Basic Income in Time
A Democratic Humanist Case for Basic Income Reform
The idea of a basic income – to give all residents a modest regular income grant that is not dependent on means-tests or work requirement – has caught the attention of policy-makers and social activists across the globe. The proposal has been around for a long time. English radicals put forward a version in late eighteenth-century England: Thomas Spence as a dividend from communally owned land,1
and Thomas Paine as a payment from land rent to make up for the private appropriation of the commons with ‘a right, not a charity’.2
Basic income initiatives have appeared since in different guises. One variety discussed in the United States in the 1970s involved simplifying and reducing welfare services in favour of alleviating poverty.3
Basic income has recently resurfaced in Europe with a referendum in Switzerland in 2016, and in 2017
the Finnish government introduced a two-year official experiment investigating a partial form of this policy by lifting conditions on income support. Municipalities in a series of other countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark, France and Spain, have launched similar pilots. However, the idea remains controversial, with a British parliamentary enquiry concluding that the citizens’ income is ‘not the solution to welfare state problems’.4
If distributing money on a regular and life-long basis to everyone is desirable, why is the plan thought so controversial? And why has the idea not been pursued until now?
The first thing to note about basic income is the wide spectrum of support the scheme enjoys. Endorsements from varying ideological schools share a common claim from which this book takes its departure: whatever form you might think society ought to take, whether you support an enterprise or a cooperative economy, first, a society of individuals functioning on their own and together needs to come into being. Incorporation is a foundation for civilization, the market, human development, social equality and democracy. Postwar welfare states made strides in social incorporation, but their foundations were weak. Containing working-age adults within society was too reliant on one institution: the employment contract. This contract form lacked an independent underpinning. The result was bureaucratic intrusion into individuals’ decisions in the course of administering rights to subsistence. States which supported individuals’ freedom through health and schooling took it away in the marketplace. As employment became more precarious, the coercive implications of the lack of independent material security for all have only got worse.
Hence, this book argues for basic income as part of democratic reconstruction at a juncture of global crisis in governance. Capacity in the state and society for governing humanely – with regard for each individual’s trajectory – depends on the polity first acting in a society-constitutive role, defined as building individual capabilities, on the one hand, and cooperative capabilities, on the other. The case for basic income I make is therefore a case for democratic equality grounded in equal interests humans have in existential security. Basic income can be viewed in this context as a pivoting transformation, a form of institution-building that, by stabilizing the individual economy, can ignite other positive changes. The political scientist Bremner described states that gain strength and stability within the international system by not being reliant
on any one other state as pivoting states.5
Basic income is grounding in a broader as well as deeper sense, in this case as stabilizing the lives of all individuals makes for more resilient communities, sub-nationally, nationally and globally. A civilized social order depends on not just strategic players but all constituent units enjoying a foundation of existential security.
Basic income may contribute to more stable and democratic societies in a number of ways: first, stabilizing the human condition by giving everyone some existential security, may support genuinely motivated activity, and unitary senses of self. Income support systems based in means- and behaviour testing that now predominate make crises in individuals’ lives a source of altered social status and therefore permanent. Currently, individuals in good jobs rely entirely on those jobs. Individuals on income support fear losing it. Neither group benefits from the status exclusions that define their mutual relation and station. Income security structures set up this way subvert the effect of other life-long guarantees, as represented in universal health. By instead converting divisive and unstable income security to unconditional communal property, basic income entails a stand against both moral and material destitution, helping to prevent individuals having
to lean on one dependent relation or institution, and then another, angling for, yet never achieving, a sense of basic independence. The way that establishing or losing control over one’s life hangs on a form of constant support was understood by many who have supported basic income, including the postwar British economist James Meade, who used a path diagram of individual life histories to understand the progression of economic inequalities, and the British political philosopher Brian Barry, who saw basic income as a way to abate cumulative disadvantage.6
Basic income, however, also sets out a different way of thinking about the form of the most important institutions shaping the human life course. Economic security surveys show that mental states are positively affected by enjoying at once stability in education, external income security, and employment.7
In this context, the image of the pivot represents the way an individual standing upright – enjoying independence of self – is someone who has support from many sources, yet has reason to feel confident her basic status is unaffected by any one source of support.8
Second, by extension, basic income may contribute to greater stability and equality in social relations, thus generating a basis for cooperation in society. As basic income extends to all citizens – as well as a whole life – it enables a sense of community, whilst underpinning systems that respond to variation in needs.
Finally, at the level of systems, basic income may generate a stable monetary foundation on which other public development and social policies can build and support each other’s effects. Today, across Europe’s mature welfare states, emerging gaps in benefit access have been identified by public service providers – such as head-teachers, and leading medical professionals – as a chief cause of stunted growth and relative child poverty.9
A range of studies have documented adverse health impacts of anticipating benefit status assessment within different European countries,10
including in Norway,11
despite different systems of application.
The Marmot review into health inequality in Britain identified barriers to income benefit access as a cause of grave concern,14
whilst also guarding against simply targeting specific groups, and promoting instead cross-sectoral approaches.15
However, what in practice does better policy coherence for human development require? On what does it rest? How is income insecurity a health issue of all groups in society? In this book I argue that insecurity in society is epidemiological. Not
only does insecurity that affects some groups more visibly have shared structural roots. In addition, those secure today see in others their own insecurity tomorrow. Fear within social groups deepens division between them, and thus breaks down societal trust in immeasurable ways. In this context, I argue that a basic income is civilizing. Like basic hea...