Universal Basic Income, or Basic Universal Alternative?

The Green Party of England and Wales have just concluded their autumn conference, held this year in the pleasant Yorkshire town of Harrogate. One of the meetings I particularly wanted to take part in was titled “Universal Basic Income. Its time has come”. The main speaker was Guy Standing, someone who has apparently been promoting Basic Income for about thirty years. Although this gives him cause to claim some proprietorial rights for the idea, the Greens’ version of the same thing, known to us as Citizens Income (CI), has been a cornerstone policy for about forty years.

UBI/CI proposes that everyone should receive a guaranteed regular income – whether they need it or not. I’m a relative newcomer to the idea, learning about it for the first time when I first joined the Greens about three years ago. I couldn’t believe they were serious. Having ploughed through most of the Greens’ considerable number of policies, and agreed with just about every one of them, (CI) struck me as too ridiculous for words – the sort of thing some evil conspirator might plant like a bomb, waiting for the right moment to detonate it.

But perhaps it was me; perhaps I should find out more about it.

Whilst the intentions of CI are unquestionably right and good and humane – an attempt to eradicate poverty – the proposed solution of CI is full of flaws. Nevertheless, the concept of UBI/CI appears to be gaining a lot of traction all around the world. It has been tested in India and is currently being tried out in Brazil, Finland, and parts of Scotland. There are plans to trial it in Spain and the Netherlands. So could Guy Standing, a leading academic guru for UBI, reveal to me its virtues and eliminate my doubts?

Mr Standing is an impressive speaker. Clearly very used to speaking to large audiences, he’s articulate and confident, like a good salesman. Although he must have spoken for twenty minutes or so, he didn’t say anything that answered my concerns. But what he did say actually increased my reservations, and set alarm bells ringing loudly in my ears.

Leaving aside the rather tacky plugging of his newest book, something he did over and over throughout his talk, and afterwards with nearly every response he gave to questions from the audience, what really alarmed me was his apparent delight in the support UBI is supposedly attracting from the establishment.

Supping with the devil

Mr Standing informed us that he had recently been invited to speak about UBI in Davos. He seemed to think this was a fantastic achievement. Being welcomed into the arms of the world’s most powerful oppressors of humanity and despoilers of the planet was sold to us by Mr Standing as something we should admire and respect – instead of being horrified by (which was my reaction). Then Mr Standing told us that “even Hillary Clinton” had taken an interest in UBI, and that billionaire businessmen and IT wizards in Silicon Valley had been seeking his wisdom. None of this appears to have troubled Mr Standing. Quite the contrary. He seemed proud of these things, suggesting that we should be heartened and encouraged by the implied credibility the rich and powerful are giving to UBI. He seemed to be oblivious to the obvious conflict of interests – the problem of talking about a scheme that’s supposed to eliminate human poverty with the very people who are responsible for causing it, and who choose to carefully maintain it.

Pilot error

Then he spoke about the pilot schemes for UBI that are apparently being tried in various parts of the world. These pilots have attracted quite a lot of media attention lately. I confess I haven’t looked at any of the results. Whilst I agree with the general principle of scientifically testing new ideas (without using any animals – obviously), it seems to me quite impossible to properly test something like UBI. Trying to trial UBI in a town or a city where the rest of the economy is working around it as normal would be a bit like conducting a delicate scientific experiment using soiled and defective apparatus.

We always need to be very careful about anything which has supposedly been thoroughly tested by the people who are trying to sell it. Although not always unreliable, self-interest can obviously be a major factor in these situations. Furthermore, if the pilots were being run by economists, instead of real scientists, the results are likely to be even more problematic – since mainstream economics has been wholly based on unsubstantiated and unproven theories. In short, the results of any pilot scheme concerning UBI needs to be rigorously examined. But this is not what appears to be happening.

For example, Mr Standing described a pilot in India that he’d been involved with. He couldn’t go into detail because his time was limited (and it was probably in his book), but the outline was that a few thousand people in some remote town had all received a basic income for the trial period and surprise, surprise, the local economy improved. Who would have thought it? Add some money to a working economy and sales will pick up. Incredible.

Presumably we were supposed to be impressed by this anecdote. But how significant is it really? A couple of thousand people living amidst a working economy of almost one and a half billion others. How reliable could such a test be?

The virtue of work

There was time for questions after Mr Standing’s talk. I had my hand up for most of that time, but wasn’t invited to speak. Most of the people in the room were clearly disciples of UBI, and no effort was made by the chair to discover if there was anyone present who was not. Perhaps it was taken for granted that such a person could not possibly be in the room. My questions would have reflected my considerable concern for the role of public services in a world where no one needs to work, for Mr Standing didn’t mention public services at all in his talk.

Mr Standing rightly pointed out that the giant advances in twenty-first century communications, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) are having huge impacts on how we work. He suggested, rightly in my view, that in the near future the economy will not need very many humans to maintain it. So what to do with billions of redundant human beings? If people cannot obtain money through work, because no one needs them to work, how are they to obtain the money they need to survive? And how are corporations to continue maximising profit? For its many longstanding disciples (and perhaps some new converts in the corporatocracy), UBI is the obvious answer.

Mr Standing referred to a wonderful new world where people will no longer have to work, because machines will be doing everything, and these people will be getting all the money they need from UBI to do… absolutely nothing. He tried to sell to us the idea that idleness is actually a good thing. Whilst I don’t wholly disagree with that, there is a very important condition: idleness should be voluntary, not something imposed by circumstances; people locked up in solitary confinement, for example, are idle, but their condition is widely regarded as a type of torture. So what about those people who don’t want to be idle, people who love their work, or people who live on their own and like to go out to work for its social benefits as much as its monetary rewards?

There’s nothing to stop people working, the prophets of UBI claim, but they would now be able to pick and choose the work they do because they would no longer be reliant on an income. But who will employ them in a world where corporations no longer need human beings? They could do voluntary work, reply the UBIers, or study, or work for themselves. Nothing is said about the future role of the public sector.

In the brave new world of UBI it seems that society will be wholly controlled by the private sector – and particularly by large corporations. After all, a world without government has been the dream of the super-rich for at least half a century, as Nancy MacLean, for example, shows in her excellent book Democracy in Chains. In this world, corporations will supply every possible product or service, and no doubt the shareholders will profit very handsomely for doing so. In this world there would be no role for the state.

Such a world is perfectly feasible. Technically, it could exist and function. But is such a world really desirable for the planet in general, and the vast majority of human beings in particular?

For me, the single biggest problem with such a model is the loss of democratic control. In a world where unelected, unaccountable corporations rule – even more than they do already – the citizen would have absolutely no control of the direction of their country. One of the main indicators of this possibility is the loss of a role for state-run public services. The fact that Mr Standing, a leading global prophet of UBI, is rubbing shoulders with corporate royalty in places like Davos shows not only that the corporate business world is clearly taking an interest in UBI, but also that a well-known guru of UBI is perfectly happy to oblige them. Corporations have long been hostile to public services, whom they see as unacceptable competition, so why might the corporate world be interested in UBI?

Given that banking giants such as JP Morgan have long been involved with supplying and controlling food stamps in the US gives us a clue, I think. They do this not because they care about feeding hungry people, but because there’s a sizeable profit for them in doing so. The US government pays them very handsomely for providing this service. The state could do the job itself – and possibly much cheaper and more efficiently – but it abdicated the responsibility, together with any accountability, to investment banks.

Someone would have to administer and control UBI, if it was to be widely adopted. Who better than an investment bank with previous form in delivering an essential social service?

What’s in a name?

Mr Standing did make one point that I hadn’t considered before, and which made me think. He mentioned at one point, almost as an aside, that he wasn’t altogether happy with the label “Universal Basic Income”. It’s possible, he said, that a better name for it could be found. I think he might be right, together with a new and improved concept.

There can be no disputing the fact that human beings no longer need to work anywhere near as much in order to maintain the economy as they used to do two hundred years ago, say. It was widely claimed at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution that everyone would benefit from the advent of machines that were replacing human beings on the land and in factories, that everyone would have far more leisure time as a result. The same thing is being said again today about the advances in IT, robotics and AI. The claims for the social benefits of machinery two hundred years ago were, of course, bogus. As far as much of society was concerned, the effect was mass oppression, starvation, and a vast concentration of wealth into the hands of the super-rich. There’s absolutely no reason to think that today’s super-rich will behave any differently to their predecessors, and no reason to think today’s new technical wizardry will improve life for the 99% any more than the Industrial Revolution did for our predecessors.

For me, a state-run public sector should be the real backbone of the new world order. Work for human beings is essential. Real idleness, such as Mr Standing appears to recommend so highly, can often be seen in the young families of the super-rich. Some of these young people understand at a very early age that they will never have to lift a finger in order to feed or house themselves, that all they need do is have fun and enjoy themselves. Most of these people are utterly useless and, if suddenly required to fend for themselves, are just about incapable of doing so. In a world where every young person is able to be idle, where finding meaningful work if you want it is almost impossible because machines do almost everything, we could have a world largely composed of ignorant, useless, incompetent human beings.

About three miles from where I live is a small engineering firm that produces high-tech components for turbines. Most of its products are entirely made by machines controlled by human beings. It was recently noticed by the managers that if a machine broke down and some part had to be hand-tooled in the old fashioned way, almost no one could do it. There were only a few grey-haired grizzly faces with decades of relevant engineering skills who would be able to do the job. So the firm has started using the oldsters to train the youngsters in their traditional engineering skills – skills that are no longer taught. Some of the oldsters have actually retired, and don’t have to work, but love the opportunity to pass on their skills. The youngsters don’t currently need those skills on a daily basis, but the firm now aims to ensure that it always has a core of properly-skilled engineers, rather than just machine-minders.

So work is important. It’s increasingly less important for its traditional purpose of providing an income, but it’s still vitally important for providing a meaningful role for human beings, as well as satisfying a common human desire to do something useful, and or skillful.

There are basically two types of work: working in the private sector, or working in the public sector. Corporations mostly control the private sector, and given that their first duty is to maximise profit, they’re not interested in anything that limits their ability to do so – like employing unnecessary human beings, or paying for the education and training of those it does employ. In other words, it’s highly unlikely that corporations would provide the important societal functions, in sufficient numbers, that is already required and which will be even more necessary in the future. Only the public sector can do this. And only the public sector should do this.

A distinction needs to be made and clearly understood between necessary work and unnecessary work. Necessary work is that which provides food and water, for example, energy and communication services, healthcare, education, law and order, public maintenance services and public transport. Unnecessary work could include luxury embellishments of essential services, as well as manufacturing unnecessary products and providing unnecessary services. The private sector, properly regulated, could and should be free to make as much profit as it can from providing unnecessary goods and services. Provision of necessary goods and services must be left to the public sector.

The single most important reason for doing this is to ensure democratic control of essential goods and services. The 99% have absolutely no control of the transnational corporations that are increasingly ruling our lives. It is effectively a form of tyranny, fascism in all but name. The 1% have been slowly re-creating a society that last existed two hundred years ago: a society that only benefits the super-rich at the expense of the super-poor.

Democracy allows the people some control of the decision-makers who rule their lives. Although democracy is a much-tarnished concept in all but a few countries (such as Switzerland), it nevertheless provides a slight framework for allowing the 99% to rule their rulers. The erosion of democracy in favour of corporate tyranny, which has been steadily increasing since the end of World War Two, is making it harder and harder for people to control their own lives.

The public sector could and should create and provide work in delivering essential goods and services. Anyone who wants to work should always be able to find good paid employment working in public service. There could always be a multitude of good employment options working for the state. The corporate business world will never be able to do that, and shouldn’t be able to even if it could – because of the fact that the people have no control of corporations, and therefore no control of the type and quality of goods and services they provide.

So I have a suggestion for the new name that Mr Standing suggested he’s looking for: Alternative Income. Instead of a Universal Basic Income, I propose we need a Basic Universal Alternative – guaranteed useful work.

At the moment we have a system where many people can access state benefits only if they are willing and able to provide a form of slave labour. That repulses me as much as it may repulse Mr Standing. People are forced into this situation because decades of “austerity” economics have ravaged public services so that good and useful work is effectively unobtainable. It’s believed by many of its disciples that the main benefit of UBI is that people would no longer be forced into this situation. It’s a good and reasonable aim, but there is a better way.

Instead of just doling out money to people whether they need it or not, surely it’s better to first provide the option of doing useful, well-paid public service? If people choose not to do that for whatever reason, then by all means make some modest payment sufficient to meet their basic needs, rather than forcing them into the arms of capitalists. Call it Alternative Income (AI) – an alternative to working. But require that people apply for it, stating why they don’t want to work; and put a limit of six months on payments, by which time claimants would have to re-apply. This should not be means-tested, nor any limit imposed on how many times AI could be claimed.

If it’s suggested that there’s no problem financing a Universal Basic Income where no one needs to work for their money, as its disciples do, then clearly there would be no problem financing a vibrant public sector which could always find useful work for people to do.

There are very few people who choose to lead totally indolent lives, and very many who naturally aspire to lead useful lives that contribute to society. If people were properly educated, to see themselves as small parts of a greater society and temporary custodians of a precious fragile planet, instead of selfish and greedy exceptional beings, the goodness and humanity that’s naturally common to most people would be further encouraged to blossom. Only the public sector could provide an endless supply of such jobs. The private sector has no interest in doing so.

UBI/CI are worthy and workable schemes, but the interest the corporate business world appears to be taking in them should scare the life out of their disciples rather than reassure them. I don’t suggest UBI/CI should be scrapped, merely amended, because there’s a much better alternative – guaranteed, useful, well-paid work in public service, with a guaranteed Alternative Income available for those who don’t want to work.

John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. Check out John's books: Fiction: The Road to Emily Bay; Non Fiction: The School of Kindness; The People’s Constitution. Read other articles by John.