From Finland to India, governments are sizing up the potential benefits of a single payment for all.
Universal basic income is the idea that everyone, regardless of income or work, receives a periodic flat-rate cash payment from a public institution. Basically, it is free money for all, with no strings attached, except for the fact that the government has to foot the bill. While it may seem like a radical idea with questions surging in regard to cost, inflation and whether people would quit work in favor of playing videogames, an increasing number of governments are seeing it an a potentially innovative solution to the challenges posed by changing job markets and the advance of technology.
“When I first heard about it two years ago, I thought the idea was totally nuts,” says Sandhya Anantharaman, co-director of the Universal Income Project. “But then you think about all the abundance and wealth that we already have and you realize there’s a real opportunity to improve people’s lives.”
Proponents argue that a basic income would allow the government to streamline its bureaucracy and give individuals a real safety net, genuine financial security and freedom to do what interests them most. They also argue that a minimum income could tackle growing inequality and suggest that it would encourage unemployed people to work without fear of losing their benefits.
“Think about all the abundance and wealth that we already have and you realize there’s a real opportunity to improve people’s lives.”
Sandhya Anantharaman, co-director of the Universal Income Project
Due to the threat that technological advances present to jobs, many in Silicon Valley argue that a basic income will become necessary. Photo: Steve Jurvetson. CC-BY 2.0
A global basic income is also seen as a way to address the massive job losses feared for the future. A recent study predicted that 47 percent of jobs in the United States are at risk of being made redundant by technology. Silicon Valley tends to agree, and many of its leading intellectuals have latched onto the concept. In February 2017, Tesla founder Elon Musk went so far as to state that basic universal income “is going to be necessary.”
For many technologists and futurists, basic universal income plays an important role in a utopian future. With machines doing most of the work, people will have time for family, leisure, ideas and creativity. Average citizens will be able to live like affluent ancient Greeks – free to pursue satisfying intellectual and artistic tasks. Instead of taking that luxury from the work of slaves, they will rely on robots. “Probably our meaning of life and our self-worth will eventually be detached from how much money we make, as opposed to what we actually do for our own fulfilment,” said Dileep George, an artificial intelligence researcher and cofounder of successful start-up Vicarious, at the 2016 World Economic Forum.
“Probably our meaning of life and our self-worth will eventually be detached from how much money we make, as opposed to what we actually do for our own fulfilment”
Dileep George, cofounder of Vicarious
Not everyone agrees that universal basic income is the way to go, however. Emran Mian, a British author and intellectual, argues that societies should fight to protect jobs and work to help society’s most vulnerable people instead of optimistically relying on future technology. “Long before basic income becomes in any sense necessary, we could make lots of other choices about education, skills and how work is distributed.”
While the idea may seem cutting-edge, philosophers and economists have been toying with the idea of universal basic income for hundreds of years. Thinkers as diverse as 18th-century philosopher and founding father of the United States, Thomas Paine, equal rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and conservative American economist Milton Friedman all voiced their support for basic income. A few studies were conducted in the 20th century, notably in Manitoba, Canada, but it was eventually defunded and its results weren’t analyzed until recently.
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., an early proponent of a guaranteed income.
Still, the concept of universal basic income failed to gain much political traction until a few years ago. In 2016, Switzerland held a referendum on whether or not to give every citizen around €2,349, but in the end the proposal lost with 78 percent of people voting against it.
Experimental programs, which aim to study the effects of no-strings-attached money for the unemployed, have launched this year in Finland and the Netherlands. The Canadian province of Ontario also announced it will conduct a universal basic income pilot program for cities which have been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Furthermore, India is considering it and start-up incubator Y Combinator announced it will launch a pilot program in Oakland, California. With these major experiments just beginning, time and research will give us better clues to whether universal payments could really work and if the idea of free money really does make sense in our rapidly changing economy.
Automation has already caused massive job loss in the manufacturing sector. Photo: ICAPlants. CC BY-SA 3.0