms are not the result of one-off struggles. They are an unstable equilibrium subject to constant battle between opposing interests.

Although the idea of UBI is becoming increasingly accepted, we have to remain very wary. A Right-wing UBI is a very different thing from the approach described here. For people such as Milton Friedman, UBI provides an alternative to social services – to the social provision of education, health, housing, transport and the rest of the welfare state. For them, this is a way of getting rid of socialisation and making everyone individual consumers. For the Left, UBI is an addition to these socialised services. We demand the right to a house, education, healthcare and other services, plus the right to have enough to live on. Our ancestors fought to win acceptance of social services and pension payments. We can win the right to basic living costs.

In response to the obvious question, can we afford it? The answer is a clear, yes. There is no shortage of wealth in Scotland or indeed the UK as a whole. This wealth is the product of past labour, which created our homes and roads, our towns and cities; of increasingly automated production; and of our natural resources, including wind and tide power. UBI allows some of that wealth to be shared more widely. Practically, this can be done with the help of progressive taxation and increasing public ownership. There would also be some savings on existing means-tested benefits as UBI is much simpler to administer, and larger – but less easily calculated – savings from the reduction in problems associated with poverty.

Other common questions concern the problem of people who take the money but don’t work – the free-riders; whether people will be found to do the unpleasant jobs that still need doing; and why those who are already better off should also get UBI. At present a small minority of people get a big free ride from inherited wealth. UBI would share some of that wealth. If people chose to survive on their small share, that’s not a problem. Most people will work to top up their income, but society doesn’t need everyone fully employed – and will need less and less human labour.

That people would still work has been demonstrated by small scale trials, most notably by the experimental Mincome scheme, run in the town of Dauphin in the Canadian province of Mantoba from 1974 to 1978. When political changes brought the project to an end, the data was literally warehoused, but in recent years the impacts have begun to be re-examined. This scheme only gave money to low income families, so was not fully universal, but it showed that people did do paid work on top of their minimum income. The only significant groups who chose not to find employment were women who wanted to spend a bit more time with their young children, and people who wanted time for training, which in both cases would bring social as well as personal benefits. Without the pressure to start earning as soon as possible, more students finished high school, and there were very significant improvements in health as a result of lifting the stresses and pressures of poverty and insecurity.

The problem of getting people to do unpleasant jobs can be solved by better pay to make the work worthwhile; and this would also provide an incentive to automise these so no-one need do them.

When it comes to giving money to the better off, this is a question that is raised with every universal benefit; but universal benefits have two key virtues. Everyone has a stake in them and in making them work; and they avoid means testing. Means testing is intrusive, demeaning and stigmatising (and also expensive to administer) and puts many people who need the benefit off applying at all. Meanwhile, progressive taxation can be used to ensure that the rich do not actually gain further overall, as their share of universal benefits becomes more than outweighed by higher taxes.

Different worked proposals for UBI have been based around different basic income levels. Some take as a starting point the current amount given to people on Jobseeker’s Allowance or Income Support, but this is not really enough to live on for any length of time. A rate based on JSA would also require special higher amounts for single parents if they were not to lose out on what they get under the present scheme, which would mean continued monitoring for possible co-habitation. A better system would be based on higher rates, funded by higher high-rate taxes. Actual rates implemented would be the results of a compromise between competing class forces.

We would argue that the key requirements of an effective UBI scheme are: the rate is set so as to give people enough to live on – for example, by basing it on the minimum income standard for socially acceptable living calculated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; the income is universal and unconditional, with the same amount given to everyone and the only difference in rates resulting from whether the recipient is a child, a working age adult or a pensioner; the money is paid to individual adults and not to households, so  allowing a measure of freedom to those in abusive relationships; and, as explained above, UBI is in addition to extra benefits for the sick and disabled, help with housing costs, and support for other public services.

Redistribution of wealth through UBI and progressive taxation requires central organisation (even if the bureaucracy would be simpler than under the present system). However the existence of UBI can provide an important boost to local and grassroots democracy as it allows people the time to get involved and take an active part in their local community.

Besides its immediate benefits, UBI can help us move towards a society with different values. And involvement in campaigning for the reform of UBI, itself builds momentum for campaigns for more fundamental change.