Lauded by Left and Right, universal basic income (UBI) is a form of social security in which all citizens receive an unconditional sum of money, usually from the government. They get this flat rate handout whether or not they receive income from another source, such as work.
The Left like it because it will supposedly reduce social inequality and relieve millions from the threat of poverty, and an unconditional benefit implies no means test. The Right like it because it focuses on equality of opportunity not equality of outcome and will simplify the horrendously complex benefits system, eliminating benefit fraud and reducing administration costs.
Last year’s SNP conference expressed approval of UBI and is examining it as a possible welfare system for an independent Scotland. Labour-run councils in Glasgow and Fife are designing pilot schemes. Jeremy Corbyn is considering it for Labour’s next manifesto. The Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas has long supported UBI.
The Finnish experiment giving UBI to 2,000 unemployed is backed by Finland’s right-wing parties. In France, UBI is central to Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon’s election campaign, but Manuel Valls and Marine Le Pen are also in favour. It seems that UBI is an idea whose time has come.
Christians have an obligation to help when and where we can. It is an integral part of following Christ. Most of us, Christians and non-Christian alike, are ready to give our children a helping hand when needed and if we are able, sometimes going beyond what we are reasonably capable of. The Bank of Mum and Dad is one where withdrawals always seem to outweigh deposits. Reaching out to help is part of what makes us human.
UBI, however, is an unconditional right to receive money in order to meet basic needs. UBI is not a personal hand up but a state-controlled hand out with severe implications for society, which go beyond cutting administration costs.
Discussion of UBI tends to focus on the economic feasibility of such programmes. They tend to ignore a more fundamental question: What would be the impact, personally and socially, of removing the expectation of personal responsibility for providing for ourselves and our families, and shifting that role to the State?
Advocates argue that an underlying benefit of UBI is that entitlement to an unconditional cash handout is ideal for the individual recipient. Freed from the imperative to earn a daily wage the recipient can take more risks, be entrepreneurial, pursue less well-paid careers, commit more time to the family, be involved in community work and many other benefits.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, we already have enough out-of-work film and gender studies graduates, and at last report there were no crowds of unemployed people rushing to do voluntary work.
UBI, in effect, explains to the recipient as though to a rather simple child:
‘Look, it is important to the State that you don’t feel under obligation to look after yourself or provide for your own most basic needs, that’s the job of the State. You shouldn’t feel obliged to become a productive member of society; the State thinks that you should be entitled to whatever you need without personal effort or involvement.
‘Never fear, the State’s support is unconditional. If you do get a job, and it would be nice if you did, don’t worry you will still receive your UBI no matter how much you earn. And if you choose instead to hang around waste ground drinking Buckfast and smoking weed, that’s your choice and we will still unconditionally support you and supply your UBI.
‘If you do decide to move in with your girlfriend good news, that means your household will receive a double UBI. Each and every child will also get a full UBI so you don’t have any personal responsibility for your actions. But if you break up and walk away from your girlfriend and your children don’t worry, we’ll continue paying your and their UBI; we wouldn’t want anyone to feel constrained in their behaviour.’
As bad as the present administration of the welfare state is, there is the requirement for at least apparent need to receive aid. UBI would mean that people perfectly capable of working will become welfare recipients able to live off state handouts with no requirement to participate in society.
If all get a subsidy for basic needs from the State which is more reasonable to assume? That large swathes of the population are going to become voluntary social workers, visiting the elderly and decorating their kitchens, or that many people are going to be tempted into leading squalid lives living off other people’s money? You don’t have to be a cynic to work it out, just a realist.
One of the few sectors of the population who don’t have easy access to welfare are able-bodied 18-65-year-olds without dependent children. Under UBI, everyone becomes a welfare recipient. Why knock yourself out working for a living when you can get by on UBI while doing nothing? Those determined to develop themselves and provide for their loved ones will still get down to work. Those who find it difficult will be given an easy opt out from effort.
Work is good for us. We are complex creatures and having gainful employment benefits us in many ways. It teaches us how to collaborate with others, work towards meaningful goals and prioritise our time. We are forced to meet and deal reasonably with new people, it forces us out of our comfort zone. Work is good for the soul; the Apostle Paul has some things to say about those who won’t work.
As well as weakening society, UBI strengthens the State. UBI inevitably means a dangerous centralisation of power. Whoever issues the UBI cheques is going to exercise immense power and have a large dependent clientèle. Do we really want a dependent society where all are reliant on the one employer?
(Image: Kurt Bauschardt)