Like most Feasta members, I am acutely aware of the many interlinked things that need to happen in order to create a sane, humane and ecological society worldwide. And like most people, I don’t have the time or energy to be active in all the work I’d like to do. One of the things that I have chosen to put time into is advocating for and raising awareness about universal basic income. I’ve chosen to do this because, although much more than a universal basic income is necessary, I have come to the conclusion that what we want to achieve is not possible without a basic income. In addition, basic income is something that is immediately do-able in many countries, even within the dysfunctional money systems that exist. Its introduction would support the many pioneers and activists working towards more democratic and functional money systems, as well as those working on other campaigns for climate and ecological stability and for social justice.
Basic income is a regular and unconditional direct money payment, distributed by the state to every member of society, whether they engage in paid work or not. Basic income is always tax-free and it replaces tax credits, most social welfare payments, child benefit and the state pension as we currently know them. It also extends to all those who currently receive no income from the state. A basic income is also sufficient for each person to have a frugal but decent lifestyle without supplementary income from other sources.
Because basic income is a universal payment, that is, it is paid to everyone, it reaches people in need without complicated conditions, means-testing or undignified and time-consuming application processes. People with special needs are eligible for top-up payments and a higher rate of basic income is paid to people of pension age. People with already high incomes get basic income too but they pay it back through the tax system. Basic income establishes basic financial security as a right to all members of society, whether they engage in paid work or not.
Basic income would bring into the security net all those not served by the current system for social welfare: casual and short-contract workers who get no or limited sick pay, holiday pay or pension rights; self-employed people and business owners; those doing valuable unpaid work, including care, which adds value to society and economy. Basic income would increase everybody’s capacity to cope with financial shocks and uncertainties and would improve general quality of life, while supporting many different kinds of socially and environmentally useful work, with or without pay. It weakens the link between work and money and in this lies much of its transformative potential, because it frees up people to do work that is of direct benefit to people and to society in general and it also gives people some element of choice in rejecting jobs that are harmful to society and environment.
Opponents of basic income sometimes suggest that proponents of basic income think it’s a silver bullet that can fix everything. Nothing could be further from the position of most basic income advocates. We are acutely aware of the many challenges and crises that need to be addressed and understand that basic income is not a panacea.
Nevertheless, we believe that it provides the necessary floor of support for people working towards larger changes. And it also provides a safety net in the event of social and economic collapse.
There are undoubtedly right-wing versions of basic income that would give a minimal amount of money to people and cut all other state services, leaving people vulnerable and without choices about what types of paid work to take up. But again, most basic income proponents advocate a sufficient, universal and unconditional income, not a small amount distributed as a substitute for decent education, healthcare, housing, and a good social wage.
The proposal for UBI has been receiving a lot of attention in recent times, promoted as a means to compensate people whose jobs are being or will be displaced by automation. In addition, a well publicised pilot scheme in Finland is examining basic income for its effects in supporting people to become active in the labour market. But the Basic Income idea has a much longer history and is based on an enduring idea of combining basic securities with flexibility and maximum individual choice; the underlying principle is that security, including basic financial security, should be a right of one’s membership of a society, not a result of employment or inheritance or ownership of assets.
• Basic income is a system intervention that will have immediate virtuous effects, by putting a floor of basic financial support under every member of society, thereby lessening their susceptibility to financial shocks, lessening personal and household stress associated with financial uncertainty, and it will get money circulating in the everyday economy.
• It’s immediately do-able within the present economic and social context in Ireland or any rich country. It is compatible with the current tax and revenue system we have in Ireland.
• It is compatible with the capitalist economic system and at the same time it facilitates the weakening of capitalism’s hold on people’s lives, so it’s not optimal for capitalism it in the long term.
• It supports grassroots projects and people pioneering sustainable and just ways to live, including care, ecological and social justice work, small businesses, particularly cooperatives, commons and commoning projects.
• It makes other more comprehensive and transformative demands possible in the longer term: shorter working hours overall (paid and unpaid) and a move away from GDP as the sole measure of progress in economy and society. It effectively deprivatizes a part of the money supply and, ultimately, it can support the de-privatisation of the money system and of publicly created wealth in general as well as the sharing of assets and resources that properly belong to all the people of the earth.
• It complements and is compatible with other system interventions proposed by Feasta, such as Cap Global Carbon, sharing publicly created wealth in the form of Land-value taxes and ‘tech taxes’, commoning and sharing practices in general, well-being indices that go beyond GDP; and democratic money systems
• It is founded on a principle of sufficiency and it supports people’s rights to live within limits, which are essential elements of genuine and strong sustainability
• It supports geographically balanced economic development, because it would give people a chance to stay in their locality or to return to it, to pursue self-employment or to start up small businesses. In this way it would be an investment in the re-vitalisation of rural economies and would help to prevent rural depopulation and over-reliance on urban centres for people’s livelihoods.
• In a similar way, a global basic income could help to create viable livelihoods in the Global South and support appropriate economic development there, alleviating migration flows to some extent.
• Although it is most obviously do-able in wealthy countries, it is also possible, using commons principles such as Cap Global Carbon and Land Value Taxes, to put in place a global basic income.
I urge readers to support their local campaigns for universal basic income and to educate their politicians about its do-ability and desirability. In Ireland, Social Justice Ireland and Basic Income Ireland are active advocates and BIEN and World Basic Income are international organisations.
Anne B. Ryan is a coordinator of Basic Income Ireland and a former chairperson of the Feasta board of directors.