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Why a basic income could be a gift to the Right

November 2016

Can a guaranteed basic income for everyone provide security in an insecure world? It all depends on what we are expected to give up in return, argues Nick Dowson.

01-11-2016-Anti-Austerity-590.jpg [Related Image]
No To Austerity: An Anti-Austerity Protest In Dublin (Ireland) on 24 November 2012. Flickr User William Murphy, www.streetsofdublin.com under a Creative Commons Licence

With supporters across the political spectrum, a basic income seems like an idea whose time has come. It could mean that no-one would be forced to work, and it could be simpler and cheaper than current welfare policies, indeed, get rid of ‘welfare dependency’ altogether.

A basic income, or citizen’s income, is a policy whereby every citizen or legal resident receives a minimum income from the state: avoiding the degradation and punitiveness that come with means-testing, and the unemployment benefits trap where strict conditions often prevent the unemployed from volunteering or taking part in training.

Goodbye social state

It would allow people to go in and out of short-term jobs, knowing they had something to fall back on; give unpaid carers a guaranteed income; and make people less vulnerable to unscrupulous employers.

But can it live up to expectations? Or, like shortcuts everywhere, is this a route fraught with pitfalls and dangers? Is it easier to argue for ‘free’ cash than for the messy business of collectively providing healthcare, housing and other essentials?

Free-marketeers see it as the perfect excuse for their wet dream of an anti-social state; introduce a basic income in place of public services, and abandon the rest to the market.

Milton Friedman, the influential ‘free market’ ideologue and economist, supported a guaranteed income as a way for the state to fulfil social obligations without interfering with the market, arguing that it ‘should replace the ragbag of specific welfare programs’.1

Business website FastCoExist suggests, ‘A basic income could replace multiple types of public assistance – from healthcare to earned tax credits – with a single payment.’2 One of the largest trials of a basic income to date is the $22.4-million experiment planned by the rightwing Finnish government – who are also cutting health, education and welfare.3

Increased talk of a basic income comes at a time of the voucherization, marketization and decimation of public services. Sweden, Chile and New Orleans have introduced schemes where parents are given vouchers to pay for either state or private schooling.4 In England, ‘personal health budgets’ and large-scale outsourcing are being forced on the health service, while Spain has introduced ‘co-charges’ for healthcare.5

The policy could give the Right the justification it wants to eviscerate the social state further, and would make it harder to argue for an expansion of public services. The payment could easily be eaten up by the cost of paying for previously public services, and as, depending on the implementation, the basic income does not necessarily redistribute more money to the poorest, a rightwing programme that introduced a basic income amid cuts could leave many worse off. In Britain, the cost of a degree – previously fully funded – would take several decades of basic income to repay at the level proposed in 2013 by the Citizen’s Income Trust.6

Many services are best provided collectively. For example, in Britain, the National Health Service has provided excellent comprehensive healthcare, free at the point of use, for many decades. It provides a better service at a lower cost than many insurance-based systems, and at around half of the cost of the disastrous free-wheeling market that is US healthcare.7

Free-marketeers see a basic income as the perfect excuse for their wet dream of an antisocial state; introduce it in place of public services, and abandon the rest to the market

The same goes for housing. Public investment can provide good quality housing in much larger quantities than the private sector.8Subsidizing accommodation in the private rental sector is more expensive than providing state housing and encourages private landlords to inflate their rents. A ‘basic income’ risks a similar effect.9 And, crucially, in an unregulated private market there is little security for most people in that vital thing – home.

More than just crumbs

We must argue for something bolder. Meeting people’s needs does not mean giving everyone money, and leaving the market to join the invisible dots that turn cash into the essentials that people need for a good life.

Many basic income supporters implicitly accept rightwing assumptions around freedom and the free market and, by implication, that once people are given money, the market will sort out the rest. More individualized market ‘choice’ in public services is often meaningless, but with it comes less choice about what sort of society we want to live in. Privatized healthcare may give us a choice between different companies, but we lose the option of going to a local hospital where the staff can put patients above profits.

The extension of the market’s reach into all aspects of our lives has a pernicious effect, subordinating wider values to the pursuit of profit, and replacing genuine options with the veneer of individual brand choice.

Let’s start by turning back the tide of privatization in health, education and housing – and by organizing for good quality public transport and public utilities, provided cheaply or for free, giving everyone genuine opportunities while cutting living expenses. We can also put money in people’s pockets by reforming hidden regressive taxes and charges such as taxes on goods (VAT/GST).

This is also a question of justice.

Silicon Valley’s rich, believing they are going to make most of us unemployed through artificial intelligence, are lobbying for a basic income to ensure social and economic stability while they monopolize fantastic wealth.

But, as technology writer Ben Tarnoff argues, ‘If the robots ever arrive, their arrival will be bankrolled by our taxes, our attention, our data. Under these circumstances, a basic income would be the crumbs left by the bully who steals your sandwich.’10

A basic income in this context becomes just a small part of what would be needed to compensate people for the ‘enclosure’ of land and public resources – which should arguably belong to all of us – as private property.

We cannot accept rightwing assumptions and language to campaign for a basic income. If the Left is to support a basic income, it must be clearly placed as part of a programme for reversing the rush towards neoliberal states; a programme that starts by improving and expanding public services in which workers and the public are fully involved in decision-making. It must not be, as currently, part of a shift from services being provided collectively according to need, to them being provided privately according to ability to pay.

Let’s not be lured by a regular cash transfer into limiting our vision of what we can do with our surroundings, our science and our society.

Nick Dowson is a writer and NHS campaigner.

  1. Matt Orfalea, 'Why Milton Friedman supported a guaranteed income', 11 December 2015, nin.tl/Friedman-basic
  2. Ben Schiller, ‘A Dutch city is experimenting with giving away a basic income of $1,000 a month’, 22 January 2016, nin.tl/DutchBA
  3. Vito Laterza, ‘Finland: basic income experiment – what we know’, 9 December 2015, nin.tl/FinlandBI
  4. Richard Orange, ‘Sweden urged to rethink parents’ choice over schools after education decline’, The Guardian, 4 May 2015, nin.tl/Sweden-schools; Naomi Klein, ‘The shock doctrine in action in New Orleans’, Huffington Post, 21 December 2007, nin.tl/Orleans-shock
  5. Adam Gaffney, ‘Austerity and the unravelling of universal healthcare’, Dissent, 2013, nin.tl/EUhealthcare
  6. At rates suggested by the Citizen’s Income Trust of £71 ($95/week) with a minimum of three years for a degree at a current maximum of £9,000, the tuition fee alone would take 7.3 years to repay. In fact, accounting for living costs while studying and interest on student loans, covering costs for a degree would actually take several times as long.
  7. nin.tl/NHSspend
  8. In the UK, local councils built housing on a large scale after the Second World War. Up to 100,000 council houses a year were still being built until the end of the 1970s. This ended with Margaret Thatcher’s government. Since then, house building has fallen drastically while prices and rents have soared. See bbc.com/news/magazine-30776306
  9. Martin Farley, ‘Why Land value Tax and Universal Basic Income need each other’, 20 April 2016, nin.tl/FarleyBI
  10. Ben Tarnoff, ‘Tech billionaires got rich off us. Now they want to feed us the crumbs’, The Guardian, 16 May 2016, nin.tl/techBI

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 497 This feature was published in the November 2016 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Laura Bannister, World Basic Income 17 Nov 16

    No serious basic income campaigner promotes it as a replacement for public services. We don't need to see basic income as a case of either/or. This line of argument is itself a gift to the Right, who insist that public spending must be strictly limited.

    Demanding a basic income is a way of showing support for the redistributive tax-and-spend that also funds our public services. We can and should have it all.

  2. #2 Shirley0401 18 Nov 16

    As someone who supports BI, but who understands it's impossible to predict all of the effects of implementation, I was struck by this: ’Meeting people’s needs does not mean giving everyone money, and leaving the market to join the invisible dots that turn cash into the essentials that people need for a good life.’
    I see BI as a necessary corrective to the precariousness I think undergirds a lot of the desperation that feeds into people voting for things like Brexit and Trump. People are fucking scared, and one natural response is to look for safety (whether in isolationism and fascism). Maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but I think people tend to be more open-minded (and open-hearted) when they feel secure, and BI would grant that security.
    Maybe I'm wrong, but one thing I'm pretty sure of is that we need to be looking at pretty radical solutions to the issues we're facing right now, primarily climate change. If we don't figure out something soon, it's going to get a lot uglier pretty fast.

  3. #3 Jason Hartwick 18 Nov 16

    I am tired of fear emanating from progressive thinkers. The right-wing are quickly becoming the terrorists of progressives. You (collectively - think not you are the first one to voice such things, and I am tired of not calling out the nonsense) write in fear of the potential for abuse, with no mention of the recognition of these possibilities by Basic Income advocates, and our firm resolution to ensure these things do not happen. Housing, prescriptions, minimum wage, and the various other public services necessary for those who live in poverty are a PART of advocating for Basic Income. So the only conclusion I can come to is that you are just another one of those ’anti-poverty advocates’ who have no lived experience. I LIVE IN POVERTY. Me. Personally. I do NOT want this kind of condescension and cowardice to decide for ME what is best for me. You speak of freedom while overtly trying to abuse my voice to remove my choices. If you cannot recognize the positives, and that we should be fighting for this as a method of giving dignity above all else to those living in the most dignity-removing condition existing in the First World, then you need to sit down and shut up, frankly. If you ’fight so hard’ for things, but cower from the thought of having to ensure that the voice of the one and only true advocate for an austerity model of Basic Income is not the one that drives policy, then you are usurping my voice to further your own ends. Just because I cannot imagine what those must be, does not mean they do not exist. How can you say that this is not an improvement over the fascist methods of ’social assistance’ currently in place?

    Now, if you want to talk about the things that must be advocated for before Basic Income, the one true thing to work towards is a Canadian-style right to Universal Health Care being common in Constitutions. To adding a right to Universal Housing.

    Every single piece of private property is as a result of the enclosure of public property. This entire continent was public property, only bound by agreements between socialist groups regarding hunting and growing rights. This is Step One in building a Socialist Utopia not governed by fascists, built on robotic slaves as opposed to human ones. If you could recognize how fantastic that is, you might actually be left-wing.

    ***Please note that use of the word ’you’ is intended to speak to the group of people furthering this fear-driven drivel, not specifically to the author of this one article - this one article is merely the straw that broke my willingness to keep this to myself***

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This article was originally published in issue 497

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