Tim Hartford on UBI

Though the idea of a basic income is far from mainstream, it has had astonishingly broad support’

Last week, I pondered how society should protect or compensate people whose jobs have been lost to the forces of globalisation or technological change. I did not, however, discuss the most obvious idea of all: that we should simply give people money — a basic income for everyone, regardless of what they do or what they need. It’s the ultimate social safety net.

For an idea that is so far from mainstream political practice, the payment of a basic income has had astonishingly broad support, from Martin Luther King Jr to Milton Friedman. It’s on the lips of the policy wonk community too: the Freakonomics podcast recently devoted an episode to the case for a universal basic income. The Royal Society for Arts, a venerable British think-tank, has published a report enthusiastically supporting the idea. Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman is just as keen, as outlined in his recent, eloquent book Utopia for Realists.

Policy experiments are also on the way. The charity GiveDirectly has just announced plans to run a randomised trial in which 6,000 Kenyans will receive a basic income for more than a decade. Various Silicon Valley types — with one eye on the looming Robot Job Apocalypse — are making serious-sounding noises about running experiments too. Pilots are planned in Canada and Finland, and the Swiss have a referendum on the topic in June.

Could a basic income really work? The answer is yes. But the plan may be more painful than some of its advocates are willing to admit.

First, let’s establish what we’re talking about. A universal basic income is a cash payment from the state, paid to everyone unconditionally. For the sake of being concrete, let’s call it £10 a day. That seems like a lot of money to be giving to absolutely everyone, but it’s within the bounds of reason. Such a payment would cost £234bn a year across 64 million UK residents, so it could be largely paid for by scrapping all social security spending, which is £217bn.

There are lots of other proposals that one might call a basic income. Leftwing advocates might want far more than £10 a day but that would require a huge expansion of the state, with much higher taxes. The more libertarian proponents of the idea might also approve of a higher basic income, in exchange for a rolling back of state-provided services. Privatising the entire health and education system in the UK would free up £240bn, easily enough to double the basic income to £20 a day for every man, woman and child. But that money would need to cover school fees and medical bills.

All this is within the bounds of affordability. But is it desirable? Here are two big question marks over the idea.

The first is whether people would simply stop working. Several large experiments conducted in the US and Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s suggest that a minimum income would encourage people to reduce their hours a little. If such slacking-off undermined the tax base, the entire project could become both economically and politically unsustainable.

But the tax base is probably safe enough, because the people who might be tempted to quit work and live on £10 a day are not the people whose taxes pay for most state spending. In the UK, the richest 15 per cent of taxpayers — people who pay at least some tax at the 40 per cent rate — supply about two-thirds of income tax revenue. Few of these people are likely to find the basic income a tempting inducement to leave the labour force.

In some cases, we might celebrate a decision to stop work. Some people volunteer; others care for children or relatives; some might use the income to fund themselves as they stay in education or retrain. Some, alas, might use the money to stay alive as they write poetry.

The second objection is more worrying: if the welfare state is to be replaced by a basic income, it will provide far too little for some. A tenner a day is less than half the new UK state pension, so it’s hard to imagine pensioners embracing the idea with much gusto.

On the other hand, if the basic income is to be supplemented by a raft of special cases — people with disabilities, people with expensive rent, people who are elderly — then it may become as complex as the tangle of benefit entitlements it aims to replace, or hugely expensive, or both.

Andrew Hood of the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that compared with current welfare benefits, a basic income would “either be a lot less generous or a lot more expensive”. Take your pick.

In the end, the idea appeals to three types of people: those who are comfortable with a dramatic increase in the size of the state, those who are willing to see needy people lose large sums relative to the status quo, and those who can’t add up.

A basic income makes perfect sense once we arrive at an economy where millions work for low wages while automation produces a bountiful economy all around them. The debate turns on whether that world has already arrived.

Written for and first published at ft.com.

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