Voters think the priority should be making work payby Robert Colvile / November 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Some policies—most policies—have committed supporters and opponents. It’s a rare few that inspire genuine zealotry. But the Universal Basic Income has become the political equivalent of bitcoin: a policy whose supporters believe so fervently that it will usher in a new golden age that they have become quite impervious to doubt. As a New York Times column put it when Finland abandoned its much-publicised trial of the policy: “Universal Basic Income Didn’t Fail in Finland. Finland Failed It.”
Yet the truth is that Universal Basic Income is one of those policies that works beautifully on paper—but falls apart on contact with anything resembling reality.
One of the reasons that UBI has caught on is the diversity of the coalition behind it. It appeals simultaneously to socialists, libertarians and utopians.
Socialists like the fact that giving everyone a staple amount to live off will necessarily involve massive redistribution from rich to poor, as well as generating universal dependence on the state. Libertarians like the idea of people being free to do what they want with the money they receive via UBI (or its free-market cousin, the negative income tax), and the dramatic withering of the apparatus of the welfare state that would result from a simple cash transfer replacing today’s monstrously complicated benefits regime. And the uptopians like to talk semi-mystically about providing financial security in an age of automation and freeing people to create rather than face the drudgery of work.
The practical objections to this are well-rehearsed. Even at a relatively low level, a universal basic income would involve huge amounts of extra taxation. When the Resolution Foundation modelled a UBI scheme that matches payments under Universal Credit, and throws in universal child tax credit (rather than means-tested), they found that you would have to raise taxes by approximately £120bn to make the numbers add up—the approximate equivalent of the entire NHS budget in England.
Try to set the UBI at a level which gives people the freedom not to work—which always, in its advocates’ imagination, seems to involve us all sitting around writing uplifting poetry rather than just slumping on the sofa watching Netflix—and you need, to put it in technical terms, All The Money.
Plus you soon run into all sorts of little wrinkles—shouldn’t there be more help for the disabled? Or those in areas…