The below is a special extended comment, a response to Bernard Keane’s article on April 10, “Universal basic income? More like universally bad idea“. Over the next little while, Crikey’s associate editors will occasionally publish longer comments from our readers. So if you’ve got big ideas about something you’ve read in Crikey, get in touch at email@example.com.
Sir Thomas More, who presented the idea of a universal basic income in his great work Utopia, in 1516, would be surprised to hear Bernard Keane’s claim that it is a “neoliberal solution to a particularly neoliberal problem”. His proposal, which preceded liberalism by centuries, let alone neoliberalism, was grounded in the search for social cohesion by supporting people to feed themselves rather than punishing them for failing to do so.
And More, Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell would all be taken aback by the idea that this most universalist of policy proposals has anything to do with individualism. Paine viewed it as a “natural inheritance” due to all of society, as part of a program of wealth distribution, and Russell as a combination of anarchism and socialism — a way to abolish poverty, alongside a broader welfare program.
Why is this history important?
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For one thing, it’s worth emphasising that vociferous critics of an idea who have shown themselves too lazy to find out about its true heritage should have their broader critique questioned.
But, more importantly, the deep intellectual heritage of universal basic income, going back half a millennium through some of the leading lights of left-wing political philosophy, shows that it is an idea that demands serious consideration, not knee-jerk rejection.
UBI is a huge concept with many different models for its implementation. Indeed, the fact that it is currently being pushed by some on the libertarian right is even greater reason for the left to come together to envision models which do not follow those reductionist versions. At its simplest, though, it can be thought of as a system under which income doesn’t start at zero. Just like we agree that, in a decent society, nobody should do without healthcare, and nobody should go without at least a basic education, nobody should be left in poverty.
This proposal, while highly relevant to a world where work is increasingly precarious, actually isn’t driven by questions of the future of work. It’s driven by the desire to create a fairer, more equal world while giving people agency — control over their own destiny.
In that conception, UBI is an inherently democratising project, re-conceiving the relationship between the citizen and the state. It tells us that government’s job is to support and enable all of us, for who we are not for what we do. It recognises that there is a multitude of different ways people participate and contribute to society, not just through paid labour. It re-balances power between employers and employees, gives people the basic resources they need to take the steps they might want to take in life. It is an enabling policy for the great majority, while, through the implied and necessary tax increases on the rich, limiting and devaluing greed.
This is an enormous conceptual leap to make. It requires us to challenge the existing political economy and culture at a deep level; to rethink how our society operates and is organised.
But this is a challenge previous generations accepted willingly. And UBI is heir to previously bold ideas such as the eight-hour day, universal health and education, and the introduction of the welfare state, all of which were ridiculed by conservative thinkers at the time as sure-fire recipes for creating an idle class who would refuse to work. In fact, as history showed, they enabled more people than ever before to choose how to participate and contribute to society.
It’s also a challenge that huge numbers of people are accepting today, embracing a bold vision which many commentators are showing themselves unwilling or unable to share.
Poverty and inequality have many aspects and many causes. But, primarily, they are about lack of money and agency. A UBI, alongside universal public health and education, and support for affordable housing, can help address both — giving people both a basic level of money and a boost in agency. It’s not a silver bullet, but it can be part of a coordinated approach. It deserves serious, respectful consideration.
Tim Hollo has previously worked as communications director for former Greens leader Christine Milne.