Wales has become the latest country to explore the idea of a universal basic income, which gives every adult a fixed amount of money, regardless of their employment status. Announce plans for a pilot project was a bold move by Prime Minister Mark Drakeford, who said he had a “long-standing interest” in the idea. And he is not alone.
In Wales, a survey showed 69% of people supported a trial and a letter asking the UK government to consider similar plans has been signed on by more than 500 multi-party politicians from across the UK. Already, 32 local councils across the country voted in favor of a pilot project in their region.
Since COVID-19, there has also been a global increase in support. In the USA, Los Angeles became the last city to launch an experiment, and there have been trials in Canada, South Korea and Kenya. In Europe, a poll last year, covering France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain, found that more than two-thirds of people were in favor of a basic income.
Of course, there are skeptics. The Tories reacted to Drakeford’s announcement in saying Wales must not become “a petri dish for failed leftist policies”. But there is nothing particularly left-wing about providing everyone with a basic income – it is a matter of common justice that would strengthen freedom and ensure basic security for all.
Paying each individual a modest weekly sum, with supplements for people with special needs, would be easier and cheaper than trying to identify “the poor”. And nothing in the concept suggests that it should replace other benefits, so no reason to claim that it would increase poverty.
Critics also cannot legitimately claim that the Basic Income pilot project has failed. My recent books summarized evidence from more than 20 pilot projects, in rich and poor countries. None have failed. On the contrary; although the methodology, sample sizes and times varied, the results were remarkably consistent.
The most common result is better mental and physical health. There are also marked improvements in nutrition, school performance, productivity and the status of women and people with disabilities. There was also increased work – no discounts, like reviews pretend there would be.
A well-known pilot was conducted in Finland over two years, from early 2017 to late 2018, and resulted in better health and a little more work for the 2,000 randomly selected unemployed.
My research indicates that these benefits would be much greater if the trial income had been given to an entire community, where it would bring more cooperation and a greater impact on the local economy. Hopefully in Wales and elsewhere the pilots will be community based.
A matter of justice
The most common criticisms are that a basic income is unaffordable. But there are several ways to pay it without a sharp increase in income tax, such as reducing the amount spent on tax breaks for businesses and high net worth individuals. Or, if the £ 375 billion spent by the Bank of England on quantitative easing after the 2007-08 financial crash had been spent on basic incomes, everyone in the country could have received £ 50 per week during two years.
This leads to the ethical rationale for a basic income. It is a matter of common justice, while strengthening freedom and ensuring basic security, which is a human need and a public good.
For the sake of justice, we must recognize that the income of each of us is due more to the efforts of many generations before us than to anything we do ourselves. Even billionaire Warren Buffett knows that, recognizing the benefits our ancestors gave us, when he said: “Personally, I think the company is responsible for a very important part of what I won.
If we allow private inheritance, then we could see Basic Income as a dividend on the inherited public wealth created by our ancestors, also paid because we cannot know which ancestors contributed more or less. Critics who claim it is “something for nothing” and reduce the incentive to work, should logically oppose private inheritance for the same reasons.
The pandemic has surely taught us that the resilience of all (and of the economy) depends on the resilience of the most vulnerable. The only way to ensure robustness and resilience is to have guaranteed protection – with a basic income providing an anchor of certainty and security.