The new fashion for the old idea of a universal basic income is misguided. It's still a bad ideaby Jon Cruddas, Tom Kibasi / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
“The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase for evanescent profits,” said President Franklin D Roosevelt in his first inaugural address of March 1933, a speech more famous for its observations on the nature of fear. And now, an idea has resurfaced that poses a direct challenge to this notion of “joy” and “moral stimulation.” That idea is the Universal Basic Income (UBI), the proposal that governments should pay all citizens a basic income, irrespective of whether they work.
In advocating this, some political thinkers on both the right and the left, in Britain and overseas, appear to be moving away from this concern with work towards what should be termed an “ideology of idleness.” The core of their argument is that technological advances—the combination of artificial intelligence, automation and distributed production—will eliminate the necessity of work for many people.
The proponents of UBI describe it as a great emancipating step: a form of human liberation that frees people to choose their own paths in life. In the past, it has won support from, among others, the late Milton Friedman, the monetarist economist and favourite of Ronald Reagan, and Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, both of them firmly of the right. It is also supported by Erik Olin Wright, the Marxist thinker at Berkeley and Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister, both of them on the left.
In June, the idea of UBI was put to a popular vote in Switzerland. The proposal was that each month, every Swiss citizen would recieve a payment of 2,500 Swiss Francs, equivalent to £1,800. The Swiss government campaigned strongly against the idea, saying that the scheme would mean additional taxes of around 153bn Swiss Francs (£110bn). The Swiss rejected its introduction by a margin of 77-23 per cent. In Britain, this idea has its supporters in the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish National Party. Two recent books, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason and Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, uncritically support the idea. The idea has also been proposed by politicians and thinkers in Alaska, Ontario, Namibia, Iran, Finland and India.